Tuesday, March 30, 2010

ECLIPSING A VARGR MOON: The Music And Mythologies of The Lord Weird Slough Feg, North America's Most Underappreciated And Misunderstood Metal Band

If you are already familiar with the music of The Lord Weird Slough Feg (Slough Feg for short) and you don't particularly care for it, it is for one of two reasons: A) You hate music. B) You hate FUN.
Somehow I've only managed to catch these guys live two times in my five years of Bay Area life, one of which being at last week's ill-fated Pentagram gig. Mike Scalzi (right) & co. blew my mind once again, and I now find myself in a state of frantic musical research, trying once again to digest their entire back catalog in some sort of attempt to understand the un-understandable. (Just an example: as the band launched into the epic "Vargr Moon" (it was actually "Baltech's Lament", my bad. - SC) the other night, Scalzi, previously clad in a tight leather vest with no shirt, went offstage for a "costume change" -- returning in a Dio-esque green silk shirt. Such nuanced theatrics are part of the reason this band rules so fucking hard.) Slough Feg is something of an anomaly in the metal world, a creative, dynamic band with a total of seven full-length albums under their collective belt who have been active (and touring) for 20 years but still manage to stay just an inch or so under the collective heavy metal radar. Their music is exactly the type that should be selling heaps of records these days, sort of a classic-metal Maiden/Priest/Lizzy throwback chock full of bombast, wordplay, overarching storylines and superbly calculated dual-guitar riffage. Any claims of bandwagon-jumping can be immediately dismissed by the fact that they've been playing this type of music SINCE 1990.
But despite excellent musicianship, awesome cover art and T-shirts, hooks you could fly a spaceship through, and a vocalist with a penchant for using rad words like "thrust" and "helix", Slough Feg's main selling point (for me, at least) are the myriad mythologies they use as a backdrop for their songwriting. Seriously, I can think of only a handful of bands with a vision as fully realized as Slough Feg. Through a series of concept albums, re-occuring storylines, and songs based on arcane lore, role-playing games, and comic book characters, the band has constructed an entire metal universe for the intrepid listener to venture into, a D&D nerd's wet dream which just so happens to be perfectly suited to the ideals and concepts that Illogical Contraption was built upon.
I usually won't devote an entire epic post to just one band. But as I journey further into the cryptic realms of The Lord Weird Slough Feg, I find myself compelled to share. For their universe is a strange and magical one, where every question answered presents a dozen more that aren't...

The band's biggest literary influence is definitely the British comic series Sláine (or 2000 AD), which appeared originally in 1983. Based on both Celtic and Norse mythology as well as borrowing occasionally from Conan The Barbarian, Sláine was created by writer Pat Mills and originally drawn by his wife Angela Kincaid. The storyline is rich and complex, a tale of barbarians, kings, battle and magic, perfect fodder for the heavy metal genre. It would be impossible to summarize Sláine's epic adventures in just one place, but I'll do my best to pick out some highlights here, paying special attention to sections documented in the music of Slough Feg.

Sláine began his career as a wandering warrior, banished from his tribe and accompanied only by a dwarf named Ukko and his trusty battle-axe Brainbiter (metal band name, anyone?). At one point, Sláine rescues a maiden named Medb from sacrifice to a Wicker Man (see Slough Feg's "The Wickerman", from 1999's Twilight of The Idols), the only problem is that said maiden wanted to be sacrified (the Wicker Man was a monument to her evil deity Crom Cruach), hence she becomes a lifelong enemy. So does her evil master, but we'll get to that later.
Sláine beds down with a king's forbidden daughter (as documented in "The Red Branch", from Slough Feg's self-titled 1996 debut album), and eventually ends up as the High King of Ireland himself after defeating a legion of sea demons known as the Fomorians. He is considered an incarnation of the Horned God Carnun (based on the antlered Gaulish deity Cernunnos -- MANTLERS, anybody?), due to both his allegiance to the Earth Goddess Danu and his ability to unite the good people of Earth against a common foe. Sláine also has the power of "warp spasm" (as documented by the song "Warp Spasm", also off of Twilight of The Idols), a body-twisting transformation that turns him into a raging battle monster without friend or foe. So there's that.
Later storylines in the Sláine series feature flying longships known as Sky Chariots (see "Sky Chariots", off of 2000's Down Among The Dead Men), alien gods, pirates, cryonics, and lizard-men (almost all of which are present in Slough Feg's "The Great Ice Wars"). It's some heavy shit, to say the least.

