Screaming Females hail from New Brunswick, New Jersey, but at times they seem like a Portland band. They’ve returned to the city on multiple occasions over the years, stopping in for an annual visit at SPACE Gallery or Bayside Bowl, building a relationship with Portland so firm that I saw frontwoman Marissa Paternoster enthusiastically greet a well-loved local dog before the gig. The affection is mutual; in the months leading up to this show, there was palpable anticipation across a healthy cross-section of the local population.
The power trio has yet to receive a massive media push or universally rave reviews for any of their albums, and instead have slowly developed this anticipation the old-fashioned, punk-rock way – through perseverance, precision, and a commitment to bringing a blistering live show back to often-overlooked markets such as Portland’s time and again. The fact that Paternoster is unquestionably one of the best rock guitarists working today certainly doesn’t hurt their cause.
This time around, Screaming Females returned to SPACE Gallery on a meaty bill that included their introspective labelmates Mitski and Portland’s Fur, who have been locking in their rhythms in anticipation of their own April 24 album release. Each band played a brisk, bracing set that, at least in the case of the headliner, felt a bit too short.
Screaming Females get lumped in with modern indie rock, but their sensibilities are far more in tune with classic rock, and particularly the early-1990s interpretation of it. Far from being a three-chord wonder, Paternoster cycles through heavy riffs at a furious pace, whipping her hair about and contorting her fingers around the guitar’s neck for twisting solos in between the verses. Her rhythm section’s swampy, Led Zeppelin-like grooves gave her a powerful low-end to essentially use a jungle gym for her proficient guitar work.
This incredible virtuosity helps mask the fact that their songs themselves aren’t particularly memorable. There is a fair reason that they’ve never received huge acclaim for any of their albums—their studio records don’t quite have the sticky melodies to transcend the overwhelmingly large field of contemporary, small-label rock bands. In a live setting, however, this hardly matters; forces of nature such as this have no real need for nuance.
They closed the show with “Criminal Image,” a single from their latest album, Rose Mountain. If their studio work ever catches pace with their electric live performance, “Criminal Image” is the first step – it is far and away the best song they’ve written to date, a whirlpool of melodic hooks that sounds like a lost track by early grunge-era band Mother Love Bone. In concert, they repeatedly took the song through deep plunges into instrumental murk before raging back from the brink. It was an effective play, one that whipped the crowd into a pogo-hopping, crowd-surfing delirium – arguably the most energized I’ve seen a Portland audience since the last time the band were in town.
WHAT: Screaming Females
WHERE: SPACE Gallery, Portland
WHEN: April 7