The first Sheer Mag song I ever heard, “Fan The Flames,” made me wonder if I was dreaming. Was it really possible that Thin Lizzy recorded a single at Motown in 1976 that was subsequently bootlegged on a beat-up, lo-fi cassette tape? That’s what “Fan The Flames” sounded like to me — an amalgam of rock’s larger-than-life history somehow distilled into the most intimate of handmade packages. I immediately went to Bandcamp and downloaded the rest of the Philadelphia band’s 2015 EP, II, the title of which clued me into the existence of a prior release, 2014’s Sheer Mag, that I also swiftly purchased.
I was completely unaware of Sheer Mag before that — they didn’t have a Twitter or Facebook page, and aside from a small handful of laudatory write-ups on music websites, they weren’t really a big deal in the music press yet. Not only did my discovery of Sheer Mag feel organic, but my love of the band was actually allowed to breathe a bit, without feeling the intrusion of a thousand outside insta-opinions.
I didn’t even know what Sheer Mag looked like — in my imagination, kinetic lead singer Tina Halladay resembled a female Bon Scott, all denim and cocky sneers, while guitarists Kyle Seely and Matt Palmer were the chain-smoking delinquents with handle-bar mustaches who shredded over a primitive, Gary Glitter-style stomp. In reality, Kyle Seely and his brother, bassist Hart Seely, recorded all of the instruments on a Tascam 8-track in a communal band headquarters known as The Nuthouse, and Palmer was responsible for Halladay’s tough-minded, politically-charged lyrics.
For a little while, I could convince myself that Sheer Mag was my band, a rare indulgence in this hyper-speed “exposure/stardom/backlash” era of online music culture. An even better EP, III, followed in 2016, which boasted one of my all-time favorite Sheer Mag songs, “Worth The Tears,” a cowbell-infused power-pop number that’s the closest thing this band has to a ballad.
There were some minor brushes with fame, including an appearance on Late Night With Seth Meyers and a slot at Coachella. But even as Sheer Mag have become a known quantity, they’ve remained outside however you want to define “modern music culture.” Because of their classic-rock reference points, and the DIY manner in which they’ve made and distributed their records, Sheer Mag seems like they’ve been around forever while retaining a certain urgency that’s akin to a fleeting contact buzz. This band always seems just a little out of reach. They’re still like a dream to me; I’ve never even seen them live, much less had the chance. (Please visit the upper midwest, Sheer Mag.)