Remember Medb's "evil master" that I mentioned earlier? Well, he's also the main villain in the Sláine mythos, and goes by the name (wait for it...) THE LORD WEIRD SLOUGH FEG. That's a picture of him over there on the right. He's kind of a dick.
Allow the Fortunecity Slaine comic character page to explain:
"Eyes without life...sundered heads...piles of carcasses...these are pleasing words to me"; the favorite phrase of the great villain of this plot. Slough Feg is the old horned god, who refused to die after his seven year reign and has ever since eaten the eggs from the great worm to postpone his death for 20 000 years. Slough Feg has turned his cult towards a death cult and is now the leader of the Drunes, the worshipers of Crom-Cruach.

OK cool. Here's a sweet picture from one of the Sláine comics:

But enough about Sláine for a minute. At the risk of getting super long-winded, I'd like to talk about the Slough Feg discography for a while. As I mentioned before, these guys have put out seven amazing full-length albums between 1996 and 2009, along with a handful of demos from 1990-'96 and a smattering of split 7"s and EP's.
I'm not going to upload their discography here, because it's all available for purchase on their website HERE. Except their first one. I've uploaded that HERE (original version, does not contain bogus "bonus" tracks from the re-issue).

One more quick thing before we talk discography:

(to quote the guy who uploaded it:) "You want rare? The Lord Weird Slough Feg in a tv studio is as rare as it gets. Tiki lamp flaming! Fog machine huffing! Painted body baring! Tympanic membrane shattering! Sabre-tooth necklace rattling! Broken-bone drumskin pounding!"

(Yeah, the mix is terrible. But they're in a fucking public-access TV studio, for Christ's sake!)

Anyhow, as I've already mentioned, The Lord Weird Slough Feg's first album was a self-released affair that appeared way back in 1996. It is probably their least coherent linear statement (understandable, considering the age of the band at the time), but is remarkable nonetheless.
Consider this: Their self-titled album contained two back-to-back songs, titled "High Season III" and "High Season IV", which were sequels to songs that weren't released until several years later ("High Season" appeared on 2000's Down Among The Dead Men and "High Season II" on 1999's Twilight of The Idols -- additionally, "High Season V" showed up on 2005's Atavism). How's that for vision?
Musically, Slough Feg comes out of the gate at a gallop on this one, although the specific mythology and flair for storytelling present on their later albums is only hinted at here ("The Red Branch" being a fine example). Still, the lyrics are metal as fuck. Check out "Highway Corsair":

Ripping up the soil don't you step on my back
20,000 men stone cold on the track
Chainsaw strapped across my back
Crimson lava erupts from the cracks

Highway Corsair!!

Black streaks line my swollen eyes
Heaven tries to sympathize
Ripping up the railroad ties
Bursting vein between my thighs

Highway Corsair!!

18 wheeled explosion flies
Burning shrapnel in my eyes
Heaven tries to sympathize
Crimson funeral in the skies

Highway Corsair!!

1999's Twilight of The Idols (above) and 2000's Down Among The Dead Men (below) saw the true birth of the band, expanding exponentially on their sound but also finding focus on the aforementioned Sláine mythology. Trademark Slough Feg jams, all based in the Sláine universe, made their first appearances here, with Idols featuring classics like "Brave Connor Mac", "The Wickerman", and "Slough Feg". Idol also contained a Legend cover, as well as the puzzling, zombie themed "Life In The Dark Ages", whose mythology I can't quite place:

"Trapped in a basement room for seven long years
Molten metal will rise up out of the tears
Mortal vs. immortal
14,235 beers

Months of empty silence stifle your screams
Uninspired wretches living your dreams
Anger vs. Headbanger
Bound and gagged the mutants travel in teams"

Anyways, Dead Men has its Sláine-themed lyrical highlights too, such as "Fergus MacRoich", "Cauldron of Blood", and the aforementioned "Sky Chariots". But my personal favorite is "Troll Pack":

"Troglodytes are curious creatures
Marching through reptilian realms
Smell the blood of human invaders
Feast on their limbs, bury their helms"


Also of note are the cover images from these two albums, both of which being created by master D&D artist Erol Otus.

Not to get too far off course here, but speaking of Erol Otus...








Sorry about that. What were we talking about?

Oh yeah, Down Among The Dead Men. Check out the final track, "Death Machine" (wait for the breakdown at 1:42 - FUUUUUCK.)

But Slough Feg was just getting warmed up.
The band all but abandoned the Sláine mythology with the release of 2003's Traveller, a fully realized concept album based around the 70's and 80's role-playing game of the same name. In Traveller (the album), Slough Feg delves fully into the sci-fi wonders of space travel and interstellar war, telling the tale of a human warrior bred into slavery and genetically combined with the canine Vargr race. It's some fucking mega-trippy shit.

And how 'bout that artwork? (My Traveller T-shirt is a prized possession.)

