CIRITH UNGOL: Back In Black


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A new Cirith Ungol-album, their first in nearly 30 years, simply can’t go unnoticed here at Metal Squadron. I called drummer and original member Robert Garven to get all the details on the long awaited comeback from what must be considered as one of the founding acts of epic heavy metal. Robert, when Cirith Ungol disolved you said that you would never touch the drumsticks again. What made you reconsider?

– Well, you know, I was pretty firm on that. And I never thought that we would ever get back together. And that’s why Greg (Lindstrom) and I put out “Servants Of Chaos” on Metal Blade, with a bunch of our old stuff that we never thought would see the light of day. And some of that, I wouldn’t say it’s embarrassing, but it was our early stuff, and it was kind of more primitive. I think we did that, because we never thouhgt it was going to be another reunion or anything. We were 100% positive of that. But then, Oliver from Keep It True started emailing me around 2003 saying: “Hey, you guys should get back together at the festival I put on every year now. It’s really popular, and people would love to see you.” I just said: “Hey, look, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen.” Then, I had a friend, Carl Valdez, who was a drummer in this punk band, Ill Repute which is a local band that is kind of well known around the world. Carl kept telling me about his buddy Jarvis, who’s in Night Demon, another local heavy metal band. Carl said that Jarvis wanted to talk to me about Cirith Ungol. For a while, I kept saying that I wasn’t really interested. I just didn’t want to talk about the band. Of course, over the years, I’ve done interviews. But really just to keep the name of the band and our music alive. I never really expected any money from it, or for us to get back together. I just thought that what we did was significant. And I thought that some of our music should be at least listened to by newer generations. So anyway, Carl kept bugging me saying: “You got to meet my friend Jarvis.” So after some time, I met him. And we talked for a while. And, you know, he said: “I’m going to put on a local festival (Frost and Fire) here in our hometown with bands come from all over the world. Would you guys consider doing a signing session?” We talked to most of the members of the band that were still around and agreed to do it. So he had a two day festival like Friday and Saturday night with bands from all over. A lot of people showed up from all over the world. And it was just a really cool event. Sunday afternoon came around with a few more bands playing. So we sat down at a table and got a couple of pens and a line of people queued up to get our autograph and have som records signed. It was quite a large number of people. I mean, we were really impressed by how many people were interested. And most of them were younger, and they probably hadn’t even been born back when we broke up in 1991. So that was pretty amazing. Oliver from Keep It True was there to check out Jarvis’ festival, and he said he wanted to talk to us across the street in this little sushi bar. Jarvis asked us what we thought about the festival and the signing session, and we told him we were blown away. He said that he was going to put up another edition of the festival next year, and wanted us to headline, right there in our hometown. That was  exciting for us to think about, so we’re kind of mulling that over. And then Oliver goes: “I’ve a similar offer. Everything is booked for this year, but if you guys are interested in getting back together and play, you can headline my 20th edition one. As a matter of fact, if you and Tim (Baker) want to come over in a couple of months to check out the one that we have going on, you are both welcome.” In our mind, we were all, you know, thinking about this as a possibility. So Tim and I went over there, checked it out, and we were really impressed. When we came back, we sat down with the band. And, you know, we decided to give it a go.

– Now unfortunately, Flint (Michael Vujejia) lived in Las Vegas, which is around an eight hour drive from where we live. And the plan was for him to play all along, but it became obvious really soon that he wasn’t going to be able to make practices just because of his job and the distance involved. And so Jarvis, since he kind of got us together… You know, he’s playing bass, he’s in Night Demon, playing in several other bands as well. Also part of the deal was he said he would manage us, if we got back together. And so, you know, it just kind of seemed obvious that if he wanted to play bass, we thought that would be a great a great addition, since he’s also a younger guy with a little bit more energy and stuff. So that’s how I decided to get back, you know, and pick up my drumsticks. The reason I never wanted to play again wasn’t because I didn’t like heavy metal or I didn’t want to play drums. When the band broke up, we were kind of bitter on a lot of stuff that was going on in the music industry and our record company at the time. So it was just like, if you had a girlfriend that you broke up with, and you said: “I’m never gonna go out on another date, ever again.” It was kind of one of those things. But I’ve been haunted over the years, I woke up in the middle of the night sweating and screaming, thinking I was in a band or we’re recording an album or buying a new drum set. So the thought of playing never left me, I just pushed it on the back burner.

Have you played the drums at all for all these years? And was it too hard to to start doing it again more regularly?

