I haven't had much luck converting my metalhead friends to Slough Feg—the band's flavor of metal is just too dorky, they say, or too obvious. So instead I'm going to go to work on all you people. Part of the difficulty here is that to explain Slough Feg's appeal I also have to explain the appeal of Dungeons & Dragons, which remains fixed in the popular imagination as a game that causes pallid basement-dwelling nerds to worship Satan and murder each other with ceremonial swords. I'll get back to that in a minute.
First, though, what do Slough Feg sound like? Do a little googling and you'll find lots of comparisons to Judas Priest and Iron Maiden—partly because Slough Feg share the hard-rocking, grandly melodic style of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and partly because everybody has heard of those bands.
It's pretty common to get into metal through the likes of Priest and Maiden, of course, but I never crossed paths with them in my formative years. I didn't fall for Slough Feg because they reminded me of the music I'd listened to in third grade. The closest I'd gotten to metal by the time I reached college in 1990 was Led Zeppelin, unless you count my younger brother's Guns N' Roses tapes and my dad's old Iron Butterfly LPs.
I drifted into heavy music along a path that led from one idiosyncratic band to another: the shamanic thunder of Neurosis, the towering nihilism of Swans, the perverted sludge of the Melvins. As late as 2003, when I wrote a feature about Pelican for the Reader, I didn't consider myself a fan of metal. That's since changed, of course, and as I've cultivated a taste for the devil's music I've listened almost exclusively to subspecies of death and black metal: the alien locomotion of Meshuggah, the clotted howling of Gorguts, the stampeding histrionics of Absu.
If you recognize those three names, you know where I'm going with this. Extreme metal can be awesome, overwhelming, and cathartic, but one thing it's generally not is fun. So when Profound Lore released Slough Feg's eighth full-length, The Animal Spirits, last fall, the timing was perfect, at least for me. Without knowing it, I'd been starving for metal with catchy choruses.
Front man and sole constant member Mike Scalzi founded the Lord Weird Slough Feg, as they were originally known, in central Pennsylvania in 1990, then moved to the Bay Area eight months later. In an e-mail last week, he told me that the current incarnation of Slough Feg—with guitarist Angelo Tringali, bassist Adrian Maestas, and drummer Harry Cantwell—is the "best lineup we've ever had," but even if that's true, it still pains me to think about how many years this band existed unbeknownst to me.
From day one Scalzi has been swimming upstream, and in a column for the blog Invisible Oranges last September he lamented that so many people's idea of metal has devolved into "this formless wall of static noise with someone hacking up phlegm over top of it." He's tarring some of my favorite music with that brush, but point taken. Ever get an Inquisition song stuck in your head?
Scalzi sings "clean," in the parlance of the genre, and favors soaring, full-throated vocals—he sounds like he's using every cubic centimeter of his lungs. The rousing tunes on The Animal Spirits abound with simple, giddy, galloping riffs and frisky flourishes of doubled-up lead guitar, and they're structured to include at least one throw-the-horns solo apiece, plus scads of fruity chord changes. Slough Feg thumb their noses at the scowling gatekeepers of grimness by playing in major keys, an aesthetic choice that's often enough to doom an act to the airbrushed-dragon ghetto of power metal. In a November interview with the Bay Guardian, Scalzi described the reception this got in the 90s: "People would be like, 'God, you're willing to get up onstage and play that? That sounds like nursery-rhyme music with metal instruments. It's major. You're singing like you're in a 50s musical!'"
There are lots of reasons Slough Feg can pull this off. Their sound is raw and straightforward, and they dig into their no-nonsense arrangements—sans keyboards, thank God—with rambunctious exuberance and punkish spunk. More important, they're not just fun but funny. "I like silliness, and that's one of the things that's missing from a lot of metal," Scalzi told the Bay Guardian. "Metal is inherently funny. No matter what! It's funny. That's one of the best things about it! It's ridiculous, and it's great because it's ridiculous."