Sing along:

"The Vargr Moon's at height
The sun that shines at night
I'm dead in the sand

The gene that drives the beast
Still rises in the east
Bisecting the strand

A caravan of thieves
Inhuman and diseased
I'm at their command

And so my fate is sealed
The Vargr plan's revealed
Dissection of man

Muscles twitch -incisions deep
Splice the gene -bisect the strand

I feel the x-rays on my brain
Dissection cannisters, alien's bane
I feel the x-rays on my cerebral cortex

Slowly growing canine teeth
Biting me out of the chains
Testing out the spores on me

The Vargr moon's at height
Escape's in route tonight
I'm leaving the sand

Revenge is what I seek
My mission's incomplete
Bisecting the strand"

The next track, "Vargr Theme/Confrontation", is even MORE epic and detailed. Read those lyrics HERE. The Human/Vargr tale is a long and involved one. Reading the lyrics to "Baltech's Lament", "The Curse of Humaniti", and "Gene-ocide" might help you undertstand. Then again, it might not.

2005's Atavism is often considered to be Slough Feg's best album, or at least their most varied. Returning occasionally to Sláine-themed subject matter, Atavism also found Mr. Scalzi focusing more heavily on sci-fi, space-and-time-travel themed lyrics, a concept the band first touched upon in the latter half of Down Among The Dead Men.
But then there's also the "atavism" aspect. What is atavism? I'll give you a hint: it DOESN'T involve big blue dudes from the planet Pandora. Wikipedia defines the word thusly:
"The term atavism (derived from the Latin atavus, a great-grandfather's grandfather; more generally, an ancestor) denotes the tendency to revert to ancestral type. An atavism is an evolutionary throwback, such as traits reappearing which had disappeared generations ago."
Now I can't claim to be completely schooled on the entire Sláine story, as my research capabilities and online resources are both minimal, but I'm guessing that Atavism documents some sort of later storyline involving cavemen and genetic recession. But I could be wrong. I also see major parallels between the themes present on this album and the 1981 Ken Russell film Altered States. But again, I could be wrong.

Lyrical highlights: "Man Out of Time", "Hiberno-Latin Invasion". There are also some really strange references to Greek mythology ("Eumaeus The Swineherd", "Curse of Athena") and American football ("Atavism") in there. To be honest, I don't really understand what's going on with Atavism. But there's this:

Remember the Sláine/Conan connection we made earlier in this post? Consider the lyrics to the goofily-titled "Agnostic Grunt":

"See them driven before you
Through the eyes of a slave
Once they tried to ignore you
Now you spit on their grave"

Remind you of anything?

Arguably Atavism's best track, "I Will Kill You/You Will Die" (corny name and bad video, I know, but how epic is the fucking song?):

The Lord Weird Slough Feg's most recent albums have been 2007's Hardworlder (above) and 2009's Ape Uprising (right), both of which being less Sláine-centric works focusing instead on more 70's/corny/sci-fi subject matter. Hardworlder seems to carry out a coherent narrative in the first half of the album, following an unnamed protagonist ("The Hardworlder"?), a space prisoner described as such (from "Tiger! Tiger!"):
"My name and occupation tattooed on my face
The stars my destiny, deep space my dwelling place
Delirious and rotting, where's my saving grace?"

Also introduced is the character "Dr. Universe", who seems to be the alter-ego of the protagonist. Again, a tough one to figure out, but reading the lyrics to the album's first five songs might help: "Tiger! Tiger!" - "The Sea Wolf" - "Hardworlder" - "The Spoils" - "Frankfurt-Hahn Airport Blues". This whole mini-space opera is followed by a Horslips cover and a couple other unconnected songs before the album ends with a Manilla Road cover (fuck yeah).

Update: Thanks to Illogical Bro Helm, I now know that the first half of Hardworlder is based on The Stars My Destination (originally Tiger! Tiger!), a 1956 sci-fi novel by Alfred Bester based on Alexander Dumas' classic The Count of Monte Cristo. Helm knows everything.

... All of which brings us back to Slough Feg's most recent effort, Ape Uprising. This one seems to be some sort of concept album landing squarely between Def Con 4 and Planet of The Apes, telling the story of, well, an ape uprising which threatens to usurp human supremacy on the planet. Albinos, nukes, and the "Nasty Hero" (one of my favorite Slough Feg creations) all make appearances in this tale, which our Bro abdul alhazred had the good taste to include in his Bromantic Interlude (via "White Cousin"). Abdul explained thusly: "This is taken from Ape Uprising, a concept album loosely based around Planet of the Apes. Here, subterranean mutants in tattered robes worship a missile god as yet undetonated." Indeed.
An epic tale about the human-simian struggle for survival.

"Hooks big enough to fly a spaceship through":

So there you go. Sorry to ramble on like that, but I've been deeply immersed in the Slough Feg Mythology this week and just wanted to devote some space to this underappreciated and ass-kicking band. These guys are FUCKING WIZARDS (especially Scalzi, who has a PhD in Wizardry) and I really can't think of a more "Illogical Contraption" band in the entire world. If, for some reason, you desire more knowledge about the band, you can obtain it at Sloughfeg.com. Or their Myspace page. Or either of their Last.FM pages: One, Two.

