Tuesday, October 3, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1056: Cirith Ungol

Before I get into this next review, I need to say a few things about Tom Petty, whose death is weighing heavily on me. At 66, Petty was too young to die, and reminds me of my own mortality or (worse) the mortality of those I love.

Petty was a giant in the world of rock and roll, and one of music’s great natural writers. Over four decades he recorded 16 albums and there isn’t a bad one in the batch. For most of that span I knew his music and liked it, and in the last fifteen years I delved hard into his catalogue and never regretted a moment of it. Obscure albums from early in his career like “Long After Dark” thrilled me with discovery long after they were first recorded, while albums like 2006’s “Highway Companion” and 2014’s “Hypnotic Eye” showed Petty never lost his gift later in his career.

I do regret never seeing Petty live, but his body of work will always be part of my life. Thanks for all the music, Tom, and good luck out there in the Great Wide Open.

OK, back to the Odyssey where a second straight metal album underscores that I’ve added a lot of metal to my collection lately.

Disc 1056 is…King of the Dead
Artist: Cirith Ungol

Year of Release: 1984

What’s up with the Cover? Seventies artist Michael Whelan did a ton of fantasy novel covers when I was growing up, but he took a little time out to do this cover for Cirith Ungol as well. An undead king faces off against a warrior, while a pack of troglodytes lurks all around them. I imagine that troglodytes serve the ancient king as a god, and won’t be too pleased if our hero runs him through with that black and very ensorcelled-looking sword.

Also featured in the top left is the Cirith Ungol logo, consisting of the band name and two kneeling skeletons facing each other. I don’t know why this is their logo, but who doesn’t love a skeleton? OK, OK – obviously not the swordsman on the cover, but if he thought about it aren’t we all just skeletons, deep down? And once he realized that, couldn’t he and that King of the Dead fellow just hug it out?

How I Came To Know It: For the second straight week, Youtube gets an honourable mention. A few years ago my buddy Ross sent me a video to check out and while I was watching I saw Cirith Ungol in the sidebar. I remembered them favourably from when I was a young metal head, but I had never gotten that deeply into them back in the day. I quickly found their 1986 album “One Foot in Hell” (which is great) but “King of the Dead” remained inexplicably out of print. Probably that whole “who is going to buy it?” thing. Me, Soulless Record Exec! I’m going to buy it!

Anyway, for years I scoured faithfully at the local record store, hoping it would show up. Then one day a couple of months ago, it did! Not only reissued, but with a thick cardboard box, full booklet and even a bonus concert DVD (the latter not being the greatest part of the package, but more on that later).

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Cirith Ungol albums – the two every metal fan should have. Of the two “King of the Dead” is the best so…#1!

Ratings: 4 stars

Listening to Cirith Ungol I couldn’t help but think just how heavy they would have been back in 1984, and how influential they were on so many bands that followed, particularly Doom Metal. The last album I reviewed (“The Sword’s” 2006 record “Age of Winters”) definitely has some of its roots in this next record.

You can’t influence future bands unless you are pumping out some solid tunes, and Cirith Ungol definitely did that. They had a short career (only four records over 11 years) but they had a lasting influence on metal fans in the know. There is no better legacy for their work than “King of the Dead” the heaviest, doomiest, most glorious of all their albums.

Despite eighties production values, which tend to make things sound a bit tinny, the power and crunch of Cirith Ungol comes through beautifully, as they chug their way through songs that regularly exceed six minutes but never feel overlong.

Lead singer Tim Baker is an acquired taste, as he warbles and screeches his way through the record. His vocals are high and piercing but surprisingly majestic. He sings with an organic fury and has a natural feel for when to snarl or growl his way over Jerry Fogle’s sludgy guitar riffs. Personally, I love his style and don’t think Cirith Ungol would be nearly as interesting with someone else.

Fogle is also solid. His guitar solos are thoughtful, with a thick and powerful tone, and he knows how to stay connected to the melody while noodling. At one point he even tackles Bach’s “Toccata in Dm,”replacing organ with guitar. I’m not a huge Bach fan, but Fogle made me a believer.

Like a true metal band, Cirith Ungol love history, fantasy and literature – one of the features of metal that initially drew  me to that kind of music as a teenager. Hell, the band takes their name from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where it is a tower in Mordor guarded by the giant spider, Shelob. That is some kind of awesome.

In addition to singing about “Cirith Ungol” (which they convert to a “Tower of Fire”) they also sing about Satan on “Master of the Pit” and the titular “King of the Dead” who is identified as follows:

“Crown upon his head
King of all the dead.”

Frankly, I think it would have been the fleshless skull that gave it away, but whatever. Regardless, the way Baker shrieks out “KING OF ALL…THE DEAD!” makes everything awesome. He’s a sucker for the proper nouns, and gives equal heroic treatment to “MASTER…OF THE PIT!” and “CIRITH UNGOL…TOWER OF FIRE!” You feel like you know these people and places.

These songs also bring out the best in the band, as they cross doom and gloom riffs with lyrics that are simultaneously terrifying and rebellious. Cirith Ungol isn’t worshipping the Master of the Pit, they’re warning you to keep the hell away from him. Public service announcements were never so cool. Also, the guitar solo on “Master of the Pit” is a thing of beauty; one part fury of the LA Freeway, one part Fall of the House of Usher.

The original album was a tasteful eight songs and 45 minutes, but my copy is a special edition with five more live tracks (two new ones, and three tracks where the studio version is already on the album). Together, these songs add 30 minutes of time to the record, but very little in terms of extra quality. The live tracks are not that well recorded, and mostly had me wishing to listen to the originals again. There is also a second bonus DVD in the package of a 1983 concert at the Roxy in West Hollywood. The sound on the DVD is so bad I couldn’t make it to the end (fortunately this is not the DVD Odyssey).

However, none of these things ruined the masterful original record, which shines through despite all the excess of the special content. “King of the Dead” is laden with tracks that are underground metal classics and a must-have for any metal enthusiast…once you find it.

Best tracks: Black Machine, Master of the Pit, King of the Dead, Cirith Ungol

No comments: