The Tower Of Cirith Ungol: A Personal Journey, A Band Primer, And A Look At Forever Black

My first encounter with Cirith Ungol occurred approximately 34 years ago. Yes, that means I’m old enough that daylight savings now causes a unique form of jet lag, but it also means I was lucky enough to grow up during metal’s grand Era of Prosperity. It was about 1986, and I was a NERD—capitalized for emphasis, as I had a terrifically hard time fitting in and was obsessed with any sort of fantastical outlet that ferried me away from the reality of shyness, algebra, and Ronald Reagan’s giant head. I read endless fantasy books, played Dungeons & Dragons, Star Frontiers, Palladium, and Stormbringer, and I was completely possessed with a need to explore every branch of metal. To give an idea of where I was coming from, a few of my favorites records up to that point included Fatal Portrait, Epicus Doomicus Metallicus, Metal Church, The Spectre Within and Walls of Jericho.

Back then, catching a ride to the record store was a big deal for any kid getting into the heavy, because the metal sphere was a powder keg of activity and you never really knew what you were about to encounter if you were lucky enough to have a store in your vicinity that employed a scruffy ripper with a knack for keeping things fresh and well stocked. Death, Satan, magic, myths, history, pyramids, UFOs, turbo lovers: Seemingly anything enticing, sinister and / or peculiar was emerging from heavy metal—like randomly opening a freaky, verboten version of World Book Encyclopedia and poring through with the appetite of an apprentice.

It was a used LP copy of King of the Dead I came across on that crucial day—an original Enigma E-1089 copy that still glows on my shelf as I type these words—and the first thing I remember thinking was, “Why on earth would anyone trade in something with this fucking album cover?” Many of us had been duped before, though, thanks to bands like Molly Hatchet, and pocket money was hard enough to come by that any new enthusiast was all but guaranteed to spend at least twenty minutes weighing the pros and cons of a potential acquisition before finally agreeing to slide it onto the front counter.

King of the Dead was a fairly easy sale, though, thanks to the album’s title and Michael Whelan’s preposterously alluring Michael Moorcock / Eternal Champion / Bane of the Black Sword front cover artwork. Plus, praise the gods, the back of the record gave a peek at the members to ensure it wasn’t some hillbillied jam band laying a trap, and the photos pretty much ticked all the necessary boxes: Jerry Fogle sported the sort of flying V that flew in most every degenerate’s dreams, vocalist Tim Baker had apparently walked right off the set of The Beastmaster, Michael “Flint” Vujejia looked like Steve Harris’ cousin, and Rob Garven and his massive kit appeared to rise out of the mists of a swamp to take on a monstrous form that, in hindsight, just had to inspire a fellow like Chris Reifert.

Still, nervousness loomed when I first dropped the needle on the platter, as it did for most everyone’s blind-buys back then, and very little could’ve prepared me for the way King of the Dead kicks off, as quite literally nothing else came even close to sounding like Cirith Ungol in the early / mid-80s. “Atom Smasher” commences with an abrupt woooosh before drums and guitars introduce what the listener might assume stands out as one of the band’s clearest eccentricities: an almost impossible bounce to Flint’s bass tone. But then Tim Baker abruptly “welcomes you to the brave new world” and the doors blow so far off the hinges that you immediately forget why doors even existed in the first place. And therein lay the most probable rationale as to why the album was found used: Baker’s is a voice that offers a very to-the-point “all or nothing” ultimatum by sounding like some sort of lunatic half-man half-hawk that’s dealing out warning shots from a burning pulpit, and he never relents for a single moment throughout King of the Dead’s 45 minutes.

But where someone had clearly found a roadblock, I discovered a king’s ransom; I loved essentially every aspect of metal, but I was particularly motivated by dynamic vocalists, including those who chose to dip a little heavier into the jar of eccentricities. Proficient wailers such as Tate, Dickinson, and Halford inspired me considerably, but the more unconventional howlers solidified my early love of bands like Fate / King Diamond, Metal Church, Fates Warning, and Trouble, and Cirith Ungol raised the bar to unprecedented heights.