For the sake of keeping reader feedback to a minimum, I will now publish Manslaughter's first comment for this post MYSELF:

Manslaughter: "Dude, calm your Scalzi boner. Slough FAG."

My response: "Sorry, but I refuse."


Helm said...

I used to be way more into Lord Weird Slough Feg about five years ago than I am now though that doesn't say anything about the band, they're awesome. I mainly keep to Down Among the Deadmen/Twilight of the Idols, I dare say they repeat themselves (musically) a bit too much for to keep an interest for their full discography.

It says something weird though I am intimately aware with most if not all of the cultural signifiers the band is enamoured with. "The Stars My Destination" is one of my favourite sci-fi books, I adore the Slaine comics (mostly pre-Bizley though) and I've played Traveller both on tabletop and the old dos computer-rpg version. I expect that if I ever met Scalzi we'd nerd out 'till the sun came up. And when all else would have been explored, we'd just start talking about Brocas Helm, one of their musical forefathers and also from where I take my name.

SEANFORD said...

LA types should come support these dudes at Spaceland this month. They'll be a bunch of Fegs on the bill.

SEANFORD said...

also what year was that fog town video from? mikes a fucking hunk.

BradethQ said...

Best band on the continent, metal or otherwise. Twilight, Traveller and Hardworlder are tops for me, but there's no such thing as a bad Slough Feg album. And out of my four Feg t-shirts, the Traveller one is definitely my fav. Now I gotta track down some Slaine comics.

Erik Del Tigre said...

Not only does he front an excellent band, but Mr. Scalzi has been known to serve fine, cold beverages at The Attic on 24th and Mission. I would suggest either buying his albums or, if you're in SF, drinking and tipping heavily. The dude makes some awesome music, and awesome music and should be supported. It's rare.

Or just download it and listen to it sober, you fucking Judases.

PS - Hell. Yeah.

abdul alhazred said...

Another excellent post, Mr. Cobras. I too have been actively encouraging Slough Feg scholarship amongst my colleagues. Each new discovery seems to point to a dozen more. Daunting but worthwhile, I must say.

atanamar said...

I'm a recent convert to Slough Feg. Don't know how I managed to avoid the glory for so long. I've been ordering all the albums from the band's site. I am in love. Can't fathom the fact that I missed out on this band for so long. No matter, I'm catching up and enjoying every minute of it.
Also, glad to hear some love for Atavism. Actually heard it thrown around that it might be their worst album, which I couldn't comprehend.
Lastly, "The Stars My Destination" is one of my favorite books. "The Demolished Man," also by Alfred Bester, is similarly incredible.

Shelby Cobras said...

@ Helm:

I usually defer to your impeccable and refined tastes, but I have to disagree. Traveller at Atavism strike off into some totally unexplored territory, musically. If anything, Deadmen & Idols (wonderful albums though they are) seem almost one-dimensional. I urge you to go back and give them yet another listen, as a favor to a friend who went back and gave Rush another shot...

tookuspookus.com said...

Thanks for posting this!!! I've never heard of them before, not sure how I missed it. Always good to find something new and crazy like this...

I am now addicted. I've listened to a few, and so far Traveller is my favorite. The mind warping dog sci-fi isn't just mind blowing, its mind erasing. Much more interesting than the earlier D&D type stuff which is also very good...just not as fresh!)

Shelby Cobras said...

Just saw these guys again last night, front row center. Fuck I love this band. Glad I could be your introduction, Traveller is probably my favorite, too...

KommanderKhaos said...

Hey everyone!I'm from Athens,Greece and "Twilight of the Idols" was the first Slough Feg album I ever laid hands on and since then I'm completely into their musical/lyrical concept. Slough Feg is one of the most genuine metal bands EVER,Scalzi never got scared to take chances and re-invent Slough Feg's sound throughout those 20 years but always managed to stay true to the essense of the band. Slough Feg are fuckin' underappreciated as hell!I don't have a most favorite S.F. album,I don't even have a least favorite one and I think that every single one of them has its own great,unique atmosphere.Kuddos for writing such a rich article,this kind of support in a band means true dedication!I would just like to add that "Life in the Dark Age" deals about the band's own first 7 years of playing their music and going against ephimeral trends and it's not another Slaine/sci-fi/apemen/whatever other common Slough Feg theme based song.It's kinda weird that Slough Feg weren't really getting any attention by the fans or the media in the U.S. during the late 90s and the 00s and I hope this happens not because of this stupid current trend in which any given loser tries to immitate Maiden and Lizzy.Anyhow,I guess words like "weird" and "Slough Feg" are bound to appear in the same sentenced!
The Lord Weird Slough Feg owns!!!