– Jarvis’s band, Night Demon, has a little band room and they let us go over there. Dusty, the drummer, let me use his drum set, so I sat in there and played for a little bit. The next step we had was Jimmy (Barraza) coming in, and we were playing some of the stuff from some of the albums that we worked on with him before. And Tim showed up one day, and I think we said: “Hey, come on over. We’re jamming.” When he showed up, we gave him a microphone and so we were all in there playing. I mean, it came pretty naturally to us. That’s one of the amazing things about a lot of people who are listening to the new album or the single “Witch’s Game” are saying: “I can’t believe these guys sound like Cirith Ungol.” Well, we are Cirith Ungol!

Through interviews I’ve read, I can almost sense that you feel you deserved a bit more back in your active period. Something along the lines you have experienced since you reformed maybe?

– Well, you know, we were buddies back in the day. We were hanging out with bands like Rush at the time. They made it big. A lot of the bands that we were hanging out with, like Y&T, we saw a lot of these bands rise up, and become really big. I don’t think we felt like we deserved a lot, but we thought our music was certainly on par with a lot of the bands that we were playing with. As a matter of fact, a lot of the bands seemed like they were kind of trendy. We didn’t really see them as true metal, at least not the metal that we grew up on. We kind of felt like we were the standard bearers. So yeah, I don’t think we felt like we deserved any attention, but we felt like we should get at least a little bit. It’s like the sunlight was shining on everyone else, and that we were off in the dark.

As you mentioned, you were kind of fed up with the whole music business. In the booklet of the compilation that you mentioned, “Servants Of Chaos”, you write that “Talents were wasted by an industry that promotes not music, but greed, and not art, but hype.” Are things really better now?

– Once again, when you’re bitter, you say things. I think what’s ironic, I talked to a bunch of people over the years. And you know, all you have to do is watch documentaries about bands on TV. I recently saw one about Led Zeppelin and another one about Kiss. Every band has been somewhat screwed over by the record companies, whether you’re a small band like us and never really sold a lot of records initially, or you were like a giant band and sold millions of records. It doesn’t mean that sometimes you don’t get money, but most of the bands have had trouble over the years, dealing with record companies or managers. When I look back on that, I think maybe I was being a little bit overly sensitive, seeing how everyone else had the same experience. That said, the internet comes in, and it literally destroys most of the major record companies, and pull up the ability to be heard, just by pushing a button, you know. You could mention a band I’d never heard of, or I can mention the same to you. I sit here at my computer, I could make a few clicks on my keyboard, and I could be listening to one of the old bands from the 1970s that almost no one had ever heard of. So I think the Internet has brought a lot of music, and music listeners together, like no one else could have now.

– Also, we were friends with Brian (Slagel) who started Metal Blade Records. Back when we first put ou our first album “Frost And Fire”, which we released as a demo to try to get record label attention, I remember one night in his record store, when we went: “Hey, you know, we have this new album. Our dream is to be famous, play heavy metal.” And he goes: “Hey, I dwant my own record company.” Over the next few weeks, we were talking with him, and he hooked us up with the guys that actually imported our record to Europe, and ended up being our record company. A the same time, he started getting his own record label together and he says: “I’m gonna put out a compilation album. Would you guys like to be on it?” This was “Metal Massacre 1”.  We said, of course, and put a song on there – “Death Of The Sun”. And, you know, the rest is kind of history. I mean, his company just took off. Now fast forward when we got back together. The first person we thought of, and the first company we thought of was Metal Blade. We had a pretty good working relationship with them back then. And now it turned out it’s been the most perfect relationship you could imagine. All the guys at the record company are really supportive of the band. As a matter of fact, several employes, especially in Europe, are big fans of the band and when we played some of the shows, they show up. It’s just an amazing situation. I think we realized that this is a company that we actually have so much history with. We’re both walking down the same path. We love heavy metal and wanna play heavy metal music, and Brian and his company has been one of the biggest promoters of heavy metal. I think that we actually found a record company that understands us and we understand them. And every project that they put out, we look at it and we talk  to them about it. And when it finally comes out, and we see it, everyone in the band is blown away.

When I listen to you, and what made the band break up in the early nineties, it seems like it was mainly outside factors, and not what you did on records, in live settings or the decision making within the band. Was it really only outside factors that destroyed the band back then?

– Yeah, pretty much. You got to look at it, we were together for so long. Remember, the first member to leave the band was Jerry (Fogle). Jerry left the band because when you’re together for so long, and you’re not making any kind of headway, it’s like you’re swimming up the river upstream. You know, you can do that only for so long. And I think you got to give us credit, we were together for 20 years at least, maybe 21 possibly, if you count when we were first starting. You don’t expect a lot of money or recognition, but you expect at least not to be drowning. At the time, we were looking for another guitarist and we brought Jimmy in, and was to actually have two guitarists. We had no intention of replacing Jerry, after all he was the original member, and an ubelievable guitarist. But somehow he saw that as threatening. And even though we tried to convince him, it didn’t persuade him from leaving the band. So you know, here we are with Jimmy playing guitar. And he was a fantastic guitarist, about 10 years younger than us, and he really felt like he was a member of the band. We’re getting ready to put out our forth album “Paradise Lost”, but then Mike Flynn, our bass player, quit the band. We had to actually go and try to find some other members to replace him just for the album. We ended up with a couple of guys that we just found locally, they played on the album, but they weren’t serious about being in the band for any long term commitment. And so right after the album was recorded, they actually left the band. So we found another bass player, Vern, and he played with the band for a while.