The rest of the band’s material was harder for me to come by back then—we all prospered and died by the grace and savagery of whatever our record shops could or would get in—but I eventually tracked down 1981’s Frost and Fire, 1986’s One Foot in Hell and even the ”complicated” Paradise Lost from ’91, all of which will get attention below. However, the next biggest Cirith Ungol event for me wouldn’t occur until nearly twenty years later around 2005 when I found myself arbitrarily combing eBay for Cirith Ungol merch and came across a charming long-sleeve listed by someone called frost_fire1 that turned out to be none other than original (and now current once again) Cirith Ungol bassist / guitarist / keyboardist / songwriter Greg Lindstrom. A relatively brief yet felicitous back and forth shed light on Greg’s other band, Falcon (with Perry Grayson, formerly of Destiny’s End and Isen Torr, plus Darin McCloskey of Pale Divine / Righteous Bloom), and a few days later a package landed on my doorstep that included not only said long-sleeve, but a treasure trove of ancient Cirith Ungol articles and flyers, plus a Frost and Fire pin and an autographed photo of Lindstrom killing it on his bass.

Highlighting this part of story has naught to do with boasting, and it might seem irrelevant to the task at hand, but it’s important to occasionally spotlight those all too often rare cases where a band you love happens to be comprised of virtuous people who go above and beyond to reciprocate appreciation. There is a strong likelihood that anyone who counts friendship with the Ungolers—whether firsthand or through the benefit of social media—would corroborate that conviction. In other words, in a world where many elect to separate the artist from the art for reasons as long as my arm, it’s reassuring to come across instances where money spent supporting an artist ends up in the pockets of people you’d actually enjoy hanging out with. This is definitely one of those cases.

When rumblings of activity in the Cirith Ungol camp first started to surface about four years or so ago, many of us were faced with the same sort of nervous excitement that’s forever encountered once a narrative you were sure had permanently closed suddenly starts bristling with life again. We face it with cherished books, movies, bands, and any and all other forms of entertainment—all too often with pitiable results. The roll of the dice is always worth it, though, because humans are morbidly curious creatures that happen to be haunted by a thirst for eternal life. But to think that new Cirith Ungol material would ever see the light of day after 30 years of dormancy? LUDICROUS… And perhaps even a little disturbing, considering the fact that theirs was a terrifically unique presence that seemed mostly relevant for a scene locked in terrifically bygone years. Cirith Ungol’s impact was largely fueled by their peculiarity—could it have anywhere near the same potency and effect in a scene that currently features the likes of Portal, Devourment, Sigh, and Teitanblood mincing our brains?

In the end, that part of the equation doesn’t really matter; the typical metal fan fixated on the underground has had their extremity threshold clobbered to the point of comfort ages ago, and so long as the fruit tastes good, people will consume it. Lucky for us—we legions summoned in Forever Black’s startling opening statement—the band’s first full-length in 30 years is exceedingly impactful just by virtue of its ability to still sound like Cirith Ungol. Did we ever think that could happen?

In celebration of the April 24th release of Forever Black, I decided to… well, write a tower of words, apparently; it’s difficult for someone who’s accustomed to rambling to not get overly excited for an auspicious occasion such as this. If you’d rather just read up on the new record, simply jet on down to the bottom of the article. You might need a headlamp by the time you get there, though. Hey, it’s Cirith Ungol: There’s a lot to say about this magical band.

The passage seemed to go on for miles, and always the chill air flowed over them, rising as they went on to a bitter wind. The mountains seemed to be trying with their deadly breath to daunt them, to turn them back from the secrets of the high places, or to blow them away into the darkness behind. ~ The Two Towers

FROST AND FIRE

  • Release: January 1981 through Liquid Flame Records (the band’s own label—desperate times require desperate measures)
  • Players: Greg Lindstrom – guitars, bass, keyboards, e-bow, songwriting; Tim Baker – vocals; Robert Garven – drums; Jerry Fogle (R.I.P. 1998) – guitars
  • Production team: Randall Jackson – executive producer; Tim Nelson – engineering; Chris Bellman – mastering
  • Album artwork: Longtime friend of the band and all around hero, Michael Whelan // Stormbringer (1977)

