Over the course of three EPs, as well as their 2017 debut LP Need to Feel Your Love, Philadelphia’s Sheer Mag established themselves as both disciples and masters of ‘70s hard rock. And while their latest album, A Distant Call, doesn’t stray from that course, it brings more polish to the proceedings, spiking the songs with a healthy dose of gloss and glam. The band has long eschewed the braggadocio and sleaze associated with the testosterone-heavy titans of hard rock (as well as the goofy revivalism of some of their peers) in favor of social critiques and earnest romanticism. But on A Distant Call, they take their message one step further: these arena-ready anthems are vehicles for the most personal and politically astute songs of their career.
Frontwoman Tina Halladay’s singular howl has a new versatility here. Her snarls are downright vicious; on “Chopping Block,” for instance, she puts AC/DC’s Brian Johnson to shame. But her melodies can be as sweet as her scream is rough: the choruses on blockbuster opening track “Steel Sharpens Steel,” “Hardly to Blame,” and the ELO-channeling “Silver Line” deliver some of her strongest hooks to date. Throughout the album, her bandmates match her gusto note for note. Impeccably recorded drums benefit from the cleaner sound, and guitarist Kyle Seely’s monster solos, particularly on “Cold Sword,” are the stuff of Guitar Hero dreams. They even deploy a cowbell without shame.
Arrangements this grand can be a curious means of conveying catharsis, but they end up being disarming, making Halladay’s insights all the more urgent. “Cold Sword” is a nightmarish and personal account of an abusive father, while other tracks tackle a wide range of societal ills. “Blood from a Stone,” for instance, updates Springsteen-style populism for an era where there’s even more income inequality, while the unnamed politically-connected villain in “The Killer” is described with a clear-eyed fury reminiscent of Bob Dylan at his best. For all its references to the musical past, A Distant Call is indisputably a record of our time; Sheer Mag know how to transcend nostalgia, and as a result that howls and kicks and thrashes with life.