– Then at some point, the album came out. And there was zero record company support. As a matter of fact, I remember them telling me that they wanted me to call a couple of the record companies in Europe to see whether they would pick our album up. It was amazing, because our previous three albums have done better in Europe than in the United States. And the fact they wanted us to actually try to contact record companies overseas, was just amazing. We had signed a three album deal with Restless Records, but one day I got a letter in the mail saying they had decided not to pick up the contract for the other three albums. In quick succession after that, Vern left the band, Jimmy left the band, and suddenly me and Tim were sitting there. And we’re just kind of looking around thinking where the landscape of heavy metal is headed. All the hair bands were going on, a lot of the faster speed metal bands were popping up, and it just didn’t feel like there was a way forward for us. And so you could say it was all outside forces. And it kind of was. I mean, no one in the band hated each other. I just told you, I just watched a Led Zeppelin and a Kiss-documentary, but none of us were fighting, or angry with each other. And musically, I don’t think we were at that different odds. But let’s say you are four guys that you show up to work one day and the business you work for is gone. Let’s say it’s a restaurant and that the kitchen burnt down over the night or something. You’re standing around in the the waiting room saying: “Well, are we gonna work here today?” You see the restaurant and what is left,  and you figure, there’s no future and you go home. I think that’s what happened with the band. The music world, or at least the music listeners around the world were changing. And we wanted to still play the same heavy metal that we grew up with. Black Sabbath, early Deep Purple, Uriah Heep,Thin Lizzy, all that kind of stuff. And so we just kind of thought, if this is moving in this direction, maybe there’s no more room for us? Me and Tim looked at each other and we talked about getting some more members back together, and we talked about what we had to do bring them out or feel like we do about music, and it just seemed like an impossible task, so we just decided we’d lay the band to rest, you know.

There are countless stories of bands around, and at the same time that kind of split up because they tried to go in a different musical direction and doing more commercial or mainstream stuff. Was there never any pressure on you to do that?

– Yeah, kind of, in a way. It’s funny, a lot of the bands at the time, were starting to play really fast metal, you know, and on our third album, “One Foot In Hell”, we had a song called “Blood & Iron”, which was a little bit more upbeat. But I think we always wrote songs, not based on how fast they were, or what kind of song It was, we’d write a song, and if it was slow, it was slow. If it was fast, it was fast. But we didn’t actually try to cater to any of that. And we did talk about it over the years, we talked about where the music industry was going. But no one could see us putting on heavy makeup and weren’t women’s clothing. To us, it seemed kind of weird. I mean, it was just something that we didn’t really want to do. When we met with the original record company we signed, with, Greenworld, which turned into  Enigma, which turned into Restless Records, so we were actually with them over three different corporation- or companies’ periods, I think it was maybe after “King Of The Dead, they called us and said they had someone who was really interested in managing the band.The first thing he said was: “All the bands in LA are doing this. I’ll manage you, but you guys gonna have to change your style, start wearing lipstick, and start dressing up in womens clothing.  We said we needed to think about it, so the guy left the room and like, five minutes later, we said: “No, we’re not gonna do that.” The record company was pissed at us, and this guy said: “You guys are idiots, and you are never going to be successful. But if that’s the way you want it, that’s what you want.” He ended up working with Guns N’ Roses. He was the guy that brought them out of the shadows. You fast forward to, like, 20 years later, you know, we’re all sitting in a room going like: Man, where’s the lipstick?  But I mean, I don’t think that was the road that we were going to take. No, that’s the one thing that I’m proud of, is that we stayed true. With this new album, I keep hearing the same thing over and over again. To me, it’s like the biggest compliment you could ever get, when people are saying, the new album sounds like  we did a fifth album back in the day.

One thing that has impressed me is that there seems like you have had a plan from the start with this reunion. You have been well prepared for the live gigs, I guess you probably knew that you would only get one shot at this.

– We decided to reform in 2015 and 2016 we played our first show at the “Frost And Fire”-festival here in Ventura. Then we did Keep It True in 2017. But even though we all kind of wished there was going to be more, we were pretty sure we’re gonna play just one or two shows. We’re gonna play “Frost And Fire” here, and we’re gonna play “Keep It True”. Just because we love our music and we wanted to share it with some new generations of fans, but it seemed like more people were interested in the band so we kept playing more shows. Obviously, we’re not touring like an average band will tour. Like Night Demon goes on tour for two or three months, playing six nights a week. We can’t do that, over the time we broke up, a lot of the guys in the band had careers and families and stuff like that. And also too in the United States, our vacation time you can get from jobs, is very small, nothing like the civilized European countries, right? So we’re stuck to playing just a handful of shows every year. But that has been working out pretty good for us.