It’s amazing to think that Black Sabbath had already released nine albums by the time Frost and Fire hit the streets, and Judas Priest had six. Both bands also dropped new releases in 1981, the latter (the fairly underrated) Point of Entry a month after Cirith Ungol’s debut, and Sabbath firing off the mighty Mob Rules nine months later. Point being, despite metal still being considered in its infancy back in 1981, Cirith Ungol already had a lot of imposing competition, thanks in a large part to the NWOBHM and releases such as Killers, The Nightcomers, High ’n’ Dry, Rock Until You Drop, Spellbound and a little something called Welcome to Hell. (Not to mention outliers that included Fire Down Under, Moving Pictures, and Fire of Unknown Origin.)

Common for the time, Frost and Fire blended an almost equal share of rock into the metal mixture, so in spite of the fact that it’s instantly clear the record developed from the same band that would release what’s widely considered Cirith Ungol’s heaviest highpoint three years later, a fair share of Frost and Fire sounded as if the band was at least mildly hoping they’d get discovered and end up sharing the same niche radio space that vaulted BÖC and Rush into the mainstream. “A Little Fire” and “Edge of a Knife” coulda-shoulda-woulda landed on 107.7’s “up and coming bands” during prime late-night hours, but “What Does it Take” got a little too weird with those marvelously peculiar keys and a notably proggy bounce, and “Better Off Dead” missed the target entirely. The opening title track, “I’m Alive” and the instrumental closer “Maybe That’s Why” all served as launching points to the next level of heavy, though—Greg Lindstrom and Jerry Fogle’s guitar play pops and scampers like wildfire here, while Tim Baker’s voice sounds like some sort of mythical creature from a Robert E. Howard story.

KING OF THE DEAD

  • Release: July 2nd, 1984 through Enigma records
  • Players: Tim Baker – vocals; Robert Garven – drums; Jerry Fogle – guitars; Michael “Flint” Vujejia – bass
  • Production team: Brian Slagel – executive producer; Tim Nelson – engineering; Cirith Ungol – production
  • Album artwork: Michael Whelan // “King of the Dead” // The Bane of the Black Sword (1977)

Beyond completely leveling youthful metal rookies in the 80s in a similar manner as described in the opening paragraphs, King of the Dead is widely saluted for being one of the original building blocks of doom metal. This was, of course, before we even knew to call dark, decelerated metal “doom,” but nevertheless the absolutely deadly three-pronged stretch of “Black Machine,” “Master of the Pit,” and “King of the Dead” all lingered with a notably sinister edge that wept down walls like poisonous venom from a colossal spider. And fortifying the doomy spell even further was “Finger of Scorn,” a slow and deliciously wicked drifter that sounded just as likely to have floated off Don’t Break the Oath, which, coincidentally, landed a mere two months after King of the Dead—what a year for metal.

“Death of the Sun” was the most fiery cut of the bunch here, and while it sort of stood out like a bouncy castle in a graveyard, it also provided a rather bracing launch to side B, as well as doing the service of painting a picture of what was to come for this group of young adventurers.

ONE FOOT IN HELL

  • Release: August 12th, 1986 through Restless / Metal Blade Records
  • Players: Tim Baker – vocals; Robert Garven – drums; Jerry Fogle – guitar; Michael “Flint” Vujejia – bass
  • Production team: Bill Metoyer – producer; Brian Slagel – producer
  • Album artwork: Michael Whelan // Urish’s Bane (1976)

By 1986, heavy metal was soaring in from virtually every corner of the globe. And while plenty of bands were still pushing a perfectly serviceable pace from realms of fantastically fantastic fantasy (aherm, The Deluge and Awaken the Guardian), the general trend was headed toward more extreme waters that resulted in monoliths such as Master of Puppets, Pleasure to Kill, Rrröööaaarrr, Power and Pain, and Obsessed by Cruelty.

For their part, Cirith Ungol increased the speed, increased the power, and increased the… Well, yeah, those things. But it wasn’t like record number three suddenly came across like a shift from a soapbox derby car to an IROC-Z runnin’ from the fuzz (apart from the obvious “100mph” that hits smack dab in the record’s center). These songs did indeed inject an extra dose of OOMPH, though—one couldn’t ask for a ballsier, more thumping opener than “Blood & Iron,” and “Nadsokor” is one of the most triumphant songs the band ever crafted.

