The Agit Reader

Screaming Females
Union Transfer, Philadelphia, April 5

April 9th, 2018  |  by Brian O'Neill

Screaming Females

HIRS is a collective, but onstage there are only two members. Esem plays a severely distorted guitar and does it quite well; JP screams and operates a sampler. But once you get past those facts, things get complicated.

Part performance art, part activist organization, part animated thrashing grindcore, HIRS’ set was only about 15 minutes, but it was 15 minutes of them spastically banging into one another while performing every one of the less-than-a-minute songs about Trans women taking over the world. And it was wonderful.

It’s hard to find a tour where Thou is the most archetypal band. They’re almost always the slowest band on the bill, but none of the groups they usually share stages with are anything like the headliners, Screaming Females, and nobody is like HIRS. I have only seen Thou with metallic bands, and they were usually the most unorthodox.

The set was the exact same experience despite the vastly different surroundings: sludge, lots of evil sounding sludge, slowly oozing from the PA, with Cajun seasoning befitting the band’s Louisiana homeland.

Vocalist Bryan Funck spent the whole set shifting his weight and crouching like vintage Hot Animal Machine Henry Rollins and screaming at his own drummer. He wasn’t antisocial–he joked about how cool it would be to have a preppy doom skate band called Subdüd (he specified the umlaut–and ruminated about the fictitious merch this fictitious band would sell at a fictitious merch booth, to the confused amusement of the crowd. However, when he screamed he lunged back and forth and looked away from the crowd.

One thing that made me chuckle was how the mostly not-in-league crowd left this show thinking that metal always sounds like dirgy molten lava slowly cooling into pumice. Because of course it does.

Explaining Screaming Females to metalheads–or anyone, really–is not that easy unless you cop out and spend all your time talking about Marissa Paternoster. You tick off the list for what makes the band unique and most items involve her: she’s diminutive and dresses like a cute gothic beatnik, but she plays the guitar like a motherfucking riot. Seriously, hairy Eddie Van Halen wannabes at Guitar Center would watch, mouths agape, wondering how she can shred so hard. But right up there with her guitar playing is that voice, powerful and dynamic and dripping with righteous, personal fury.

Still, none of that really answers the question, “So dude, what do they sound like?” very satisfactorily. It’s kinda punk, kinda indie rock. If you really want to try and nail down their sound, the rhythm section that often gets lost in Paternoster praise is where you should start. Bassist Mike King and drummer Jarrett Dougherty have been playing alongside Marissa since 2005. They have developed a chemistry that is greater than the sum of their parts, and that can be said without denigrating said parts. King’s chugging bass lines blur the lines between pumping post-punk and classic rock. He and Dougherty provide a very solid foundation that is equally adept for garages as arenas.

The Union Transfer is somewhere in between, a largish 1,200 capacity theater and the biggest venue the band has headlined in its adopted home. (Though they still consider themselves a New Brunswick band, Dougherty and Paternoster now reside in the area). The only accruement to the large stage was the inclusion of a red Tube Man, the flailing, inflatable dude most often seen at used car lots. There wasn’t even a backdrop. One amp was emblazoned with a sign commanding, “Get off the Internet.”

The band mostly stuck to its faster, heavier cuts to make the most immediate impact. This included “Ripe,” whose bass-chug and jagged riffs sound like the Au Pairs playing sped-up stoner metal. It was from the band’s 2014 breakthrough album Rose Mountain from which they also performed the title track and a version of “Criminal Image” where the band broke into an extended jam that made it stretch out much farther than the studio version.

A huge billboard for the band’s new album, All at Once, could be found only a few blocks from the venue. It wouldn’t shock if Don Giovanni Records spent more on that signage than the entire budget for the band’s earlier releases. (This is a good time to take a moment to praise the band for staying with the indie when larger labels had to have been approaching with checkbooks open.) The band played several tracks from the new record including the bouncy “Black Moon” that opened the set and the metronomic melodramatic thrash of “Glass House.”

Marissa is not known for being overtly chatty but she seemed especially quiet, pausing only a couple of times between songs to thank the crowd or the openers. Towards the end of the set, as the band lurched into “A New Kid” from 2010’s Castle Talk, you could tell something was amiss. She lurched into her mic, causing it to flip over. It took longer than usual for a roadie to pick it back up, and during that time she crashed to the stage and looked disapprovingly at her massive pedal board. She seemed upset, though there was no telling why. Maybe it had built up throughout the night: maybe she was frustrated at malfunctioning gear or maybe it was residual from when the band had to restart “Soft Domination” because someone made a mistake.

The band left the stage briefly before returning to play “I’ll Make You Sorry,” one of the more straightforward pop songs the band has ever penned. Supposedly Garbage is one of Marissa’s favorite bands (even before they toured together and then teamed up on a cover of “Because the Night” for a 2013 Record Store Day single), but this is the only song played where you could hear the influence. Then, she flung her guitar to the floor and stormed off the stage. No thank you, no good bye. No explanation, not that we are owed one, but it was sure peculiar.

Screaming Females are an astounding band: talented, unique, brawny yet brainy, able to play but never wont to show off their chops at the expense of creating memorable, anthemic songs. The performance this evening (for most of the set) was typical of that brilliance. Things kind of crashed at the end. Sometimes that happens to the best of them. It wouldn’t stop me from seeing them again and it shouldn’t stop you either.

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