– In 2018, Tim found some information online about these guys making a movie, called “The Planet Of Doom”. We were kind of excited because on our third album, now we had a song that I wrote the lyrics to, called “Doomed Planet”. We thought it would be cool if they used our song in the movie. We contacted the producers, and it turned out they’re big fans of the band. We made arrangements to use our song for the closing credits. I’m not sure if you know about the movie, but there’s 15 different artists grouped with 15 different bands. There are no talking in the movie, it’s all just animation with the music. We wished we could have been one of these bands, and worked on a song for the movie, but we figured we missed the boat on that, and that’s how it was. Suddenly the producers called us back up and said: “Hey, one of our bands dropped out for one reason or another.You guys want to write a song for the movie?” Since we’ve never done that before, we got very excited about it. So we wrote a song specifically for the moviea and Tim wrote the lyrics to fit the storyline of the movie. And that one actually came as out as a single “Witch’s Game” in September 2018. As soon as that was released, there were a lot of reviews and people saying: “Wow, I can’t believe these guys still play the same as they did, and  sound just like they did. We hope that there’s maybe another full length album.” And even though we’ve been working on material since we got back together, I don’t think we ever thought anything would come out of it. We were just doing it, because that’s what musicians do.  As a band, you work on material. So, but as soon as we heard all those positive responses, we talked to Metal Blade Records, and we said: “Let’s do another album.” About the same time we’ve been planning on doing a live album. As soon as the band got back together, Metal Blade wanted us to do a live album for our reunion. And so that was in place, and it came out in December 2019, after it had already been in the works for around a year too. So this new thing, we were keeping it under wraps, as we just didn’t want to step on the other project we were working on. As soon as the live album came out, we kind of let people know that we were gonna have another studio album out too.

I mentioned that it seems like you have been taking one step at a time. First with a song, “Witch’s Game” and anticipating the reception of that one, then doing the live album, which is kind a safe thing to do with the quality back catalogue that you have, and so a full studio album. 

– You’re right. But you know, the longest journey begins with one single step. You did say something about us just having one shot at this. We sort of knew that. Still, I don’t think we were  thinking about that when we were writing music. It was more along the lines of: How can we write the heaviest song? We want to play the heaviest music possible. And I say this to everyone I talk to: I will let you be the judge, but we didn’t put these albums out for any other reason than our love for heavy metal and playing the heavy music. Most of us grew up on that. You know, when you go to a concert and you see a band and they’re playing super heavy, and it just blows you away. We want to be part of that! That’s it’s kind of our dream come true. Just to play the music.

So you weren’t sure when you reunited the band that there would be a new studio album?

– I don’t think we had any real confirmation of that until after “Witch’s Game” came out, but we started working on material right away. It was all kind of primitive stuff, we were just coming up with songs and we bought some digital recording equipment just to work on demos. So as soon as we wrote a song, we recorded it, we put down vocals and went back to do overdubs for some lead guitar, and maybe do a couple of different versions of it, trying to whip them into shape. After “Witch’s Game” came out, I think we realized that a new album was a possibility. I think it’s a really good song and the movie is possibly coming out sometime next year. We’ve seen all sorts of little clips, you can go on YouTube, or Instagram, and they always have updates. Some of the stuff is really amazing. A lot of the bands on the record are probably more doom metal than us, but it’s just an amazing group of artists and musicians. I think when this thing comes out, it’s gonna blow everyone away.

What exactly has been Jarvis’ role in getting the band back together? You mentioned a bit about the importance of the Frost And Fire festival, but being away for so long it was it important for you to have someone that knew the scene and the right people like he does?

– Yeah exactly, we never had a proper manager. As a matter of fact, I did most of the stuff. And I probably alienated more people than I made friends with, but I was always trying to push the band. I think Jarvis having all the contacts in the music industry, obviously he is a natural at what he does. They call him the hardest working man in rock and roll. He’s playing in five bands, and he’s managing a bunch of bands. It just was a perfect thing. And to answer your question, we wouldn’t be talking right now, if it wasn’t for him. That’s the honest truth. He is very supportive, you know. When Night Demon, go off and play on tour, we sit back at home and practice and work on songs and stuff. When he’s back, we take it up. So it’s been a really good relationship. Everyone that likes our band should thank him for getting us back together. Because he deserves the majority of the credit, that’s for sure.

He’s both playing in the band, acting as the manager and being a fan as well, that’s quite a few roles, right?  He said, In a recent interview, he said that it was his job to protect the legacy of the band. Aren’t you able to do that yourself as original members of the band?