But what One Foot in Hell did in spades was prove without a shadow of a doubt just how underrated Jerry Fogle was as a lead guitarist. His fret sorcery is remarkable throughout each song on One Foot in Hell, and one listen to the way he closes out an otherwise brisk “War Eternal” with the album’s most emotionally gutting and smooth lead around the 3:40 mark is nothing short of sheer euphoria.

Sadly, Fogle became jaded with the direction of the band and lack of celebrity following so many years of tireless effort, so he left a year after the release of this record. The decision was detrimental, as not only did this result in his quitting guitar altogether, he drank to the point of liver failure in the decade that followed his departure. Yet another regrettable end for a criminally unsung talent. You are definitely missed, Mr. Fogle.

PARADISE LOST

  • Release: August 23rd, 1991 through Restless Records
  • Players: Tim Baker – vocals; Robert Garven – drums; Jim Barraza – guitars; Vernon Green – bass; Joe Malatesta – guest guitar on “The Troll”; Robert Warrenburg – guest bass and vocals on “Heaven Help Us”
  • Production team: Ron Goudie (R.I.P. 2020) – producer, engineer; Jeff Cowan – engineering; Chris McDonald – engineering, mixing assistant; Don Tittle – mixing assistant
  • Album artwork: Michael Whelan // Sailor on the Sea of Fate (1976)

Where to even begin with a record like Paradise Lost

Cirith Ungol was already in a volatile state prior to the release of Paradise Lost. Years spent toiling and producing high-quality records still didn’t afford them an opportunity to tour outside of the U.S., and the decision to bring in Jim Barraza as a second guitarist to complement Fogle’s leads ended up making the latter feel as if his role had been diminished, so he left. Flint wasn’t far behind.

Adding to the unrest was a highly inconsiderate and unorganized Restless Records pulling the control the band once had in production matters in favor of allowing Ron Goudie and Gold Mine Studios sole authority over a new direction that was cleaner, brighter, and more commercial. The results were, to put it mildly, disheartening and frustrating, and things deteriorated quickly. Notable calamities that followed the production: 1) the band didn’t receive personal copies of the album, so Tim Baker had to buy it from a record store, 2) no member received royalties from sales, and 3) Rob Garven famously wrote his own review of Paradise Lost for Metal-Archives, giving it a rating of 50%.

As it happens, time and distance have revealed Paradise Lost to be… a pretty good record! Sure, there are some awkward moments—Joe Malatesta stood in as a guest guitarist, and his contribution (“The Troll”) is fairly clumsy, and the cover of Arthur Brown’s “Fire” doesn’t really seem to fit. But the song guest bassist Robert Warrenburg wrote and provided vocals for, “Heaven Help Us,” is actually pretty fun, and the cover tune from Barraza’s previous band Prophecy, “Go it Alone,” while certainly more Dangerous Toys than Cirith Ungol, still has an irresistible swagger and a surprising pinch of panache. Overall, it’s probably not the sort of record that most reasonable Ungol fans would rank at the top, but it’s surely worth owning because of bangers like “Join the Legion.”

Unfortunately, all the grim circumstances surrounding the Paradise Lost‘s release led to the band breaking up, and Garven went so far as to swear off drums forever.

Thankfully, however, the Cirith Ungol story didn’t end there…

FOREVER BLACK

  • Release: April 24th, 2020 through Metal Blade Records
  • Players: Tim Baker – vocals; Robert Garven – drums, Horn of Chaos; Greg Lindstrom – guitar; Jim Barraza – guitar; Jarvis Leatherby – bass
  • Production team: Jarvis Leatherby – executive producer; Cirith Ungol – producers; Armand John Anthony – producer, engineer, mixing; Arthur Rizk – mastering
  • Album artwork: Michael Whelan // Elric in Exile (2019)

Blessed be the magnanimous heroes behind the organization, cultivation and prolongation of our world’s most esteemed heavy metal festivals. Can I get an Amen?

