Slough Feg: The Animal Spirits

Another year, another terrific album of galloping, Celtic-infused metal from the American cult faves.

Slough Feg

The Animal Spirits

Label: Profound Lore
US Release Date: 2010-10-26
UK Release Date: 2010-11-01
Artist Website

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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