So here is an album both well deserving of and well served by a bit of back story. A new Cirith Ungol album. The first one in 29 years. Cirith Ungol has for quite some time now been justifiably revered in the metal underground. Though as an old metal man and a Southern Californian, I can personally attest that this band was criminally under valued back in the day, over the years the sheer quality of their four albums raised their profile and won over ensuing generations.
When Frost and Fire first came out in ’81 a lot of folks did not know what to make of it. I bought it at the local record shop based on the cover and got lost in its uniquely quirky offbeat genius. A few years down the road and King of the Dead flat rocked my world. Still obviously Cirith Ungol, this was definitely in a significantly altered form: heavy as all hell, extremely unique and boasting astounding song craft. I was floored, as I was by their live shows. Two years later and One Foot in Hell was pretty much more of the same. It took some line up changes and five more years for Paradise Lost which took me a minute to catch on to. Once more this was undeniably Cirith Ungol but different from the last two albums. With time the genius sunk in and this album became very appreciated. And then came the decades of darkness and silence…
…Until Jarvis from Night Demon saw fit to bust his hump encouraging and promoting a re-birth of the beast. With a new line up sporting original members and players from every previous album plus Jarvis on bass, a come-back gig at Frost and Fire festival (set in Cirith Ungol’s home town and named for their first album) was set. To say I had some serious anxiety and trepidation ahead of this would be a large understatement. Would Tim Baker’s highly unique and highly pitched voice have held up? Could Robert Garven hold down the pummeling back beats? Would the guitar tandem of Greg Lindstrom and Jim Barraza work well together and be able to cover for the late great Jerry Fogle (they’d both been in Ungol before but one on the first album and one on the fourth)? In a strange way new guy Jarvis seemed to carry the least doubt.
The lights went down and the intro started…and then hell, fury, sledgehammers, wails, and a crushing wall of molten sound broke loose and hundreds of held breaths exhaled as jaws dropped, fists raised, and metal hearts exploded. Cirith Ungol was back and absolutely slaying with extreme class. The live show was stunning with the new line up nailing songs from every period owning each one as Cirith Ungol now. A short while later, the unexpected Witch’s Game showed that Cirith Ungol still had it when it came to song writing and studio performance. Undeniably and to the core Ungol, but altered from past incarnations – it was great and bode well for the new album.
Forever Black now graces the metal world. Bands that can maintain stellar quality over varying line ups and sounds, but can maintain a clearly and immediately recognizable identity are few and far between in the world of heavy metal. Some stadium fillers have done it (Sabbath, Maiden, and Priest come to mind) but in the undergound it is only the best that can pull this off (think Solstice, Manilla Road, and Slough Feg). With this new album Cirith Ungol solidify a place already earned in that pantheon. There are multiple moments which will remind you of each of their previous albums, but this is easily as different as all those albums (except the second and third which are pretty alike) are from each other. It is unmistakably, strongly, and very clearly Cirith Ungol: very high quality, astoundingly unique, and to the bone heavy metal.
Front man Tim Baker’s vocals are as instantly recognizable as they would be expected to be (about as singular as metal vocals get), but what is really a revelation is how comfortable and in command he is of a range that has lost just a tiny bit of the high end. There is absolutely no sense of limitation or anything missing. He and the band have delivered a set of songs that play directly to all his strengths and leave nothing out. Vocalists this unique and high pitched do not generally age gracefully but on this album Mr. Baker has nailed it with authority. Fellow founding member and drummer Robert Garven not only holds things down with iron clad solidity but manages to approach the peak mix of notice catching fills and “let the song breathe” restraint. Twin guitarists Greg Lindstrom and Jim Barraza play off each other with dexterity, spinning and slamming out a plethora of vicious head smashing riffs and piercing, soaring solos. Not to be out done new guy on bass Jarvis Leatherby fills every needed space and throws down well thought out bass runs without every abandoning the pocket. There is no arguing with the musicianship on this album at all. This is a really tight and accomplished band at work.
There is not a single clunker amongst the songs either. I am struggling a bit with “The Frost Monstreme” whose chorus seems to drift into the borderlands of self-plagiarism and is too reminiscent of the olden days. Some may love the nostalgia though and I do really dig the instrumental stuff a couple minutes in. The lyrics will again leave no doubt as to who this is weaving themselves sinuously through the band’s past history and forging forward. The song writing is nothing short of stellar throughout. The opening “The Call” sets the ominous and expectant tone well and then we’re into the rampaging, pummeling “Legions Arise” which has everything it takes to be a smashing set opener some day – highly energetic head-banging glory.
“The Fire Divine” will bring the smiles out for those with a love for Ungol’s more hard rockfish/proggish side. “Stormbringer” brings nearly every one of the band’s strengths to the table in one song. “Fractus Promissum” once more updates a 70’s hard rock song foundation into a metal nugget taking its place in line as one of many pieces of evidence that the band have a firm understanding of the oldest roots of metal. “Nightmare” swaggers and pounds like a true heavyweight. Cirith Ungol do not fuck around at all when it comes to ending this album. The back to back juggernaut of “Before Tomorrow” and the title track are a veritable cavalcade of well placed, melodic hammers to the skull and there is no let up at all as they blow out on a great section at the end of the title track. In fact the last two minutes of the title track may well be one of my favorite heavy metal album culminations ever, just amazing stuff.
For some Forever Black will be an instant revelation and for others it will take a minute to get over Cirith Ungol’s past output and realize this is not just very good, but outright great. This is an extremely welcome return of the metal legends.