Screaming Females’ ‘Desire Pathway’ continues a righteous rock-and-roll journey

There’s a killer song on this new Screaming Females album called “Beyond the Void” that implies that the other side of nothingness sounds like Led Zeppelin and Thin Lizzy dancing a cosmic waltz. You can hear singer-guitarist Marissa Paternoster loud and clear out there in that fifth-dimensional ballroom, making her electric guitar gust while she sings about coming “undone” — which is funny, considering she and her bandmates sound more together than ever.

Or maybe Screaming Females sound as together as they always have. Our praise reflex leans toward the superlative in this dank information age, an era when the only artists who transcend the digital noise seem to be the ones whose music gets overpraised on social media for being the most this or the best that. Out here in reality, Screaming Females only concern themselves with being. The New Jersey-born trio remain adamantly DIY in their day-to-day affairs, which makes their year-after-year music feel proud and principled — but also less resonant than it deserves to be. Instead of being loudly hyped, they remain quietly respected.

But they keep going. Screaming Females still tour every corner of the map, including an upcoming stint across Alaska. They still draw nostalgic audiences who admire them for carrying a DIY torch that burned brighter back in the ’90s, just as they continue to inspire younger ears who know there’s an even cooler future to be written. Bassist Mike Abbate still silk-screens the band’s T-shirts. Paternoster still designs the band’s album covers. They’re still self-managed, and on their eighth album, “Desire Pathway,” their music still sounds completely self-possessed.

What don’t they do? Complain. Which makes Screaming Females somewhat of an anomaly in today’s indie-rock space, where, yes, young musicians face dream-snuffing obstacles in nearly every direction: exploitative streaming services, impenetrable algorithmic playlists, a pandemic-damaged touring circuit. But when was making the planet care about your band ever an easy thing to pull off? Cash and clout have never been promised in rock-and-roll, but everyone still has the option to keep showing up and making the art. Screaming Females have been showing up for nearly two decades now, and their commitment to their sound, to their scene, to their principles and to each other should be upheld as a blueprint for freedom. It can be done. They’re doing it.

To understand that freedom in full, it helps to listen to the band in its entirety: eight pithy albums you can blaze through between dusk and midnight. Start back in 2006 with “Baby Teeth,” a batch of sweet-and-sour melodies forged at basement shows in the band’s native New Brunswick. Before long, you’ll get to 2012’s “Ugly,” produced by Steve Albini, and with riffs as gnarly as the title suggests. Everything starts to feel more aerodynamic on 2015’s “Rose Mountain,” then heavier on 2018’s “All At Once,” and now a little more of both on “Desire Pathway,” which features songs about feeling trapped, feeling heartsick, feeling like you’re a haunted freight train barreling across a forgotten wasteland, and feeling free.

Yet, for all of their tightness and concision, their sound can feel all over the place, too. It’s not that Screaming Females are channeling rock-and-roll writ large — Blue Cheer, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Van Halen, Heart, the Pretenders, X, Black Flag, the Wipers, R.E.M., Dinosaur Jr., Dead Moon, Nirvana, Ride, the Breeders, Hum, Elastica, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs — so much as they know all of those bands, and that their music becomes a physical expression of all that knowing.

It’s a sort of wisdom at this point. Drummer Jarrett Dougherty is about as no-nonsense as it gets. Abbate only seems to play melodic rebar. And Paternoster totally shreds, on her guitar and in her throat. Her singing feels broad, like a yawn, but urgent, like a shout, and whenever she approaches the top of her register, she tends to elongate her words like someone in a search party calling out the name of the disappeared. Whenever the music grows especially intense, she likes to bounce notes across the back of her windpipe. Technically, it’s vibrato, but it can sound like awkward laughter, or a grieving animal, or PJ Harvey choking on a helicopter.

There are probably a few thousand more metaphors hiding in her guitar playing, but if you widen your ears and listen to Paternoster’s fireworks in a cumulative way, her questing solos begin to rip parallel to the Screaming Females’ general road-dog philosophy: Whether they skew utilitarian or peacockish, anchoring or acrobatic, all of those pealing notes eventually add up to an expression of determination, discipline and continued forward motion. On the fretboard, on the road, through space and time, this band goes anywhere.

On “Desire Pathway,” they’re driving toward some kind of psychic void, perhaps in hopes of drawing a border around it. That aforementioned tune about a choo-choo ride to oblivion, “Desert Train,” feels like perpetual acceleration, somehow evoking the hormonal itchiness of ’80s hair metal without exuding a molecule of cheeky wink-wink. “Ornament” does a similar trick, conjuring an assortment of ’90s alt-rock ghosts with its roaring melodies and slack tempo, but when Paternoster sings, “Now I got what I want/It won’t make me feel better,” she sounds forsaken in a world of her own. Turns out that zones of complete freedom are good places to sing about feeling stuck.

But again, Screaming Females keep going — and when a band stays together for this long, their music gets to tell a bigger story about how everyone moves through time. The Beatles progress narrative is about aesthetic expansion, and how something improves as it blooms. The Rolling Stones progress narrative is about exhilaration and endurance, about starting up and never stopping. The David Bowie progress narrative is about the thrill of perpetually changing shape. The AC/DC progress narrative is about the triumph of never changing shape. The Fall progress narrative has something to do with making so much music that it starts to self-cancel, annihilating the notion of progress altogether. The Fugazi progress narrative is about upholding your ideals, not out of dogma, but so they can better support an art that grows.

As for the Screaming Females narrative, it’s a messy hybrid of all of those. Refusing a tidy arc through time, their mission feels more like an unbroken scribble on a flat surface. They aren’t rising ever upward or expanding ever outward; they’re over here, then they’re over there, then they’re back this way again — always themselves, but constantly changed by where they’ve been, forever unfinished, because there are still new places to go, new ways to be. A band like that can be hard to find, hard to hype, but easy to recognize, at least to us listeners who, like Screaming Females, know no other path through life’s wild unknowability than forward.

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