– Well, you know, I think we’re doing that. I think what he’s talking about, is sometimes… I mean, when we signed our deal with “Paradise Lost”, we actually had a entertainment lawyer who was pretty famous, recommended by the record company.  So we went talk to him, and he looked over the contract and said: “This is a great, sign it!” And it turns out, we signed away almost all the rights for the songs and the music forever. And years later, I contacted the guy back and he said: “Oh, yeah, but that’s what everyone was doing.” We told him that it would have been something we might have wanted to know when we signed it. I think what Jarvis is talking about isn’t necessarily the musical legacy, it’s the whole legacy of the band. When wet got back together, if we hadn’t had a manager, who knows what kind of contract we might have signed or deals we would have made? To be honest, this has been a package deal. He’s been helping the band out immensely, got us back together and set us on the right foot. The music and stuff, that’s all classic Cirith Ungol, but without someone like him as a guiding force, we’d be lost in the wilderness.

Many drummers are quite anonymous in a band, but you have supplied lyrics, written liner notes, compiled stuff for compilation albums and are doing interviews. How do you see your role as a drummer compared to the usual drummer, if you if you know what I mean?

– Well, you know, I was one of the original founders, me and Greg put the band together. And we had a friend Jerry, that we brought on board to play guitars. So I was one of the original members. A lot of the drummers that I meet in bands, they’re important factors in their respective acts. Not in every band of course, but for bands that maybe never made it and became famous, a lot of drummers probably are doing more than they get credit for. My love for music is so strong and was so strong, and since this was a band that I helped found, sometimes some of these duties fall to me by default. My drumming style is very unique,  some people don’t have many good things to say about it. It is maybe like, 95% style and 5% technical ability. And I’m fine with that, because when I get all worked up, and I’m playing, no one can stop me. I like to call it performance art. I mean, for me, I’m more like a caveman in a trance when I’m playing than some proficient drummer that can play both jazz, country, rock and blues.

What about the the lyrical side of things? Did you like approach writing lyrics differently compared to what you did in the past? I guess it’s been a long time since you last wrote a lyric for a song.

– Well, you know what? I worked on f the lyrics to some of the best songs in the past. Tracks like “King Of The Dead”, “Doomed Planet”, “Nadsokor”, stuff like that. With this album, Tim has always been writing, you know, tons of lyrics. He has so many lyrics down, that we could probably put out another eight albums. So he was always writing all these really great lyrics, all very dark and dystopian.

– What I’ve always tried to do is, one song an album or something. I enjoy writing lyrics and so on this album, I wrote the lyrics to “Legions Arise”.  I wanted to do a song that would be part two, lyrically of “Join The Legion”, which was on our last album, “Paradise Lost”, and basically saying: Hey we’re a heavy band, we’re trying to spread true metal across the globe. Come join us in our fight to do that! My thought for “Legions Arise” was I wanted to say: Hey, you know, we’ve been slumbering for eons, but we’re rising now. It’s kind of like a call to arms to get all the people that either supported the band in the past or new people that like the music, to follow us and join us again  as we try to resurrect our mission to vipe false metal off the face of the earth or whatever. On the rest of the album, though, for the lyrics, Greg wrote two songs “The Frost Monstreme” and “The Fire Divine”. Those songs, I think were kind of a nod back “Frost And Fire”. Kind of episodes of the band, based on sword and sorcery and fantasy themes like that, with the rest of the lyrical content coming from Tim, all based on his dark vision of the future.

And that seems to fit quite well with the dark times we are in at the moment.

– Yeah, unfortunately! We kind of crack up sometimes, you know, Tim always shows me some interview where someone says we’re the grandfather’s of doom rock or whatever. But I mean, I think music over the centuries, plays out what’s going on around you. All you have to do is look around and see where mankind and our planet is headed and the environment. And so I think, a lot of our songs over the years, even though they’ve been fantasy based, I think some of them also portray a bleak future. Like I said, it doesn’t take a Nostradamus to look around us and see where we’re headed right?

Are there songs on the album that are closer to your heart than the rest?

– You know, actually, I like all of them. I like “Legions Arise”, the upbeat tempo of it. But you know, every song on the album is good. A few of the ones, you know, I’m more partial to than others. “Fractus Promissum” is one of those songs, there’s a cool double bass drum beat in there with a cowbell. And I’ve been recently talking with Ray Phillips, who was the original drummer in the band Budgie, which was one of my big influences. And I told him, we have a new album coming out, we’re working on a song. There’s a song that they did, which I really loved, called “Whiskey River”, which is on the album “Squawk”. It had a drum beat that I just always felt trigged by, so I told him that I, to honor him was going to try to slip one of these drumbeats in there that’s similar to what one of his was. He thought that was really cool. And you can hear that it made it through the cut.

cu-1Comeback albums, at least good comeback albums are really hard to create. What was the biggest challenge for you making this new album?

