In an age when artists rely more heavily on touring as a means of financial support, sometimes live performances are about audience engagement just as much as they are about the music itself. Sometimes it takes the form of a rock star jumping into the crowd, a pop star professing a speech of love for the fans that inspire her, or even meaningful eye contact between the artist and those who fought their way to the front. But at the Screaming Females show last Thursday, there was almost none of that.
The night opened with +HIRS+, a grindcore duo from Philadelphia with lyrics advocating transgender rights. While the combination of a shrieking distortion of the guitar and growling vocals was at times shocking, it was also empowering to see such aggressive and open support of minorities in music. Their set came to a close with a song that was a humorous mix of Major Lazer’s song, “Bubble Butt,” and the guttural screams that are characteristic of the hardcore punk sound behind +HIRS+.
The second act of the night, Thou, brought a darker intensity with a wave of sludge metal that pounded through the entire venue with bone-shattering force. Between songs, Thou let their two guitars purr with elongated power chords that transitioned into a headache-inducing shriek of distortion, so that they created an unbroken wall of sound. Under blood-red light and a cloud of cigarette smoke, the Baton Rouge band let out an animal sound into the night before leaving the stage with a quick and quiet, “Thank you.”
Five minutes later, Marissa Paternoster, the screaming female behind Screaming Females, came out with fellow bandmates, Jarrett Dougherty and “King” Mike Abbate, to set up – a job that many performers who have reached the same level of fame as this band will leave to the crew. Dressed in all black with her signature cropped hairstyle, Paternoster carried a stone-faced expression that would preview the music to follow.
Screaming Females has seven full-length albums out, but their recorded sound differs from that of their live performances. The focus is not so much on the vocal scream of Paternoster, but rather on the scream of her impressive guitar solos. She performed with an energy that seemed to provoke a disconnect between her body and mind, spastically jerking around with every note as if the guitar took control over her every physical motion.
There were a few times when Paternoster came to the edge of the stage to stare down at the crowd with a grim visage, but apart from that and a couple of murmured expressions of thanks, there was little audience engagement. Paternoster almost seemed to have two personas: the intense rocker flailing and jumping with electric power and low-voiced aggression, and the more timid, girlish character that asked the crowd to support the band with a purchase of their new record.
Nonetheless, the audience responded with an intense mosh pit that took over half of the room after only the second song from Screaming Females. With every new guitar solo, the pushing and jumping increased in energy, motivating Paternoster to infrequently look out from under the hair covering her face and stare down with an expression of wicked amusement.
The band gave a fierce rendition of “I’ll Make You Sorry,” the first track on their new album All at Once, in a one-song encore, before abruptly leaving the stage with a rip of the amp cords and a drop of their instruments. But by this point, the impersonality of their goodbye came as no surprise. Screaming Females is not a group to build up their audience with anecdotes of appreciation – they inspire through the intensity of their sound.
But this same ferocity is what makes Paternoster a legendary emblem of feminism in rock. In a genre that is often dominated by masculinity in its artists and their subject matter, Paternoster stands up and shreds her guitar in solos that scream back at this. She doesn’t comfort the crowds of misfits that overflow Screaming Females’ concerts; she empowers them with the force of her music. And it’s this proud and unapologetic quality of Paternoster and the band in their sound that keeps Screaming Females at the forefront of indie punk rock.