It’s all too easy to lose track of how often a fest serves to inspire a long dormant band to reignite the fire for “one more go of things.” Events such as these often lead to the realization of just how much the fans have missed the band and vice versa, and the upshot is new material that (hopefully) confirms said band continues to have enough gas left in the tank to launch them well into the future.

In this case, fans of Cirith Ungol owe Jarvis Leatherby—Night Demon main man and organizer of the Frost and Fire Festival in Ventura, California—a lifetime supply of Turtle Wax for hauling in Tim Baker, Robert Garven, Jim Barraza, and Greg Lindstrom to the 2nd annual F&F Fest on October 8th, 2016. The show was clearly a significant success, and the years that followed resulted in more festival bookings, a new single in 2018 (“Witch’s Game”—for a yet-to-be-released animated film called Planet of Doom), a true ass-kicker of a live album, and the assimilation of Leatherby directly into the fold as bassist and band manager (Iron Grip Management). Now, 29 years after the release of Paradise Lost, Cirith Ungol is finally back with the appropriately titled Forever Black.

Album number five is, simply put, everything a fan of Cirith Ungol could ever hope for concerning the next chapter. The band has always had a knack for opening with an absolute banger, and “Legions Arise” is truly that in abundance. The production is modern and “clean,” but it doesn’t sacrifice the necessary raw edges, and there’s little doubt that Baker’s early call of “So rise like the chosen you all have become / We march forth in battle, together as one” won’t reach the ears of even the most vintage-minded troglodytes buried in the deepest recesses of the underground. “Exhilarating” might be the easiest descriptor; “massively fucking exhilarating” would be the more scientific designation. From that point forward, the record finds the band reaffirming a decades-old foothold, and it delivers precisely the sort of swagger most of us hoped would follow One Foot in Hell.

Those with a predilection for the more epic, story-teller side of Cirith Ungol will drift right back to an alternative Earth with the winding “Stormbringer” and the superbly robust “Before Tomorrow”—the latter of which drops one of the record’s tastiest riff break-outs around 1:50 and immediately flows into a magnificent lead. The closing title track travels similarly, but it does so with an old familiar dip into doom that eventually gets vaulted into the stratosphere at the insistence of another fiery lead (I wish the liner notes would designate who’s responsible for each), and then Baker screeaaaams the album to a climactic termination that’s just pure Ungol poetry.

Perhaps one of the biggest surprises, however—beyond the fact that Baker appears to have lost virtually zero percent of his delightfully leathery rasp—is the fact that some of the highest summits here are achieved by the cuts that enhance the strut even further and celebrate Ungol’s long-standing penchant for hard rock—something that occasionally divided listeners in the past. There is simply no denying the gold plated swagger behind “The Fire Divine” (what a chorus) and “Fractus Promissum,” the latter of which sparks enough braggadocio that it can probably be seen from space.

There’s really not much to grumble about here, especially considering how long it’s been since these guys stepped into the studio to attempt to conjure a little fire. All parties play off one another as if they’ve been secretly gathering under the shadow of night without anyone being the wiser, and the whole package—the production, the artwork, the message, and most certainly the potential for things to come—fires far enough through the roof that you can fully expect to see Forever Black gracing a number of year-end lists.

As a conclusion, and after having sat with the promo for this record for some time, I now offer my updated rankings for the band’s discography as an extra bit of fun. I’d be very curious to see how it places for others as well.

1. King of the Dead

2. Forever Black

3. One Foot in Hell

4. Frost and Fire

5. Paradise Lost

«»

King of the Dead Insert

 

Posted by Captain

Last Rites Co-Owner; Senior Editor; Handsome & Interesting Man; Just get evil all the time.

  1. I would rank them as such:

    5. Paradise Lost (4/5 stars)
    4. One Foot in Hell (4.5/5)
    3. Forever Black (4.5/5)
    2. Frost & Fire (4.5/5)
    1. King of the Dead (5/5)

    Great article.

    Reply

  2. He tries to
    just look out the window
    into the desert
    and it’s five degrees below zer0

    Reply

    1. I lapped up to the bay bar and I saw her bobbing like a wave

      Reply

      1. stabeightyeight-year-old-american

        Reply

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