Strictly on paper, the Screaming Females have never been a band to raise eyebrows. The New Jersey trio has remained locked in their guitar-bass-drums configuration for their entire existence, and have for the most part played what can be called no-frills rock, with tinges of punk and classic rock thrown in for good measure. However, it is their continued insistence on stretching and contorting this template, while not explicitly stating any sort of mission or direction for their sound, that makes them a band worth watching and revisiting. Ugly continues this streak. 2009’s Power Move was the herky-jerky breakout moment, charged with feral intensity. 2010’s Castle Talk saw the band mastering more polite and spacious arrangements. Here, the lessons of these two albums are Frankensteined into one heaving beast of an album, producing their most confident work.
All niceties of past releases are quickly forgotten. Vocalist/guitarist Marissa Paternoster ditches the approach of being more “one” with the band that she seemed to favor on Castle Talk, instead elevating her already spectacular guitar work to dizzying heights, peeling off solo parts that effortlessly transition from sheet-metal grinding noise to Mascis-ian unspoolings on “It All Means Nothing,” re-casting her six-string companion as a second singer (“Rotten Apple”) and wielding downward stabbing, Fugazi-esque riffs on songs like “5 High.” As for her vocal performance, simply calling it “singing” would be grievously underselling it, as Paternoster instead manipulates and stretches her voice around like a giant wad of cartoon bubble gum, going from mild mannered verses to vibrato drenched shouts to scorched cat shrieks, sometimes within the same song, and always with what seems to be barely contained glee at the possibilities she’s exploring. Bassist “King” Mike Abbate lets loose with a crunchier bass tone on this album that imbues these songs with added snarl, while Jarrett Dougherty’s drums sound off with wall-slapping thwacks that scream “Steve Albini” before you even realize he engineered the thing.
The album’s title could not be more appropriate, even when the songs they play hew towards their poppier moments. “Red Hand” shimmies and shakes like it’s wearing a belt of blades, while “Expire” takes a basic surf riff and shoves it face down into a polluted river. Even relatively sedate numbers like “Crow’s Nest” feature moments of prominent dissonance, in the form of the long, solitary note that Paternoster lets off at the end of each verse, constantly threatening to fly out of tune as it drifts into the echo abyss.
If there is one fault to Ugly, it’s the length. Past Screaming Females albums, which were crammed with as many left turns as this one, all managed to wrap things up in just over half an hour. At 53 minutes, Ugly now stands as the colossus in the catalog, and the near-constant barrage of mind-bending guitar solos can get exhausting. The seven-minute “Doom 84” would be a logical stopping point, but instead they kick back into a couple uptempo numbers, including de facto title track “Something Ugly,” and groundbreaking (in Screamales terms) closer “It’s Nice.” While the latter is a very welcome diversion, it’s simply taxing to get to it.
This is, however, a small complaint, as Ugly is ultimately an album that finally finds the Screaming Females completely confident in their own identity, no longer trying to straddle the line between their headier rock aspirations and the DIY punk scene that gave birth to them. So what if they went a little long? This kind of self-realization isn’t supposed to come in a neat little package. It’s a process that tends to get, well, you know.