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Sheer Mag: A Distant Call Review

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Few bands have recently sparked as much ire in the music world as Greta Van Fleet. The group has rightfully been criticized for essentially ripping off Led Zeppelin and wearing kids’ Halloween hippie costumes. Their 2018 LP Anthem of the Peaceful Army attempted to be the sort of flower power (and yes, they literally have a song of this name) call-to-arms that their idols specialized. While insanely popular, GVF has the uncanniness of a wax figure, replicating music from the past without any soul.

Completely counter to that is Sheer Mag. Their sound is undeniably inspired by the hard rock and glam metal of yesteryear; the four-piece is continually compared to Thin Lizzy and Cheap Trick and any number of late ‘70s/early ‘80s rock gods. Sheer Mag actually breathe life into their retro sound, in large part because of vocalist Tina Halladay’s neon-edged voice. Listening to them makes you want to don a pair of leather pants and maybe—just maybe—grow a mullet.

But Sheer Mag have a specificity that clearly roots them in the present, makes them relevant and puts their message in context, Their debut album Need to Feel Your Love referenced the Stonewall Riots and White Rose activist Sophie Scholl, two extremely vital movements to today’s current politics. They are not merely attempting to recreate the past, but use both musical and social history to frame contemporary issues.

The political messages continue on their sophomore album, this time through the lens of Halladay’s own personal experiences. A Distant Call begins with Halladay wailing on “Steel Sharpens Steel,” a prologue of sorts introducing our heroine. Guitarists Matt Palmer and Kyle Seely shred as much as ever, and it’s easy to imagine the band wielding their instruments like weapons as they play in the fiery pit of a volcano. Halladay declares, in so many words, that what doesn’t kill her makes her stronger. It’s an explosive start to an album that, for the most part, achieves its catharsis for Halladay and exposes the cycle of injustice that we live through daily.

Everything that follows “Steel Sharpens Steel” documents an especially troubling chapter in Halladay’s life, an honest narrative that sees her get laid off from her job, go through a terrible breakup and find out that her abusive father had died. She feels powerless when confronting the horrors of the news cycle—in particular, the refugee crisis, as told on “Unfound Manifest.” It’s a disarmingly upbeat song in comparison to the grim subject matter (Halladay sings “Sinking in the dark water / Fighting back against the tide,” upon learning about refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea), but that’s what most of 2019 feels like. We all continue to march on, drink our coffees and attend parties, all while we know about the inhumane conditions on the southern U.S. border and the impending disasters of climate change and any number of overwhelmingly awful crises.

And why is that? It’s because we are stuck in a loop, one that Sheer Mag puts front and center on A Distant Call. The loop entraps us, requires us to work in order to live and be bound to systems designed to keep most everyone but rich white men down.

For Halladay, she finds her entry into the loop in her abusive father, and contemplates this on “Cold Sword” upon hearing about his death. The song serves as the album’s “fulcrum” as Halladay puts it, with her melancholy crystallizing into righteous anger. “Chopping Block,” a theatrical anthem calling for revolution, teeters between inspiringly aggressive and occasionally cringe-worthy, with some of the lyrics (“Between the parties there’s no light / We need workers to unite”) coming off as baby’s first Communist Manifesto. Those moments can be overlooked, though, when you hear Halladay relish in the line, “The final hour strikes the clock,” hitting that final “k” emphatically like she’s punching a damn Nazi.

On their second album, Sheer Mag keep proving that raging against the system can also be a raging party. Much like Halladay, the band itself is a piece of coal that, under pressure, has emerged in its true form: a glittering diamond.

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