Heavy metal is a mammoth mountain of noise, but many of the bands that reach its summit have taken the safest route to get there, and they continue to play strictly by the numbers, lest they lose their footing. The cult bands slithering about in the caverns or stomping about metal’s foothills are frequently the more imaginative and interesting. Many have the cruelest of intentions, but not every one pursues ventures south of heaven. Some simply want to celebrate all that is intrinsically over the top and dizzyingly electric about metal, mining the genre’s most theatrical years—the ‘80s—for inspiration.
Slogging it out for the title belt in that retro-minded pack is long-running corsair of classic metal, Slough Feg. If you’ve not indulged in this band before, it’s tantamount to heavy metal heresy and also completely understandable. Before the band signed a record deal with label Cruz del Sur in 2005, it wasn’t the easiest task for many fans around the globe to track down a Slough Feg release, at least not in an actual record store. Like many US bands of a similar ilk, Slough Feg found a larger audience for its traditional metal in Europe first, and subsequent poor distribution in North America not only made sourcing the band’s material difficult, but also reduced its boot print in its native land.
Still, none of that is Slough Feg’s fault. While the band wasn’t especially visible in its early years, that didn’t dent its reputation, or the fervor of its steadily growing fanbase. The band formed in Pennsylvania in the early 1990s before moving to San Francisco, and is famed for upsetting the city’s more grim-faced brethren. Slough Feg took its original name, The Lord Weird Slough Feg, from a character from 2000 AD‘s Sláine comic book, before it cleaved off “The Lord Weird” portion in 2005. Centered around guitarist and vocalist Mike Scalzi—a philosophy professor by day and metal god in the eve—Slough Feg has included John Cobbett, architect of San Francisco’s similarly revered Hammers of Misfortune, in its ranks, while Scalzi returned the favor by being a member of Hammers of Misfortune for a period.
Slough Feg makes ripping retro metal influenced by the early years of the new wave of British heavy metal, and mixes that scrappy enthusiasm with rollicking ‘70s hard rock and, on its earlier releases, an up-front presence of spirited Celtic folk. Every band paying respect to metal’s golden years harnesses similar sonic weaponry, but Slough Feg’s arrangements are often wildly eccentric and always engaging.
The band draws a halt at 1983 for inspiration, conjuring up strong reminders of the Tygers of Pan Tang, Manilla Road, Thin Lizzy, Saxon, and Iron Maiden. However, although Slough Feg recalls the past, that evocativeness is blended with bombastic showmanship and deft musicianship. The band takes its nimble-fingered, twin-guitar shredding and virtuoso soloing, and blends in corpulent bass and flurries of drumming to create hyper-animated tunes. The anthemic riffage mixes with Scalzi’s heroic vocals and a lyrical gamut covering mythology, history, philosophy and science, along with plenty of sweaty basement concerns too.
In recent years, Slough Feg’s audience has grown exponentially with each release. The band’s 2009 album, Ape Uprising, and 2010’s Slough Feg (released on label Profound Lore) were both excellent releases that upped the band’s profile substantially. Slough Feg has recently signed to Metal Blade Records, and the label is reissuing three of Slough Feg’s early albums: 1999’s Twilight of the Idols, 2000’s Down Among the Deadmen and 2003’s Traveller, as a three CD set. The set contains no bonus tracks nor any new features, but the albums were previously only available as imports for many fans, and it is—for all intents and purposes—an absolutely essential purchase, representing some of the finest traditional US metal yet conceived.
You’ll not find too many metal albums that begin with a bagpipe threnody like on Slough Feg’s 1999 sophomore release, Twilight of the Idols. But then, Slough Feg has always been rooted in tradition, and the opening bagpipes seal Twilight of the Idols‘s Celtic flavor. The album is spilling over with galloping, folksy and melodic chunky riffing, with flaying solos and Scalzi’s distinctive tenor wrapping mythological tales around all manner of metal maxims and tankard crashing merriments.
Twilight of the Idols is replete with inspired—although somewhat raw—sprints up the fret-board, its sawtoothed edge and quirky inconsistency being part of its anachronistic charm. Tracks like “Highlander”, “Wickerman”, and “Bi-Polar Disorder” are swaggering vintage metal imbued with sizzling Thin Lizzy leads. The gusto of proto-metal runs riot throughout the hurtling “We’ll Meet Again”, and semi-acoustic battle-ode “Brave Connor Mac” stirs the poignant embers. Slough Feg crafts an epic ode with “The Great Ice Age”; the song’s spoken word interlude gives way to a romp to the end, with its final lyric, “fighting ‘till the end of time, they’ll never stop my timeless soul”, being an apt summation of Slough Feg’s artistic ethos.
For a lot of Slough Feg fans, 2000’s Down Among the Deadmen is the band’s magnum opus, although that’s debatable given the rambunctious allure of both Traveller and Ape Uprising. Still, the addition of John Cobbett for six-string and songwriting duties on Down Among the Deadmen sees vibrant guitar duels and wailing harmonizing between the Hammers of Misfortune founder and Scalzi. The arrangements are outstanding throughout, and the band shifts through intricate time changes with the self-assurance of a ‘70s prog titan. Even though the tracks themselves are often more succinct rather than saga-like, they show the band’s love for progressive rock’s complexity, and this is matched by narrative flamboyance—with trolls, heavy metal monks, demons, warriors and kings included.
