Friday 24 April 2020

Cirith Ungol - Forever Black (2020)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 24 Apr 2020
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There was an odd conversation on Facebook recently, when Metal Hammer shared the cover of their June issue, featuring Lamb of God, and pointed out that their album is the most anticipated of the year. One commenter took special umbrage because the Cirith Ungol album was about to come out and it's their first in almost three decades, their last, Paradise Lost, seeing the light back in 1991. While I remember their early eighties albums fondly, I hadn't realised that Cirith Ungol date all the way back to 1971, the year that Lamb of God's Randy Blythe was born. So was I, come to that, because he's only a month older than me. Cirith Ungol is as old as the both of us.

I'll be reviewing the Lamb of God album when it comes out because they're an important band but I'm reviewing the Cirith Ungol album right now because it ought to be seen as important too. They were a pioneering band, a solid link between the prog and hard rock of the seventies and the early extreme metal of the eighties. By the time they started issuing albums in 1981, they were helping to define not just the heavy metal of the era but where power metal and doom metal would go as well. I don't think this has the same prescience, but you never know. There's stuff here that's insanely heavy for something I wouldn't describe as extreme at all.

A good part of that comes from how rough the album sounds, though I do feel that this was a deliberate decision. The mix is strong enough for us to hear the bass throughout, so hints at early eighties production must be a choice. Mostly it's because of the wild and free vocal delivery from Tim Baker, who often reminds of Cronos from Venom, a comparison that won't leave me alone. It's there on Nightmare (not the Venom song) and The Fire Divine.

It's most overt on what is easily the album's heaviest track, Stormbringer, surely named for Elric of Melniboné's soul-eating sword, represented on the cover art. Baker is utterly raucous here, almost screeching himself hoarse as he belts out the chorus like nothing else I can think of but Warhead, the song by Venom. The point is that this isn't extreme in the modern sense that we use in the term "extreme metal", but it's absolutely extreme and the vast majority of that is due to Baker.

For a great example of how much he contributes to the impact of this album, check out The Fire Divine. These aren't extreme riffs or solos; a different guitar tone and this could be a Kiss song. Downtuned, though not so much as a modern American band would do, it's far heavier, but Baker's contribution sends it way over the edge, as if he's being burned alive by the song title. He takes it from Kiss to Venom, making this the first album that I've heard in a long while that sounds like it might scare your sister. It's hilarious that it isn't "extreme metal".

Cirith Ungol have been gone for a long time, splitting up in 1992 and taking until 2016 to reform, so I should highlight the line-up. Two founder members are here: drummer Robert Garven and guitarist Greg Lindstrom, who used to be the bass player way back. Baker came later but still joined five years ahead of their debut album. The second guitarist, Jim Barraza, showed up in 1988, so only appeared on one album before the band split, but that does mean that four out the five musicians are former members. Bass player Jarvis Leatherby only joined in 2016, when the band reformed, so he's the new fish by twenty-eight years.

I like this a lot. It's old school, with riffs and solos that I might expect from an album three or four decades ago. There's a lot of seventies here in the hard rock base of most of this material, but the sheer power is eighties through and through. This feels like proto-extreme metal, promising a future that's heavier and scarier than ever, just not necessarily in the directions that extreme metal went. Most of all, it feels honest. This band aren't on a nostalgia kick, they really feel this anger, energy and aggression and, hey, I'm feeling it too. Forever Black makes that Black Dahlia Murder album seem about as heavy as Taylor Swift. Welcome back!

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