Slough Feg Perplex the Pontiff and Confuse the Cardinal with The Animal Spirits

There isn’t much outlandish or sonically experimental in their structures or intent, but San Francisco metallers Slough Feg have always been regarded more as a critic’s band than a fan favorite. On their eighth album in their 20-year existence – a first release through Profound Lore (appropriately enough a critic’s label, literally and figuratively) — The Animal Spirits, the venerable four-piece reinforce this notion by simply being too good at what they do to be accessible. Understand, I’m not saying that Slough Feg is showing off Robert Fripp-style guitar manipulations or anything like that – their riffs have more in common with Iron Maiden, Dio and Thin Lizzy – but just that the band’s material is so full and compact that it’ll go right over the heads of most casual listeners. I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing, and it’s only my theory, but The Animal Spirits, which follows 2009’s unabashedly awesome Ape Uprising! and offers no fewer moments of demented genius from vocalist/guitarist/auteur Mike Scalzi, seems to bear out that Slough Feg are working on a different level entirely from fans and most bands alike.

For example, take “Trick the Vicar,” the opening track of The Animal Spirits and seemingly the inspiration for the album’s scowling cover. At 1:55, the song is barely an intro, and yet Scalzi and fellow lead guitarist (they’re both credited in the liner notes with lead guitar and I’d argue that’s fair given how much time the two of them spend soloing and how often the lead tracks take the place of what most bands would consider rhythm tracks) Angelo Tringali pack enough barn-burning riffage and clever angularity into the song to make it feel three minutes longer, while the alliterative and referential lyrics wink at Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden and remind those who can keep up that it’s all in good fun. The galloping “The 95 Thesis” reinforces Slough Feg’s reputation as one of the finest American producers of classic metal, and what it and the instrumental “Materia Prima” that follows epitomize is the band’s ability to balance the epic and the unforced. Where some power metal feels over-the-top and stagey (granted, in some cases that’s the appeal), Slough Feg accomplish a sound no less grand with a feel as natural as low lights in a barroom. The defiant triumph in Scalzi’s voice on “Free Market Barbarian” is no less effective for the lack of pomp surrounding.

Drummer Harry Cantwell makes short work of the starts and stops of “Lycanthropic Fantasies,” a song that manages to be catchy despite not really having a vocal chorus, and Slough Feg in its entirety shines on “Ask the Casket,” which covers the familiar stylistic territory (for them, anyway) of Celtic folk in a riffingly metallic context. It’s a drinking song, with all the stumbling lumber one might expect, and there’s a kind of joy in its sadness that’s both biting and engaging. You want to sing along to it even before you know the words. Bassist Adrian Maestas, generally regulated to a supporting role, nonetheless performs his duties ably – Slough Feg is very much a “guitar” band. As “Ask the Casket” gives way directly to the companion “Heavyworlder,” I wonder if there isn’t some correlation to 2007’s Hardworlder album or if they’ve just gotten self-referential. In any case, the two tracks are basically movements of the same musical idea, and they do the bulk of carrying The Animal Spirits into its closing section.

An Alan Parsons Project cover of “The Tell-Tale Heart” would be out of place on a lot of records, but Slough Feg have no trouble making it fit with their already-expansive breadth. The subdued midsection of that song – roughly 27 minutes into The Animal Spirits’ total 38 – is a much-needed chance to breathe, and as that song picks back up and leads to the hard-driving “Kon-Tiki” with enough guitar showiness from Scalzi and Tringali as to be physically exhausting while the former takes on Thor Heyerdahl lyrically, the respite is all the more appreciated. “Second Coming” gets a folkish beginning and mention of the band’s San Francisco home before lapsing into electric solos and flamenco acousticism (no hand claps to go with that?), but it’s Scalzi’s vocals that really shine as he memorably proclaims, “My mind is prehensile.” It’s effectively the note that closes The Animal Spirits proper, but tacked on the end of the record — as a bonus most likely for Scalzi and the rest of the band themselves — is “Tactical Air War,” which features Bobbie Wright of Brocas Helm on lead vocals while Slough Feg plays out The Animal Spirits’ most definitively metal song behind. At just 2:20, it speeds along similarly to “Trick the Vicar” and is no less obviously about the fun of creation as about the kicking of ass musically. It may be incongruous with the rest of the album, but golly it rocks.

I don’t know if The Animal Spirits is going to be the offering that gets Slough Feg the respect they’ve long deserved, but if nothing else, it confirms the reasons those who are in the band’s growing congregation show up in the first place. The elements are all here, perhaps most potently so the band’s originality. Where there are genre niches to no end in which dwell multiple artists, Slough Feg are all on their own. There are bands who are retro, but they’re not retro. There are bands who are classic, but they’re not just classic. There are bands who incorporate folk elements, but this isn’t gimmick as much as songwriting influence. And so on. Scalzi and company don’t really fit into any one subgenre or another, and for that and their rampant creative vitality, The Animal Spirits is going to be deeply beloved by a select few people truly willing to engage it on the level required. In a way that few records are, it’s worth the effort to really listen.

Slough Feg’s website

Profound Lore

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