– I’d say it was time, because we were trying to finish it up for the very the end of the year, because the release of the album was to coincide with our playing a double headlining night at “Keep It True”. And with all this stuff that’s going on, you know, the concert got postponed. And there’s some talk about it even being postponed again. I’m not even sure where this is going. But you know, we were so excited to get the album out. And we wanted it on sale at the show, so we were trying to wrap up all the mixing. So I think the hardest part of it was, after it was all done, just trying to get it together. I don’t see anything difficult in there other than that.

– When you recorded before it was all on tape and now it’s digital. That came with a few different things. I think tape always sounds better than the digital recording, but digital recording is so much more flexible. Like let’s say I mess up a drum beat, back in the day, you’d have to just redo the whole song over. Now you could just drag that snare beat over into where it belongs. Same thing with doing all the overdubs. Back in the day, I remember, on “King Of The Dead” or something, we did like seven takes of lead guitar. And every one of them would be deteriorating from the first one and we were like: “Oh, my goodness, if we could have just kept those first earlier versions, maybe they would have been the best ones?” And with digital thing you can do a 100 takes, then decide to use number 99. Now we obviously didn’t do that many, but I’m just trying to explain the difference between the tape and the digital thing. Digital just is so much more flexible. Also when “Paradise Lost” came out, one of the best songs on the album, which was the title track, there was a part which I just loved and it had this chugging drumbeat and that guitar pumping. And for some reason, the way the producer was working on the album, and we didn’t have a lot of control over that, there was a part in there that was messed up. When Tim went to sing, his singing wouldn’t fit in there. I was standing there in the studio and they actually rolled the tape onto the ground and just cut it off with a razor blade. I have that rolled up somewhere in a drawer and I remember it has a little note on it saying: “The best 20 seconds of Cirith  Ungols music in our entire career.”  And that’s how I felt when it ended up on the cutting room floor. But back to digital recording, if you had that same issue, you could just go in there and reinsert the right part and continue on like nothing ever happened. So I mean, there was a bunch of great things about it. But I think also you lose a little bit of that spontaneity.

Do you feel that you have made the album that you wanted to make? Or the album you think the fans want to hear? Or is that one and the same thing in your opinion?

– I don’t know, to be honest, because I think that we were working on an album that we wanted to hear. I keep going back to that. You know, I don’t even like using the word “fan”. I always tend to use “friends”, because fans seem kind of condescending. You know, someone’s a fan of mine, or whatever. But the reality, is everyone in our band, are fans, you know. I’m a fan of other bands. I mean, there’s bands that I worship, and I’m sure there’s guys that like our band the same way. There’s definitely bands that I look up to like they’re gods. I think that’s the beauty of this, to be able to create music that other people enjoy and respond to, is the reward and why we’re in this. I don’t know if that makes sense to you, but that’s how I feel about it. I think everyone in the band, we’re writing music, to create good music. We weren’t thinking about whether this sounded anything like our old stuff .My joke amongst people is that this is Cirith Ungol 5.0, like a new version of us. I was actually worried that people would think that we changed too much. I hear people say: “Wow, it sounds like you never listened to music for the last 40 years.” I thought maybe our new stuff was too modern for our older listeners.

And but you can really hear that it’s the same band. It sounds a bit more modern, but you can still hear it’s Cirith Ungol.

– Well, you know…Jimmy’s guitar work which is just fantastic. Jarvis’s bass playing on the album also came out really good. Tim’s vocals and my drumming are so unique, and I think if he’s sang and I played drums on any song, it would sound like Cirith Ungol.

You did an exclusive track for a flexi disc coming with the Decibel magazine. Did you record even more songs?

– We did a few other things that we’re setting aside for maybe some future projects. But I want you to know, the work goes on. People were surprised that we wrote, “Witch’s Game”, but we were writing all sorts of other material at the same time. You know, this album is done, but we’re working on other material right now. And the hope is that we’ll have some future projects. I mean, obviously, there’s nothing concrete. If there was, I could tell you about it. There is  no plan to do anything after this album, but that doesn’t mean we’re gonna stop moving ahead. Like you said, one step at a time.

I know there are some people that would like you to rerecord some of your older, unreleased stuff. I think this track on the flexi disc you did for Decibel magazine is in fact an old song.

– Yeah, did you hear that one already?

No, not yet.