On The Animal Spirits he puts his money where his mouth is. His verses on "Trick the Vicar" are pell-mell tumbles of barely sensical syllables: "Tricking the vicar / Puns in the papacy perplex the pontiff / Who bears the mark of the beast? / Dazzle the deacon / What unholy boister goes on in the cloister / While we're disturbing the priest?" Four songs later he sings, "Dressed in rags, with rosaries / Covering the scars / Lycanthropic fantasies / Dancing with the stars." If you can't decide how funny those lines are, bear in mind that Dancing With the Stars has been airing on American TV since 2005.
Slough Feg songs are crowded not just with characters but with the alternate worlds they inhabit. The range and profusion of stories they refer to is fearlessly, hilariously, amazingly nerdy. The Animal Spirits has lyrics about Martin Luther's 95 theses, Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 journey by raft from Peru to Polynesia, and possibly Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda, a sci-fi series syndicated in the U.S. in the first half of the aughts; Edgar Allan Poe makes an appearance via the Alan Parsons Project cover "The Tell-Tale Heart."
Earlier albums touch on Teutonic mythology, the Odyssey, Celtic folklore (especially as interpreted by the comic series Slaine, in which the Lord Weird Slough Feg is the main villain), and Deathsport, a 1978 Roger Corman B movie about postapocalyptic combat on heavily armed motorcycles. Slough Feg's 2003 full-length Traveller shares its name and subject matter with a sci-fi role-playing game released in the late 70s, from which it borrows its cover font and layout—adding a drawing of what appears to be a large, pointy-eared humanoid spaniel wearing powered battle armor. The cover for 2000's Down Among the Deadmen is by famous fantasy artist Erol Otus, whose illustrations are all over early D&D materials, most memorably the Monster Manual.
That's not to say Scalzi uses these references to embed deep meaning in the songs—as he's repeatedly insisted, there's nothing to decode in his lyrics. They're just a playground for your brain. On "Tiger! Tiger!" from 2007's Hardworlder, he sings, "I'm trapped behind bars / On the gateway to Mars / But when all the stars expire will I still be here?" You don't have to recognize this as a description of the plight of antihero Gulliver Foyle in the opening pages of Alfred Bester's classic 50s sci-fi novel The Stars My Destination for it to set your mind in motion—in fact the main reason it works is because it doesn't suggest one specific backstory but rather a quantum cloud of many possible backstories, all converging on that chorus. This open-ended quality—a side effect of almost any attempt to evoke an entire parallel reality with a handful of little bitty words—is a great virtue of many metal lyrics, though it tends to make them read like unfinished adolescent poetry when they're orphaned on the page.
Here's where Dungeons & Dragons comes back in. In high school, Scalzi tells me, he played D&D and its sister game Gamma World, among many others. I did too, at about the same time—he's 41 and I'm 39—and we both played as dungeon masters, which is great for your storytelling chops but terrible for your prospects with the attractive sex. The games don't tend to use visuals, so the DM has to give the players a sense for where they are and what's happening by talking them through it, trusting their imaginations to do the heavy lifting. Just as in a four-minute metal song, momentum is everything. Whether you're leading a game or writing lyrics, you've got to evoke your milieu in a hurry, with an ear for which three details will help your audience fill in the rest. And if you're part of that audience, it's your job to put aside your skepticism and self-consciousness—not always the easiest task, given that the culture is saturated with messages telling you not to like role-playing games or goofball heavy metal in the first place—so that you can immerse yourself in the experience and have fun.
Yes, it's silly to sit around a table with your friends pretending to be a halfling thief. It's also silly to sing along to a metal song about the Protestant Reformation. That's beside the point. As Scalzi put it in that Bay Guardian interview, "This is inherently enjoyable. Are you willing to partake in it, or are you too cool for it?"
So yeah. Given that you've read this far, you should probably go see Slough Feg at Quenchers on Thursday. Sure, it's a tiny room—but like the good book says, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20). If you think it's dumb, I'll buy you a beer to make it up to you. I'll be the blond guy with beginner's metal hair. And I'm leaving the ceremonial sword at home.