A Distant Call is a serviceable rock album, but one made by a confused band.
One of the surprise packages of the 2010s was a garage-rockin’, fuzz-pedal loving bunch of political rabble rousers from Philly. Sheer Mag matched cries for justice with face-melting licks, alternating and mixing rousing choruses with a full on cry for the death of the ruling class. Their first three EPs were neatly collected in the straightforwardly titled Compilation and it stands as one of the most thrilling runs of guitar proposition this decade. But since then, they’ve struggled with their identity. A 12-course meal of guitar riffs and revolts will always be on the menu. But the Judas Priest-ass cover of A Distant Call ushers Sheer Mag into more ‘80s territory. Where once they aped Thin Lizzy, they’ve moved to a shinier sound. There’s not a synth in sight, the band instead injected with the anthemic pulse of Foreigner and REO Speedwagon. Though there’s an argument that their previous ‘70s worship added more thrills than the polished chrome they now wield.
The first and simplest knock is that A Distant Call is less danceable than their previous records. I mean, that’s what happens when you stuff the first song with three damn guitar solos. But the jangly undertone of Compilation and their last record Need to Feel Your Love were brimming with reclaimed jock jams you could cut a rug to. There’s a bit more push and pull to the emotional and dynamic range here, impressive in some ways, but certainly a step back in how many stage dives it demands.
A Distant Call is focused on its story; a partially fictional look back at Tina Halladay’s life. And just like when she gave a mighty punch upwards at slumlords, authoritarians and misogynists, she minces no words in her own recollections. As befitting the ‘80’s fetishism and lyrical outlook there are Springsteen quotes thrown willy-nilly. But there’s no stopping the brutal “Cold Sword,” a look back at Halladay’s emotionally and physically abusive father. For a band that once immersed itself in a collective “we,” hearing that much pain inflicted on Halladay is heart wrenching.
But A Distant Call also has hard time figuring out what to do with Halladay’s howl. It’s the first time we’ve heard her voice trail away from the hurricane force she usually bursts with. The shockingly tender “Silver Line” shows the softer side of her pipes and it carries the song to dreamland. The sliding coo she rides matches the chiming guitars to a T, conjuring up the cuddly tunes of the Everly Brothers. Before she erupts again, obviously. Hearing Sheer Mag slam through another .38 Special throwback before slithering into hazier textures is enough to give you tonal whiplash. The focus on harmonies also goes poorly. The electrifying riff on “The Killer” is undercut by the falsetto backing vocals that come off as flaccid.
Perhaps it’s just hard to come back after your initial salvo stands among the decade’s best. A Distant Call is a serviceable rock album, but one made by a confused band. Considering Halladay’s tender vulnerability and the yearning melody on closer “Keen on Runnin’,” maybe the power ballad is the way forward.