Ugly, the Steve Albini-produced fifth album from New Jersey power-punk trio Screaming Females, stretches the idea of “punk” rock. Perhaps the band is only punk in origin—guitar solos, seven-minute stony jams, power-pop choruses and technical mastery aren’t exactly hallmarks of the genre, but the band’s birth in New Brunswick basements is as punk as it gets. Maybe Screaming Females, anchored by Marissa Paternoster’s regal guitar, Jarrett Dougherty’s clever drumming and Mike Abbate’s looping basslines, can’t really pretend to be less talented than it is. The truth is that Screaming Females is set free by the same fact that ruined metal: When you got the chops, sometimes you just gotta let loose.
On Ugly, Paternoster’s vocals become more prominent—they’ll never outpace the punk-virtuoso guitar skills for which she’s known, but it’s pleasant to know that her voice is now as recognizable as her shredding. She oscillates between a declarative roar and a pissy sneer, both of which are imbued with a strong vibrato that’s honestly kind of ridiculous.
When Paternoster falls too far into sneering, she loses the melody, turning songs like “Slow Birth” into turgid stoner-metal tracks that probably should have been cut. But for the most part, Ugly is populated by mid-tempo punk tracks that are at least moderately catchy and probably contain a guitar solo. Rarely does the 53-minute album feel overlong, at least in an unlistenable way. The record isn’t a slog, exactly—like Fucked Up’s hardcore opera, David Comes To Life, it’s just a little too long and continuous to listen to in one setting.
Ugly’s only respite comes at the end on “It’s Nice,” with Paternoster shooting for sweet over strings and an acoustic guitar. Without a massive guitar solo breakdown, the effect is a little unnerving and mostly successful. Look, Ugly is going to kill live. We already knew that. It represents a slight expansion of the Screaming Females sound—groove-punk, hooks, solos—without being either a tight distillation or introducing jaw-dropping innovations. There’s no reason to complain about this album.