Slough Feg’s previous albums were craggy and uneven, albeit in an entirely appealing fashion, but on Down Among the Deadmen the band finds a fine sense of equilibrium. Gritty NWOBHM, Celtic folk, and high-flying ‘70s licks are all here, combined with the band’s patented idiosyncrasy. Big-block rockers “High Season”, “Warriors Dawn”, and “Sky Chariots” hurl catchy, jackhammer riffs—à la early Iron Maiden and Judas Priest—into a heady brew of progenitorial heavy rock.
Down Among the Deadmen is hyperbolic in its exaggerations of metal’s halcyon days, but the bluster and histrionics on whirlwind tracks such as “Fergus Mach Roich” and “Heavy Metal Monk” are intrinsic to Slough Feg’s appeal. Scalzi, who is in excellent vocal form here, sells it all wholeheartedly, weaving superb melodic vocal lines throughout, and growling, crooning and howling with theatrical aplomb on “Troll Feast” and the fantastical interstellar jaunts “Psionic Illuminations” and “Traders and Gunboats”.
Down Among the Deadmen‘s reputation is helped enormously by its production. All its retro stylings and instrumentation are infused with the high-powered energy of unadorned classic metal. Cobbett and Scalzi’s guitars sound thick and streaked with grime, their tone blending perfectly with the interlacing bass and Greg Haa’s powerful drumming—which adds a great deal of attractiveness to an already magnetic album. Down Among the Deadmen is deeply charismatic, the point at which Slough Feg’s adept musicianship really came into its own.
After three albums of mixing traditional metal with Celtic mythology and all manner of patch-vested metal philosophies, Slough Feg’s 2003 release, Traveller, set its sights on futuristic themes from the farthest reaches of the universe. Drawing from the role-playing game of the same name first published by Game Designers’ Workshop in 1977, Traveller is a concept album, a pan-galactic journey unto itself. And if you’ve got a hankering for space pirates, half man/half dog genetic hybrids and mad professors, you’re all set.
Traveller is a masterful display of technical proficiency from all the musicians involved. With even more dynamism and rhythmic intricacy than before, Slough Feg launches into solar systems of exploration, albeit with each track returning to the mothership of late ‘70s/early ‘80s metal to refuel. Jettisoning the band’s previous Celtic tang, Traveller grants Scalzi more ‘space’ to indulge in a rock opera filled with unconventional melodies and cleverly constructed verse. His lyrical talents have always been crucial to Slough Feg’s sense of exuberant demonstrativeness, and on Traveller he doesn’t hold back for a second. It’s an overblown feast of b-grade sci-fi dramatics, but, with a tale as gigantic as the cosmos, why not amplify the theatrics? One thing’s for sure, the band backs Scalzi’s tale with equal passion.
“High Passage/Low Passage”, “Asteroid Belts”, “Professor’s Theme” and “Vargr Moon” are among the heaviest tracks Slough Feg has recorded, and the acoustic “Baltech’s Lament” is one of the band’s most beautiful. With ‘70s sci-fi sound effects added in, it’s a grand, cavorting, escapist tale, in which the story being told balances its narrative structure with rapturous music flawlessly. Scalzi’s vocals carry the emotional weight, flicking between moments of struggle and triumph, and the riffing throughout is, in the main, aggressive and fittingly propulsive. “Gene – ocide”, and “Vargr Theme/Confrontation (Genetic Prophecy)” are all class—convoluted yet hooky. In any other universe Slough Feg would be playing them to amphitheatres full of fans, with lasers and light shows to put Pink Floyd to shame.
Dropping the Celtic flavor on Traveller didn’t see Slough Feg reinvent itself, but it certainly encouraged the band to fully embrace its high-octane side and indulge in plenty of multi-rhythmic, labyrinthine rockers. The album is sterner (and icier) than Down Among the Deadmen, and that’s reflected in a murkier production, with the album occasionally dropping into very dark vortexes. Taken as a whole, Traveller is a coherent and involving concept album. Combining rousing tunes with epic storytelling, it builds from one song to the next to create a fully realized album, with some breathtaking songwriting.
The only reason not to buy this three CD set is if you already have all the albums individually. All of Slough Feg’s albums are worthy additions to any metal fan’s collection, and while some are obviously better than others, for sheer idiosyncratic adventurism alone, Down Among the Deadmen and Traveller are two of the band’s very best.
With the band in the studio at present, recording an album Scalzi promises will contain, “bouncing buccaneer riffs unearthed from the Voi-Vaudevillian vaults…”, Slough Feg look set to unleash another “cavalcade of cacophonous crooning to add to the caterwaul” on its first release for Metal Blade. Until then, this three CD set is a rollicking reminder of exactly why Slough Feg is one of the finest cult metal bands in existence and a genuine one of a kind exemplar of the pure joy to be found in metal’s underground. As already mentioned, if you’ve not indulged before, this is the perfect opportunity to experience some of the very best traditional metal ever made.
Twilight of the Idols
Down Among the Deadmen