Screaming Females are, depending on how you frame it, either incredibly ambitious or not very ambitious at all. The New Brunswick, N.J., power trio’s loyalty to their hometown scene and DIY punk ethic — not to mention their distrust of the Internet, a major theme of their new album, “All at Once” — make them the sort of band that’s much better at keeping old fans than reaching new ones. Yet they certainly don’t sound like they’re afraid of swinging for the fences; with a singer-guitarist as commanding as Marissa Paternoster, how could they be? On “All at Once,” Screaming Females indulge in a little stylistic experimentation, but their primary focus remains rocking out, hard and unrelentingly.
“All at Once” opens with “Glass House,” and it’s an absolute monster of a song. With its pounding, plodding riff and Paternoster’s foreboding, almost operatic declamations, “Glass House” might just be the heaviest thing Screaming Females have ever written. They’ve always had a knack for cherry-picking the most awesome elements from classic rock and heavy metal, but they outdo themselves on “All at Once,” offering rousing takes on driving hard rock (“Black Moon”), muscular power-pop (“I’ll Make You Sorry”), and strutting new wave (“My Body”). Paternoster never passes up an opportunity for a casually brilliant guitar solo, but it’s a testament to her punk-schooled sense of concision that these solos never go on a moment too long, making her the rare guitar hero capable of leaving listeners wanting more.
They could have released an album of wall-to-wall head-bangers and left no fan unsatisfied, but Screaming Females had other, more interesting plans for “All at Once.” Short tracks like the unsettling, Television-style “Dirt” and the muffled “End of My Bloodline” help tie the record together while providing outlets for the band’s moodier side. For a group of guitar-bass-drums loyalists, adding keyboards is a big move, and the expanded instrumentation adds a nice splash of color to the proggy “Chamber for Sleep” suite and the lovely ballad “Deeply.” Speaking of ballads, “Bird in Space,” with its heart-tugging Paternoster vocal and sublime, lyrical guitar solo, proves that Screaming Females are just as handy with those as they are with the rockers.
There may exist no better argument for the continued importance of underground music communities as incubators of talent than Screaming Females. “All at Once” is an accomplished, expertly crafted album, the kind that’s the product of years slugging it out in dank basements and half-empty bars. It’s not always glamorous work, but thank the rock gods that Screaming Females were willing to do it.Terence Cawley can be reached at email@example.com.