In the liner notes to Slough Feg’s new album, the word “atavism” is defined as the “reverence of or reversion to a past style, manner, outlook, or approach”. Not only does the word apply to the album, conveniently named Atavism, as the disc contains songs built around that theme, but also because this San Francisco band are a walking example of atavism in metal music: they’re throwbacks, through and through. In a world where most contemporary metal bands shred away death metal riffs and pound out double bass blastbeats while either gurgling like a famous blue muppet or screeching like a demon with a throat problem, Slough Feg act as though it’s still 1981, where heavy metal was more accessible, more bombastic, more fun.
It’s tough being an American power metal band. Aside from Manowar, that simpler, more melodic style of metal music has always been a European and British thing; while Iron Maiden and Helloween thrilled the masses in the 1980s, American bands like Riot and Armored Saint toiled away in obscurity. Even today, a brilliant band like Nevermore has to fight for recognition, struggling to keep their heads above water, amidst the flood of American metalcore bands, while Nightwish and Sonata Arctica continue to rake in the sales across the Atlantic. It doesn’t help that American culture isn’t quite as steeped in mythology, paganism, and mystery as the ancient European cultures are. Amon Amarth immerse themselves in Viking lore, Amorphis embraces Nordic mythology, and Primordial celebrates Celtic history, so what are Slough Feg left to sing about? San Francisco seems like much too pretty a place to serve as inspiration for such a band.
Still, while Slough Feg are left to plunder and pillage other cultures in search of subject matter, the music on Atavism, their sixth album, is what is most memorable. Like Wolf and Falconer, Slough Feg deliver nothing but a good, solid, convincing homage to the great New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and in their case, sounding more Saxon than Iron Maiden, more Tygers of Pan Tang than Witchfinder General. Catchy dual guitar harmonies trill away, the drums gallop, the vocals soar. We’ve heard it all before, but ask anyone who grew up listening to this stuff, and they’ll tell you, if it’s done right, it never grows old, and these boys do it well.
Comprised of 14 tracks, spanning 38 minutes, with only six surpassing the three-minute mark, Atavism takes a unique approach to old-style metal; although each track is brief, the epic feel is still present, thanks to smooth segues between each track. Instrumentals pepper the album’s first half, the chugging “Portcullis” and the nimble guitar work on “Climax of a Generation” hearkening back to such legendary Iron Maiden instrumentals such as “Transylvania” and “Genghis Khan”, while the thrasher “Robustus” leads into the boisterous Celtic-tinged vocal number “I Will Kill You/You Will Die”. Singer/guitarist Mike Scalzi is no Bruce Dickinson, or for that matter Biff Byford, but he still howls away earnestly in a hearty voice that sometimes bears a strange resemblance to Social Distortion’s Mike Ness,. While he lacks the kind of theatrical quality that a power metal singer needs on a track like “Atavism”, he proves his worth often on such tracks as the aforementioned “I Will Kill You/You Will Die”, “Agony Slalom” (that’s not a typo), and the Symphony X-like mythological mini-opus “Eumaeus the Swineherd/Curse of Athena”.
The entire band truly starts to shine during the second half, as they leap from style to style with often ridiculous speed, like a bunch of kids with ADD flipping television channels. The facetiously-titled “Agnostic Grunt” dips into Mercyful Fate style doom, including a terrific midtempo stomp the Danish legends excelled at two decades ago. “High Season V” revisits the more straightforward Saxon sound the band seems to love, before abruptly launching into the Sabbath-esque swing of “Starport Blues”. The fact that all this happens in little more than five minutes makes it all the more flabbergasting. The rousing, progressive mini-opus “Atavism II” brings the album to an lively finish.
Atavism couldn’t be less fashionable these days, but with so many young American bands so bent on capitalizing on the immense popularity of metalcore, it’s great to see a band like Slough Feg proudly flying the old-school flag. The band might not come from a place steeped in mythology and legend, but they do exude one of the best American traits that many European bands lack: pure charisma.