Another year, another terrific album of galloping, Celtic-infused metal from the American cult faves.
One of the great cult favorites in American metal, Slough Feg, or the Lord Weird Slough Feg as they were originally known, has been stubbornly churning out their traditional heavy metal for 20 years now, and although they've never been able to expand their audience beyond their core following, the San Francisco band garners much respect in the metal world. After all, trends have come and gone, but not a lick has changed about Slough Feg's music, to this day relying on good, old-fashioned Iron Maiden gallops, twin lead guitars not very subtly nicked from Thin Lizzy, and sprightly melodies heavily derived from Celtic folk music. It's not their goal to reinvent the wheel, rather they're simply happy riding it ragged, no matter how predictable the music becomes. They're a metal version of comfort food; the familiarity of their formula, whether 2000's brilliant Down Among the Deadmen, 2005's fun Atavism, or last year's exuberant Ape Uprising!, they consistently bring instant gratification to fans of old-fashioned heavy metal. We know what to expect from Slough Feg, and for the most part -- 2007's Hardworlder being one particular hiccup -- they've delivered.
At the center of it all is singer Mike Scalzi, owner of the best set of classic metal pipes this side of Bruce Dickinson. A mainstay of the Bay Area metal scene, his one-of-a-kind persona dominates every Slough Feg record, whether it's his unmistakable howl, his often unconventional vocal melodies, or his lyrics rife with dry humor and wordplay. The late-'70s inspired heavy metal arrangements by his bandmates are a mere set-up, with Scalzi's presence the big payoff, and as a result, it's primarily up to him to elevate a Slough Feg record from sounding reliably good to something special.
Scalzi stepped up in a big way on Ape Uprising!, his band's best album in nine years, and it's a pleasure to learn he's maintained that positive momentum on Slough Feg's eighth album. Their first for Profound Lore, The Animal Spirits feels initially like it continues right where every other album has left off, which in this band's case, is always a good thing. At a mere 116 seconds, the rampaging "Tricking the Vicar" wastes no time in getting the festivities off to a spirited start, bearing the same stripped-down simplicity of Iron Maiden's Soundhouse Tapes, drummer Harry Cantwell providing maniacal fills atop a rote but immensely satisfying NWOBHM groove by guitarist Angelo Tringali and bassist Adrian Maestas. And just as always, Scalzi dominates, full of piss, vinegar, and who knows what else, lampooning organized religion with wry humor: "Out of the frying pan, into the friar/Puns in the papacy perplex the Pontiff/What unholy boister goes on in the cloister?"
The NWOBHM, '70s hard rock, and Celtic influences run rampant on the record, but although we know full well just how derivative it all is, the band is sly enough to create an identity of their own. "The 95 Thesis" matches the rumble of Thin Lizzy's "Emerald" step for step, followed immediately by the instrumental "Materia Prima" -- a spirited mini-suite that mines the best moments of the first two Iron Maiden albums. "Lycanthropic Fantasies" has Scalzi in full storyteller mode, theatrically narrating his werewolf tale atop a sinister arrangement, while "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a fantastic cover of the Alan Parsons Project classic, showcasing Scalzi as he dares to come close to equaling the inimitable vocal stylings of Arthur Brown.
Curiously, though, it's when Scalzi and his mates deviate ever-so-slightly from all that predictability where The Animal Spirits succeeds the most. You wouldn't expect a song called "Ask the Casket" to be a stately ballad, but that's indeed the case -- Scalzi performing a lament as if he's from Ireland rather than California. "Free Market Barbarian", meanwhile, is a wicked slice of streamlined UFO riffery that boasts the finest hook we've heard from Slough Feg in years. When Slough Feg is peaking, heavy metal doesn't get any more instinctively satisfying than that, and there's no denying Mike Scalzi and company are on a mighty creative streak these days. Here's hoping more people take notice this time around.