Review: Sheer Mag Use Power Chords to Dismantle the Power Structure on ‘III’
Release Date: March 3, 2016
Label: Static Shock / Wilsuns RC
All of Sheer Mag’s bite-sized, fire-starting collections of road-dog rock over the last few years have been mixed at producer Hunter Davidsohn’s Business District studio in the small, unremarkable upstate New York town of Johnson City. It’s like a lot of small, unremarkable upstate New York towns, notable now mostly for its proximity to the relatively bustling hub of Binghamton, but it has an interesting history as a village founded around the turn of the 20th century to house employees of the Endicott-Johnson Corporation (now known as EJ Footwear, LLC), who maintained a few enormous shoe factories in the area.
Their company’s co-owner George F. Johnson, for which the town is named, famously founded a program known as the “square deal,” an effort to provide housing and amenities for his employees that was fair and resistant to times of economic downturn. (It was also, crucially, a means of preventing unionization). The factories nearby have all now shuttered, and the once-idyllic (or at least financially thriving) village has suffered as a result — as people have moved away, other businesses have been forced to close. It’s a manufacturing town that’s been stripped of its original purpose, struggling to survive in changing times.
Having emerged from the ashes of another group of dust-coated riff slingers, this is the sort of situation that Sheer Mag has meant to soundtrack and combat. Whether they’re being crushed by capitalist demands, patriarchal assignations of how to exist in the world, or our ever-more terrifying (and in many cases petrifyingly racist) political state, the Philly quartet always provides a sober accounting and a solution. This is our wrecked and rotting world, they opine; you should still rock through it. Their third EP, simply titled III, furthers the power-structure-upending exercises of the previous ones in two crucial ways. III’s messages are more direct, and they’re couched in broken Jailbreak hooks and caffeine-addled guitarmonies more teeth-chattering and addictive than anything they’ve released to date. As they say, a spoonful of uppers helps the agitprop go down.
“Can’t Stop Fighting,” the EP’s first track — and perhaps the band’s finest moment to date — opens with a guitar lick more infectious than your garden-variety retrovirus, before vocal powerhouse Tina Halladay slams the door on your fingers, howling lyrics about mistreated workers in borderlands manufacturing plants. These factories, largely based in Mexico but run by U.S. corporations, are a great way for companies that already make a lot of money to cut costs on labor and taxes that they’d be subject to at home. But the human cost has been detailed in numerous, depressing accounts of constant exposure to carcinogens and other harmful chemicals in exchange for meager wages that the laborers, largely Mexican women, still require in order to provide for their families. It’s f**ked. As such, even just dropping the term maquiladora feels subversive over a style of music that’s historically been used to soundtrack toxic machismo. But even more so, Halladay turns the track’s title into a call for eliminating the structures that caused such devastation in the first place.
On the remaining tracks, they storm through an I-don’t-need-you anthem (“Nobody’s Baby”), a cowbell toting kiss-off (“Worth the Tears”), and “Night Isn’t Bright,” a gasoline-soaked teardown of the “politics of simplification” currently marring this election cycle. Each one is a calculated sublimation of rock tropes that banks on the fact you’ve heard riffs and rhythms sort of like it for your whole life, but never quite like this. That is, with a heart-exploding need to make the world around you a better place. Fellow reformed punks, like the noise-batterers in Perfect Pussy or the hardcore subversives in Downtown Boys, have also used their relative platforms to cast enlightened fireballs down at the audience, using brimstone to spur action. It’s an effective and respectable tactic, but a traditional one. Sheer Mag do one better, by grabbing societal rot at its root (not at the rock show, but crucially the hegemonized environ rock’n’roll show), to sneak into your ear before screaming in it that you need to rip it up and start again.