Sheer Mag knows the history of rock 'n' roll like the back of the members' leather-gloved hands. Over three EPs since 2014, these Philly punks have shown a deep affection for '70s rock, born in dirty riffs that are at once joyous and raw. There's no mistaking the pedigree, from the Thin Lizzy and AC/DC patches sewn onto their jackets. But there's a thin line between imitation and understanding, and with its debut album Need To Feel Your Love, Sheer Mag prove to be rock 'n' roll scholars who can map history onto present concerns.
The band wastes no time shouting its intent. "So come on down and get in the mix / We get our kicks with bottles and bricks," Tina Halladay sings on album opener "Meet Me In The Street." Halladay's voice is like a chainsaw wrapped in velour, a soulful call to arms that never forgets that love is at the center of Sheer Mag's political protest: "When we walk together it feels alright." When the song hits the faux arena chant-along, it's a clever nod to Thin Lizzy's questionably live album Live And Dangerous, with a little bit of The Who's windmill histrionics.
Need To Feel Your Love's classic-rock production isn't the only conscious departure from Sheer Mag's early lo-fi appeal. There's also a stronger sense of arrangement. Kyle Seely, the guitarist with seemingly endless riffs, told the Guitar Power video series in 2015, "It's hitting the right notes over the right chords ... The licks only mean so much." For the first time, Sheer Mag fans can really hear that interaction with a clarity that reveals dense, yet fluid songwriting.
Every song on Need To Feel Your Love moves with electric purpose, guiding the listener through its thrilling changes, with an album sequence that darts in and out of rock history. There's the disco glee of Jackson 5 heard in the title track and "Pure Desire," where Hart Seely's throbbing bass gets a serious workout in tandem with his brother's restless riffs. "Rank & File," along with "Meet Me In The Street," dirties up the record with AC/DC heft, but is underpinned by Matt Palmer's acoustic guitar jangle. "Turn It Up" begins like one of Buzzcocks' more urgent punk anthems, but quickly takes an about-face into something out of the Van Halen school of arena rock, complete with a three-syllable shout-along hook. "Suffer Me" and "Milk & Honey" are little country-rock numbers that are playful like the Allman Brothers Band, but clip along like one of R.E.M.'s alterna-twang hits.
But none of these comparisons to rock (and disco) bands of yesteryear mean anything unless Sheer Mag asserts its own personality. Without a doubt, Halladay gives the band presence, but much of the keen lyrical insight — a careful study of love and politics, rooted in street protest but also in emotion — was written by rhythm guitarist Matt Palmer. Kyle Seely knows how to spin a kaleidoscope of riffs, but bassist Hart Seely and drummer Ian Dykstra are right there in the fractals of musical arrangement. "Just Can't Get Enough" is perhaps the best example of Sheer Mag's newly contained fire, a meticulously-layered rock song that plays out like a simple ballad, drawing you in with small bursts of desperate love.
The record closes with "(Say Goodbye To) Sophie Scholl," a country-fried power-pop tune named for the anti-Nazi political activist who was executed by guillotine in WWII Germany. It's a biting commentary pulled from the past that feels remarkably present as hate crimes become more commonplace:
"It seems so strange / The blind constrictions and nascent pain / The contradiction from where we came / When blue eyes can't see the whole"
The whole record is a not only a lesson in listening and learning from rock 'n' roll masters, but from our humanity. Need To Feel Your Love seeks justice and riffs in a politically fraught age of discontent, but knows we're nothing without love.
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