Album Review: Greg Wheeler and the Poly Mall Cops — ‘Manic Fever’

Poly Mall Cops' Album Release w/ Penny Peach & Art Monk

xBk, Des Moines, Friday, March 31 at 8 p.m., $10-15

Greg Wheeler and the Poly Mall Cops at Mission Creek Festival

Gabe’s, Iowa City, Saturday, April 8 at 7:30 p.m., included with pass ($55-110)

You didn’t realize you were waiting for this moment. But I promise you, you were.

Later this month, on March 24, just a couple weeks ahead of their appearance at Iowa City’s Mission Creek Festival, Des Moines punkers Greg Wheeler and the Poly Mall Cops will drop their debut full-length, Manic Fever. If, like a good Iowan music nerd, you’ve been following Greg Wheeler’s career since his time with Cedar Rapids band The Wheelers, then you’ll be absolutely ready for the wild, frenetic beauty of this aptly named album.

The 12-track release includes all three songs from their 2017 7-inch split and nine additional tunes to give you a crick in your neck as you jump and thrash along. Track four, “DGASAY,” one of those carried forward from their earlier release, is a classic punk vibe, channeling the ’70s obsession with sped-up surfer rock tonality. It’s the most polished track on the album, the one begging to be released as a single.

The following track, “Nothing,” is one of the album’s standouts, delightfully subtle following the fiery vehemence of “DGASAY.” It’s a track to get lost in, balancing seemingly straightforward lyrics — “There’s nothing much left to do / Except completely obliterate you / And there’s nothing left to say / I want your face to go away” — with a wistful melodic structure, especially on the chorus, that reveals the lyrics to be pure bravado.

The title track is another that grabs your ears, 1:42 of quick addictive vocals and swirling instrumentation that make clear just how much fun they had composing these pieces. “Slowly Erasing You,” another 2017 re-up, is next, one more track that dances around and puts the lie to its lyrics. Then “Waste Away” takes control of the narrative, with lyrics that feel more poignant and true (“Don’t let go, I’ll float away”) couched in driven, drum-forward desperation that demands attention. This trio of songs in the album’s third quarter encapsulates the themes and philosophies of the whole; the three are worth looping on their own a few times through.

Closer “Fast Forward” is the perfect capper, all garage grunge grit and grime locked in conversation with the listener, begging for the emotional turmoil of the album to be over. I’m generally a fan of albums that bear repeating, that can be listened to over and over. But this is a deeply satisfying conclusion that hints at the possibility that the attempts at closure teased throughout might finally be realized.

Manic Fever is simultaneously nostalgic and contemporary, peak 2007 but without feeling retro. If I said, “goth pop-punk,” you, dear reader, would likely respond, “Oh, you mean emo?” But no. I do not mean emo. The Poly Mall Cops are more Joy Division than My Chemical Romance. And there’s a ’90s fuzz overlay that gives the album a very Love Among Freaks, Clerks soundtrack kind of vibe, along with just the right amount of raucous drums, reminiscent of classic, Brett Reed-era Rancid.

In other words, it’s like a decadent meal from the punk rock buffet. You think you have a grasp on their style, then they throw a wild card at you — and make it work every time. They deliver pop punk filtered through the miasma of pandemic times.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s March 2023 issues.