Thursday 27 May 2021

Cirith Ungol - Half Past Human (2021)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 28 May 2021
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When Cirith Ungol returned last year with an album of all new material almost thirty years after they had split up, I was impressed with the music but also at how far back they go. I always thought of them as an early eighties heavy metal band, but they were formed in 1972 and just didn't release an album until 1981. As they were American rather than British, hailing from Ventura, California, the influences that drove them weren't what drove the NWOBHM bands playing in a similar style over on the other side of the pond. They came out of the early days of heavy metal, taking the core Black Sabbath sound in a very different direction.

Well, they seem to be eager to release new material, even given the constraints of COVID, so they've put this EP together and it's an interesting one because it's new material to us but not to them. These are songs that date all the way back to the early days of Cirith Ungol, but only two have ever seen the light of day before and even then not in widespread form. Route 666 was included on their 1978 demo, known as The Orange Album, but it appears here in a longer version. Brutish Manchild was first heard last year on a flexi-disc that was stuck to the cover of issue #187 of Decibel magazine.

So here they are on a full release, along with a couple of others, all four of which are re-recordings of older songs we've never heard before, unless perhaps we saw Cirith Ungol live in the seventies, which isn't going to be a heck of a lot of us, and, even if we did, we're not likely to remember much. It's been a long time. I remember loving Nuclear Abomination, a song that Paradise Lost played live back in the early days for them of 1988 and 1989 but never recorded because they apparently hated it, but I don't remember at all what it sounded like.

Modern production means that these songs sound fresh, but they're clearly a portal into a long gone era that feels more authentic because it isn't a young band trying on an earlier style; it's the actual band who wrote these songs back then. I wonder how different they are in these versions to the ones back in the day. Route 666 feels the oldest, but the guitar duel in the middle sounds utterly fresh and may well be new. Shelob's Lair is built on simple but effective riffs right out of the Sabbath playbook, one so reminiscent that it feels a little too close, so it's very seventies.

Brutish Manchild feels more recent, not least because it gets very Iron Maiden in the middle, but the core of it is still that seventies heavy/proto-doom style that's all Cirith Ungol and feels like it could be an influence on bands like Manowar and Twisted Sister. Remember how heavy the latter were on their first album? If not, check out Destroyer. This isn't light years away from some of the songs on Under the Blade until it turns into a Maiden guitar duel, because it's heavy but melodic, simple but effective and raucous but accessible.

And that leaves Half Past Human itself, which is the epic that wraps up the EP. It's almost seven and a half minutes long, so naturally features a quiet intro and it's less overt and more exploratory. When it builds, it does so with a Viking-esque choral backing that so many bands would adopt in order to have this epic feel. I like it and it reminds me that there's so much I don't know about the American bands of this era. Being British and having deep dived into rock and metal in 1984 when I found out it existed, I'm well versed in the British equivalents but, while I had Cirith Ungol and Manilla Road albums back in the day, among others, I surely still have a lot to learn. That's part of why this is so much fun to me.

What will surprise British listeners like me are the vocals of Tim Baker. Everything else kind of makes sense, even though it differs from the British style. There's Sabbath in here, along with other proto-metal bands, and there's Judas Priest in here too, but Baker has a very in your face vocal style. There are calmer moments, because he doesn't stay in the same place throughout, but it's definitely a voice to get used to. I like it, because it makes Cirith Ungol stand out from other similar bands and it serves as a real middle finger in the face of rock radio. It's not unpleasant; it's just attitude personified, not punk but with the same effect in a controlled metallic way, and it might take a little getting used to. If you can do that, then welcome to the wonderful world of Cirith Ungol!

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