– Well, there are some bad versions of it going around on YouTube. It was on a flexi disc, so it probably doesn’t have the dynamic range of a full, lossless recording, but I think the song came out pretty good. And you know, people asked why wasn’t that on the album? Or why wasn’t “Witch’s Game” on the album? There’s a very simple answer to that. We conceived “Forever Black” to be an album that would be really brooding and dark. When we found Michael Whelan’s painting, it just fit to a tee what we thought the music was. We were just really excited about that. We haven’t had a full album out in 29 years, and we’re not going to have an old song that we redid on it. “Witch’s Game” is fantastic, but we released it as kind of a limited edition single. And we thought that was such a cool thing to do. I know a lot of people complained It was kind of expensive, but I think they only made 1000 records and that was probably the only amount they’ll ever make, right? And so to us, that was a really cool stand alone project.

Manilla Road is a band that you were always, maybe not compared to, but at least named alongside. What was your relationship to Mark Shelton and the music of Manilla Road?

– Well, you know, after we got back together, it was a really close relationship. A lot of the shows that we played, they were playing. So we played together, we got to know each other, the members of the band and became good friends. I mean, it’s hard to become close friends in any concert settings, because, you know, you’re in and out. But you know, we saw them play a bunch of times, and appreciated, their artistic talent and their music. But I have to be honest withyou, our whole life was about searching for music. And I remember Greg and I would go to record stores in LA, and we searched through import bins for records from all around the world. Right across the street from our high school there was a record store, and me and Greg went there one day and he pulls out this record and shows me. It’s  Black Sabbath first album, and he goes: “I wonder who these guys are?” We were looking at it, thinking it looked really cool and that the guys must be good. So, you know, we were right there when this kind of early wave of heavy metal was created. We were always trying to search out bands and stuff. And here’s the irony of this. We thought we were the band that knew every other band. You know whether it was Lucifer’s Friend or Night Sun from Germany. We listened to Budgie, Thin Lizzy’s first album and Scorpions’ first album, years before anyone in the United States even knew who they were. We were playing alongside Manilla Road at the same time, but none of us in the band never even heard any of their stuff back in the day.  People say: “How can that be?” And I don’t know, I think maybe, we were searching for more  European stuff, while we were missing the stuff that was sitting around us.I don’t think that we would have neglected someone that significant otherwise.

You have played with a lot of new bands with younger musicians as well at these festivals. What is your impression of the heavy metal scene these days when it comes to songwriting, originality, image and stuff like that?

– Well, it’s unbelievable. A lot of people have said, and this is true, that everyone’s focusing on all these bands from the eighties. Bands like us and all these the older generation of metal heads, and they say that the stuff of the new generation of guys isn’t as good. That’s just total bullshit! There’s so many good bands out there. And all these new generation of bands, especially playing the kind of epic, heavy metal that we did, are great. When the time comes for us to pass the torch, because we exit stage left for one reason or another, there is no doubt in my mind. All of these bands will be the guys to carry the torch forward. And so, you know, the irony is that, 20 years from now, you’ll be talking about all the bands, these younger bands now. We’ll be like Mozart or ancient history, right? But these new bands will be the guys that people are focused on. I guess the irony is, the grass is always greener on the other side. And, you know, people are always looking at something that they can’t have. But I mean, I think that’s the deal with Oliver and Keep It True and Cirith Ungol. It’s like, trying to bring back people that were dead, you know. Let’s bring back someone that they had no chance of hearing. And I think that was maybe some of the lure to our band. It’s like Captain Ahab chasing the white whale.  But the reality is that there’s music all around us. With the different sub genres of metal, whether you like death metal, speed metal, black metal, doom metal or stoner rock, whatever you call it, I think it’s just so beautiful that the giant metal community can embrace all these different types of music. The shows that we played with the most diverse group of bands, I think, were the most fun. We got to hear and see bands and music that we probably would have never been exposed to.

It can also be the other way around.I was considering the festival you did in Finland in 2018, but there wasn’t a lot of other bands that I like on that lineup.

– Yeah, but Blow Up was a wonderful festival. I’m not sure whether they’re going to do it again. There were some questions when it was over, with the promoter saying it might be the last one. I think with a lot of festivals, the promoter says that. Yeah. There’s so much stuff going on, it’s so tiring. That was a unique experience. It was just beautiful there. It was all rainy and stuff and cold the day of the show, but the day afterwards, the sun came out. It was just a remarkable experience. And like I said earlier, we we’ve only been to Norway for just like an hour. So, if we all make it through all this to the other end, my dream is that we can visit some more of the Scandinavian countries. They’re so fantastic. We’re really bummed out a lot of these concerts have been cancelled. And not only that, like the loss of life and the people suffering right now. It’s hard to concentrate on the music when you see so much real true pain and suffering. Our music reflects that, but once again, in no way am I trying to, by talking about the band, to diminish the real pain and suffering that’s going on in the world at the moment.

You mentioned Rush earlier. The passing of Neil Peart affected us all, but was the guy important for you as a drummer?

