Heavy Rewind – The Rise and Fall and Rise of Cirith Ungol

Some bands might never get the credit they deserve. Whether by chance, a poor case of timing or the failures inherent in the music industry, these bands get overlooked and, even if their names aren’t exactly forgotten (since there will always be some fanatics keeping the flame alive), their importance to the metal community is erased by time and the sheer volume of music released in the last few decades. These bands remain true and dear to their followers but fail to resonate in a wider sense, even as time goes on and music consumption changes; sometimes, the proliferation so characteristic of the Internet age, for example, is even to their detriment, burying them under the noise of lesser emulations.

Luckily, sometimes, in rare cases, such bands can return. Whether this return involves an actual, physical reappearance of the band members or a renewed interest in the music and recognition of the importance of it to the history of metal, it is something to be cherished and celebrated. One such case is Cirith Ungolone of the first metal bands. Formed in 1972, Cirith Ungol was one of the bands to first play what will later be recognized as doom metal but also contributed much to progressive metal and power metal, the latter mostly through their lyrics, cover art and track names. And yet, five or so years ago, no one outside of very dedicated circles was even aware these guys existed; what happened?

 

The main thing that happened was the music industry. If you think some labels are bad now, operating with little to no oversight in the field of contracts and IP, then you should read into the history of the business structure. Things used to be a lot worse and predatory labels was just the business of the day. The stories are plentiful and Cirith Ungol’s rings familiar to many of them; frustrated by the label’s complete control of their artistic direction and freedom, Cirith Ungol broke up, right after releasing what was ultimately their last album, Paradise Lost. Their albums were lost to the void of intellectual property limbo for years; indeed, Paradise Lost is still not properly released by the band, instead remaining in the clutches of their one-time label.

Fans of the band, who (like myself) kept discovering it by word of mouth and back-of-the-room CD shelves, kept the flame alive and constantly demanded to see the band given the credit they deserve. You see, echoes of Cirith Ungol can be found all over the metal community; in the sounds of the trad metal revival certainly, but way before that in the waves of power metal during the mid 90’s, the resurgence of doom metal we’ve been seeing recently and in other places far and wide. But the name was gone; Metal Blade, god bless them, released Servants of Chaos in 2001, a collection of demos and rare recordings from the band but, other than that, there was no word or sound and it appeared that Cirith Ungol had disappeared. The untimely death of Jerry Fogle, guitarist and founding member, did not help to the chances of the band ever coming back either.

But, somehow, Cirith Ungol are back. Not only has the band returned to play live shows back in 2015 (and are now headlining festivals again, sometimes festivals dedicated to their own legacy) but Metal Blade Records have also released a phenomenal remaster of King of the Dead, my personal favorite Cirith Ungol album. And, after this long ramble, this is what I’m here to talk to you about; King of the Dead, both the original and the remaster, are incredible albums, important for their contributions to the metal community.

 

First, the original; King of the Dead is where Cirith Ungol shifted their sound from their earlier ideas and towards a more progressive approach, blending the sounds of bands like Rush with those of Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. Adding in their own unique fuzz to complete the proto-doom sound, Cirith Ungol made something truly unique with King of the Dead, a blend of sounds which has been equalled very few times since. Check out the title track for example; the prominent bass (further glorified by the remaster), the unique guitar tone and the signature vocals all make this track a fantastic piece of music. Other bangers include “Finger of Scorn”, whose unique vocal inflection and time signatures foreshadow Death‘s work by a few years. All of these elements make King of the Dead an important record for its time but also surprisingly modern and still relevant.

Second, the remaster; the Ultimate Edition of King of the Dead (accompanied by live recordings of several track) is a true wonder of technical work. While preferring the original is a perfectly understandable position, there’s no denying the technical puissance of the remaster. It’s handling of the instruments is near perfect, preserving the characteristic “space” between the different instruments that reigned supreme during the time of the original recording. The work on the bass is especially impressive, conveying the beautiful tone of the original work while doing much to clarify and solidify the sound. The second high point are the vocals, reproduced in startling clarity. This remaster returns King of the Dead to us and, released in April of this year, has done much for the resurgence of the name of Cirith Ungol.

And thus, Cirith Ungol have returned. I’ve seen their name pop up in many an outlet, which is to be expected since those outlets are usually run/contributed to by the selfsame fanatics who kept the Ungol name alive all those years. But I’ve also seen people outside of those circles sharing and enjoying this remaster and with good reason; it still remains one of the best metal albums ever released. Coupled with the rest of their albums, all of which are excellent, this release makes up the sadly short discography of one of the unsung heroes of metal’s genesis and early years. It is a true pleasure to be able to see their name return and their popularity increase; we’d all do well to sing the Cirith Ungol far and wide, as one of the building blocks of this sound we so love.

Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.