I’ve been on the “genres are actually good” train for a while now, writing and expressing myself against the edgy internet people who like to say “I just listen to good music, you know?” However, I’m going to allow myself to lapse from that for this review since I do think that relying on genres too much can have detrimental effects. One of them is that whole styles of music can be lost because they don’t fit the narrative that’s currently popular in a certain cultural sphere. A good example of this is what’s often called “proto doom metal” or “epic doom metal”, which is a sort of robust form of heavy metal that existed from the early 70’s and up until the mid 80’s.
Of course outliers exist but this transitory genre was mostly formed by the connecting tissue bridging heavy metal’s awakening in the 70’s and the formation of “proper” doom metal in the mid 80’s. These bands played a sort of heavy metal but way heavier on the feedback. It still had that “epic” flair of heavy metal (which would alter be elaborated into power metal) but it put a different emphasis on it, a sort of more mid-range, boisterous tint to the vocals and their timbre. Hell, why am I wasting so many words on describing this sound when I could just tell you to listen to Cirith Ungol?
Cirith Ungol were, and still are to be honest, the quintessential epic doom metal band. With their incredible vocalist, galloping riffs that still managed to hit hard and their dedication to Michael Moorcock’s fantasy universe (mostly Elric, who’s featured on all of their album covers), Cirith Ungol were proto doom incarnate. Their first two albums, Frost and Fire and King of the Dead are mainstays for fans of the genre, forever cementing their place as a classic band, an important chapter in the development of metal that often goes overlooked. Adding to their mythological status is the fact that their last original release was in 1991 with the band more or less vanishing, except for the rare live performances in the recent few years and a single, released two years ago.
Well, guess what? Cirith Ungol are back baby and, wait for it, they are just as good as they’ve always been. Yeah, I know, I was also skeptical before I heard the album. I expected something tired, a shell of a band resurrected for money or for clout or for whatever god-awful reason these comeback albums are usually made. You can throw all of that out of the window though; Forever Black is Cirith Ungol through and through and the lads are still belting out riffs, screams, and solos that put most of the bands operating in the “throwback” heavy metal movement to shame. There’s some powerful quality to Forever Black that is the real deal, the original reason that heavy metal (and doom metal) became as big as they did.
All you need to do to sample this power is listen to “Stormbringer”, named, of course, for Elric’s infamous sword. From the guitars which open the track, possessed of a tone that is both nostalgic but somehow still gripping and powerful, to the impossible to contain main riffs, “Stormbringer” just reeks of the swagger that’s always made Cirith Ungol the band they were. Its ponderous beat is what gives it that sense of self-assurance and style, channeling heavy metal through that satisfying lens of proto-doom metal. Special attention, of course, must be given to the vocals. Their excellence is beyond just their timbre and skill but in the way they are composed, the elongated vowel on the chorus’s cry of “Stormbringer!” that makes the vocals land just off the beat, constantly reeling you back in with their unique flavor and delivery.
Forever Black has, of course, more straight forward tracks and vicious riffs that channel the heavy metal that pulses at the base of Cirith Ungol’s music. Tracks like the opening “Legions Arise”, the following “The Frost Monstreme” (named after the work of another master of early fantasy, Fritz Leiber) or the closing, self-titled track, are all about blistering aggression and in-your-face beats, delivering the kind of furious sound that heavy metal is all about. The choruses are singable, the riffs are catchy, and the overall vibe is of grandeur and wildness of expression, unbridled and running free (get it?) This is also something that has always made Cirith Ungol great, their ability to write more somber tracks like “Stormbringer” (or “Finger of Scorn” earlier in their career, for example) alongside more direct, headbang worthy tracks.
So, to sum things up, let me be clear: the undisputed kinds of epic doom metal are back. Forever Black is one of the most powerful, well made, and well delivered albums that the genre has ever created and a great reminder that it poses an essential “missing link” in the evolution of metal. The album is chock full of memorable riffs, iconic vocal delivery, and just an overall sensation of massive undertakings, tortured heroes, and fierce defiance. Long story short, it’s fucking metal, yeah? Get to headbanging.
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Cirith Ungol’s Forever Black releases on April 24th and I never thought I’d get to say these words. Oh my god, Cirith Ungol are releasing a new album.