I’m by no means lamenting the reissue of a Cirith Ungol album, but fan or not, there’s no way around the obvious fact that Servants Of Chaos is by far the band’s least-essential offering – that’s not necessarily a condemnation, so much as it’s just a statement of the nature of the beast. Servants is a double-disc collection of demos and outtakes, and while it’s slightly-more-than-half worthy, by the very definition of that, the pessimists among us will point out that it’s slightly-less-than-half not.
Beginning in the early 1970s as a more straight-ahead hard rock outfit, Southern California’s Tolkein-monikered Cirith Ungol found its stride in the following decade, with two oft-unsung classics in the 1980 debut Frost And Fire and its doomier follow-up, 1984’s King Of The Dead. Two albums and seven years later, the band succumbed to internal and external strife, with the original incarnation of Servants emerging posthumously in 2001, intended as a for-the-fans odds ‘n’ sods round-up of whatever leftovers founding guitarist Greg Lindstrom and longtime drummer Robert Garven had lying around. (One fact perhaps telling of Servants’ inconsistent quality and disjointed result is its contentious conception – Garven and Lindstrom put it together, with the latter having not been in the band since 1982, whilst vocalist Tim Baker opposed it. Generally speaking, when half your band doesn’t like the album, that’s not a good sign.)
In its best moments, Servants Of Chaos unearths some quality unheard demos, both from the band’s earliest stage and a large chunk of its later Paradise Lost era. Tracks like “Hype Machine” and “Last Laugh” appeared on the band’s 1979 demo recording, alongside an early take on One Foot In Hell’s “100 MPH” and a different version of “Frost And Fire.” These tunes show the band in their earliest, more hard rock incarnation – and as they show a good band in its growth, they’re both interesting and enjoyable snapshots of a band finding its feet. (“Frost And Fire” is especially interesting in its embryonic form, drenched as it is in Lindstrom’s late-70s penchant for cheeseball keyboards.) But halfway through the first disc, Servants sports a spate of instrumental, guitar-and-keyboard-only demos (some of heretofore unreleased tunes, although “Maybe That’s Why” ended up in finished form on Frost And Fire). This stretch of mostly boring, one-dimensional instrumental frameworks of tunes derails Servants’ listenability – without Tim Baker’s idiosyncratic yelp and Rob Garven’s drums, these songs are merely mediocre curiosities that don’t warrant a second listen. Add to that the fact that there are eight of them in a row, and they’re certainly not interesting enough to hold up almost an entire album’s running time.
Thankfully, Disc Two starts strong again with some more demos of classic material (one track from King Of The Dead, and almost the entire Paradise Lost album), plus a cover of Arthur Brown’s perennially underrated “Fire” and some live material that displays the band in their prime. This second disc mostly triumphs, but it does drift off in its very final moments, ending in a completely unnecessary and underwhelming cover of Johnny Rivers’ “Secret Agent Man” and a track of nothing but twenty-three seconds of an engine revving. Still, though the quality of these tracks may be spotty across the entire collection, when all is said and done, the good on these two discs does outweigh the bad, and two-thirds or so of Servants serves up some solid (if not essential) slabs of Cirith’s usual epic-tinged rock-turned-metal.
All told, the band here is much more important than the record. Cirith Ungol’s most essential efforts were last reissued in 1998, so if any Cirith album was due for another round, Servants was not it – truly, it would’ve been better to accept that some demos were meant to remain unheard and then to divide up the best of the goods herein and repackage them with expanded editions of the other albums… But I’m certain there are licensing issues, label woes and all other sorts of obstacles in the path of that perfect-world plan, so I’ll take this instance to say this and move along: Cirith Ungol deserves attention, although this particular album is, at best and by its very nature, intended for the already converted. If you’re new to the band and you love epic and classic metal, then check out Frost And Fire and King Of The Dead post-haste. If you like what you hear (and you should), then you should pursue further, and if you have everything else and still want more, here’s an updated version of the closet-clearing catch-all to complete your Cirith collection.