Sheer Mag’s Debut Album Is A Politically-Charged Shot Of Classic Rock Adrenaline

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.)

On Friday, Sheer Mag will release their debut LP, Need To Feel Your Love. It’s a great album, first and foremost, because fur once you don’t have to wait several years to get a dozen new Sheer Mag songs. It’s also great because Sheer Mag has evolved ever so slightly to keep those of us already in the band’s cult interested, but without losing the essential spirit of those lovably scrappy EPs. The strain of bubblegum soul in Sheer Mag’s music that goes back at least as far as “Fan The Flames” is teased out and made a musical focal point; songs like the title track and the unrepentantly lustful “Pure Desire” even flirt with disco, albeit via a ’70s arena-rock lens. (The band, bless their hearts, have cited Kiss’ infamous sellout classic Dynasty as an influence.) The songs on Need To Feel Your Love feel crafted in a way that the material on the EPs didn’t — that’s rock-critic code for “Sheer Mag are better at writing songs, but not so much better that it ruins what was good about them in the first place.”

Rest assured, there are also plenty of full-on, beer-soaked, riot-in-the-streets anthems on Need To Feel Your Love, though they’re played with more anger and menace than ever before. My favorite track on the album is “Expect The Bayonet” — just the title alone gets you 80 percent of the way to an incredible tune. (I can’t believe that Iron Maiden or Thin Lizzy didn’t get to “Expect The Bayonet” first.) But “Expect The Bayonet” is also among the most overtly political songs on the record, stopping just short of calling for class warfare in response to widespread voter disenfranchisement. “I been reading the news and you’ll surely regret / if you don’t give us the ballot
 / expect the bayonet,” Halladay sings through clenched teeth.

Righteous indignation is among things that separates Sheer Mag from other contemporary indie bands that draw on classic-rock history. Need To Feel Your Love‘s opening track, “Meet Me In The Streets,” belongs in the same AC/DC/Jailbreak lineage that bands like Japandroids and White Reaper have aligned with. But the crowd noise that’s piped in at the song’s climax isn’t meant to evoke a vintage live album, the way it is on the title track of White Reaper’s The World’s Best American Band; it’s an allusion to the street-level unrest that occurred in Washington D.C. on Inauguration Day.

There is an intellectual element to how Sheer Mag applies the basic tools of big-time rock music as repurposed weapons against modern institutions. The band originated from a recording and design project that the Seely brothers made in art school, in which they invented a mythic ’70s rock band with dozens of songs with names like “Empty Stadium” and “Main Vein.” Sheer Mag is coming at this music from a remove, but it’s not ironic, it’s utilitarian. They use guitar solos and shout-along choruses to make sense of (and occasionally lash out at) the modern world.

If Sheer Mag had actually existed in the ’70s, Glyn Johns or Martin Birch would’ve made them sound huge. But in the 2010s, it makes more sense for a band like Sheer Mag to sound bombed-out and flinty. They’re a post-apocalyptic band for a post-apocalyptic rock world.