– Neil was one of those more technical drummers, something I could probably never achieve.But here’s the story: I had a friend in Canada and he said: Hey, I got these buddies in a band called Rush. They’re playing up here and they’re really good. They’re hard rock or heavy metal like you guys. They’re coming down through Los Angeles, if you get a chance, you should go see them. So we went down and saw Rush at Whiskey A Go Go. I think it was the first show they were playing Los Angeles, and there were just a handful of people there. So we went backstage and made friends with them, hung out with them, smoked a little pot, like everyone was doing back in the day. People shouldn’t get too upset, because it was probably really bad pot, smoking it wouldn’t even get you high. But it was kinda like a social thing. And every time they came to town, we go down and hang out with them. Other than their music ,we just became friends with them. Once again, not real close friends, but every time they came to town, we go backstage and we share stories and talk about stuff. And they were just a really good group of guys. I didn’t know that Neil Peart was sick. I guess a lot of people did, and the fact that he passed away, so untimely is just a real tragedy.

Let’s round this off with a little about your previous albums. And I would like to hear, what do you think about each one of them starting with “Frost And Fire”?

– Well, like I said, that album was originally conceived as a demo, and we never really considered it originally to be our first album.  The thing was, we couldn’t really get any response from record companies from sending out tapes, so we thought, this will really get someone’s attention to do a full album. So that was kind of like an original version of all our music, and we actually put most of the more commercial stuff that we thought would make it to radio airplay on there. When I think of “Frost And Fire, I think of the clarity in there. When I’m listening to it. I can hear the bass, the guitar, the singing and the drums. Everything is clear as a bell to me. Tim doesn’t like his voice on the first album, but to me his voice sounds like a one sided razor blade just slashing through the album.

What about “King Of The Dead”?

– A local heavy metal radio station, played “Frost And Fire” when it first came out. And they said: “This is too heavy to play on a radio station.”  So you play Black Sabbath and you play Deep Purple. How can our stuff be heavier than that? I think in retrospect, they meant it was too different, not too heavy, but just too unusually strange for them. The whole attempt on Frost And Fire” was to get radio airplay. Songs like “King Of The Dead, “Finger Of Scorn”, “Cirith Ungol” and “Atom Smasher”, those songs are from the same era as “Frost And Fire”. We left them off the album because were thinking  songs like “Better Off Dead”, “I’m Alive” and “What Does It Take” were more for radio listeners. And so when we were told that our music was too heavy to be played on the radio, we were going: “That’s our most commercial music!” That was the stuff that we thought everyone would like, right? So for “King Of The Dead”, we decided to pull out the stops, and put our heaviest music on there. And let noone tell us what to do. That was the album we probably had the most control over. My parents even loaned me money to pay for the recording, which we paid back, of course. To me the album was very heavy. I thought it was very consistent and heavy.

Moving on to “One Foot In Hell”.

– Well, we left Enigma, and we signed with Metal Blade. “One Foot In Hell” was our first full album on Metal Blade. We used a couple of different recording studios to record the basic tracks and stuff. I remember when it came out, I was really happy with it, because to me it reflected the music that we were playing at the time. And although sometimes that’s one of our underappreciated albums, I think there’s quite a bit on there that’s really worth a second listen to people that haven’t listened to in a while. My short take on that album is that it is consistent. 

We’ve already spoken a little about Paradise Lost. But let me hear a bit more what you think about that one as well.

– When it came out, I was horrified. Recently the producer passed away and I got a chance to be with him and talk with him and not only bury the hatchet, but become friends again with him, just to lose him in the last few months. It was a real heartbreak for that to happen. But when the album came out, we had very little control over their production of it. Everyone in the band went in separately to record their parts without even hearing the other people. And we weren’t allowed to be involved in that. To me, I just thought that was the opposite of how a recording should go. It should be all hands on deck. And so when I heard the finished product, I cried. When Metal Blade rereleased it recently, I had a chance to go back and revisit it. And think what’s amazing, is that some of the best music we ever did is on there. My short comment on the album is that it’s inconsistent, mainly because we put some other songs on there by a few of the members I talked about earlier. We weren’t forced to, but our band has always been a group of really good guys. So we figured, hey, these guys are playing in the band, we should put a couple of their songs on the album. The problem was, it’s obvious that they’re not real Cirith Ungol-songs. “Paradise Lost” consist of some of our best work, but there is some inconsistency, due to the songs that weren’t really technically our songs.

https://www.facebook.com/cirithungolofficial

 

1 thought on “CIRITH UNGOL: Back In Black

  1. I seen Cirith Ungol play at a little art studio in 83 or 84 in Ojai ( 20 minutes north of Ventura) , I got more into punk and hardcore (Nardcore) around that time and just kinda forgot about this band , but am happy to see that they are still kicking and playing again . Hopefully I’ll get to see them play again 37 years later .

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