Sheer Mag’s dizzying rise initiated in 2014, when the Philadelphia band self-released the first of three 7-inches and started playing the Northeastern DIY circuit. Ironically, the music stood apart because it sounded so familiar. Indebted to ‘70s arena rock, power-pop, and proto-metal, Sheer Mag’s songs reminded a lot of us of the music we grew up with, but maybe couldn’t relate to because it was big, brash, and unapologetically macho. Sheer Mag reclaimed some of that energy without perpetuating the toxicity. On their debut album, Need to Feel Your Love (2017), the band surveyed their contemporary political landscape through the lens of history. Singer Tina Halladay transported herself back to the 1969 Stonewall Riots, denounced redlining practices that undermine the popular vote, and paid homage to White Rose activist Sophie Scholl. On paper, it’s a mouthful, but accompanied by guitarist/lyricist Matt Palmer, guitarist Kyle Seely, and bassist/producer Hart Seely, those songs became hook-laden rallying cries.
Two years later, Sheer Mag have returned with their sophomore album A Distant Call. They’re still writing about surviving our current hellscape, but this time around, the politics get extra-personal. The album verges on being a concept piece, and the protagonist resembles Halladay herself. The songs document a particularly alienating time in her life when she was laid off from a job. Broke and newly single, her father (with whom she had a fraught relationship) passed away, leaving her with more wounds than felt possible to heal.
“We’ve been waiting to write these songs since we started the band and we were able to take these experiences and build a story out of them,” Halladay says. Palmer adds: “We don’t want people to be bogged down by pretension or theory. You don’t need to have read Das Kapital to know that capitalism is terrible. A Distant Call makes an argument for socialism on an anecdotal level. We’re talking about how late capitalism alienates and commodifies whatever is in its path without using the term ‘late capitalism.’” Palmer and Halladay’s new approach to lyricism extended to the recording process, too. Once the Seely brothers had laid down the tracks, Halladay recorded vocals with producer Arthur Rizk (Power Trip, Code Orange) as opposed to on an 8-track, which was the band’s preferred method on previous releases.
A Distant Call opens with Halladay’s measured scream before “Steel Sharpens Steel” kicks in. It’s a prologue that foreshadows our protagonist’s journey from feeling down-and-out and destitute to self-actualization. “It’s a chain reaction/ When you turn the other cheek/ Remember if you’re looking for action/ And you’re feeling dull and weak,” Halladay snarls on the chorus, channeling Judas Priest over the boot-stomping rhythm section. The story really gets started on “Blood from a Stone,” when we learn that our protagonist’s SNAP application was declined, and she’s “living check-to-check.” It’s heavy power-pop so sleek it gleams. “We had some more soul and dance songs on the last record and we’ll probably return to that at some point,” Palmer says. “But on this record we wanted to focus on making straight-up rock music.”
That isn’t to say that A Distant Call doesn’t draw from a wide-range of influences within rock. The twinkling lap steel guitar on “Silver Line” sounds-off to Fleetwood Mac, showcasing a softer side to Sheer Mag. The lyrics find our protagonist in a desperate state, self-medicating with alcohol.
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