Instead of a typical “Check, check, check” to test out the vocal set-up, Marissa Paternoster let out a two soul-curdling wails before she and her band Screaming Females launched into a blistering set for the Voice’s fifth annual 4knots Festival. At the sound of her howl, every ear on the pier perked up and crowds flocked to the stage for the most well-attended set at that point in the day, which had already seen performances from Happyness, Meatbodies, Heaters, Heaven and Surfbort.
From the very beginning of their set, it was easy to see why Screaming Females were so highly anticipated. Screaming Females don’t fit easily into any one genre, drawing here and there from aggressive styles of punk, metal and hard rock. The amalgam is nothing if not hard-hitting, but the band’s intricate instrumentation never gets lost in the tumult, whether it’s the throb of King Mike’s bass, Jarrett Dougherty’s drum pummeling, the squall of Paternoster’s guitar solos, or her unflinching, straightforward vocal style which manages to pack a wallop while still letting anyone who’s listening closely pick out her lyrics. The three play with an impressive precision where all the songs’ working points lock in perfect synch but stand on their own, too.
That kind of sonic perfection is something that’s no doubt come from nearly a decade of relentless touring. Over the course of their career, the New Brunswick, New Jersey outfit has released five studio albums, including this year’s complex, majestic Rose Mountain, out last February on Don Giovanni Records. With the backdrop of their home state behind them as they played on the end of Pier 84, it was surprising that no Circle Line cruise ships missed their mark and crashed into the stage; Paternoster was a veritable siren, like those in Greek legends deflecting many a sailor’s course. Singing the new record’s title track, she belted, “I’m nothing like the others, I was made just for you,” both defiant and beckoning.
She might as well be singing those words to her guitar; heralded as one of the best guitarists of the last several years by major music publications despite the band’s squarely independent ethos, Paternoster is a conduit for a stunning array of tones and shifts in mood. In one song buzzsaw riffs might give way to complex, rapid-fire noodling, the shreddery cascading and folding back into itself. Most of the songs are given more time to breathe in a live setting than they get on record, roiling and rocking in expanded bursts of intricate noise. Rose Mountain is notable for its many scaled back moments, but even these were made more thunderous, with guitar passages in particular bending and swelling and taking on new life.
“Triumph,” also from the LP, was a great example of this; its already anthemic chord progression popped in and out of a galloping bassline before building into a frenzy that tacked several full minutes of jam time onto the track just as Paternoster’s lyrical challenge introduced it: “I’ll stretch to meet uneven beats/They taste my tempo, how about you?”
The crowd was more than willing to rock along, bobbing heads and lifting fists to the scorching late afternoon sun. It was a poignant moment, too, even as it fizzled to its abrupt end; as Zoë Leverant reported for the Voice at the time of the album’s release, Paternoster’s months-long bout with chronic mononucleosis almost sidelined Screaming Females before they were able to make Rose Mountain, a record they consider to be their most fully realized yet. Now, Paternoster is a picture of tenacity and power, backed by a band that fully supports and compliments her virtuosity. She basks before a crowd that in relishes it, but does so without showboating. It’s clear that Screaming Females are so used to piling everything they’ve got into each performance that doing so is par for the course. And luckily, they show no signs of letting up.