Monday 6 November 2023

Cirith Ungol - Dark Parade (2023)

Country: USA
Style: Heavy Metal
Rating: 7/10
Release Date: 20 Oct 2023
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Cirith Ungol have only been back for a few years now, having reformed in 2015 and played the first gig in their new incarnation in 2016, with four previous members of the band in the line-up, Jarvis Leatherby joining on bass at that point. However, they released a strong and very heavy album in 2020, Forever Black, and followed up a year later with a solid EP, Half Past Human. COVID over, it's time for another album and Dark Parade continues in the vein for which they're well known. I hope to hear more but the cracks are starting to show: Jim Barraza, who plays guitar again here has apparently left the band and I hear that they're about to retire from live performances.

I liked Forever Black a lot and relish any new release with Tim Baker's unmistakably raucous voice. There are bands who try to sound commercial and bands that try to sound extreme. Baker is more extreme than most of the latter and he isn't even trying. It's just how he is. It's a huge voice and it tends to feel louder than it is, however loud you happen to be playing his music. He hasn't lost any of his power over the years and, if anything, he's just as good today at sixty-seven.

This album isn't as good as its openers, but for a while it's an absolute belter. Velocity (S.E.P.) is an impressive opener, up tempo for Cirith Ungol with a guitar solo to lead off. It's precisely the sort of song to open a live set because, if the audience doesn't respond to this, then they're probably not going to respond to anything. Relentless is more like what I expect from this band, slow and heavy but with melody and drive. There's Metal Church in this one and Metallica but there's also plenty Accept. And yes, I'm well aware that Cirith Ungol predate all of those bands, having been formed as far back as 1971.

Nothing else matches those two, but there are some wonderful moments. There's a nice flamenco guitar on Sacrifice, not only as an intro but also within the song itself. Baker is on fire on that song too, its slow and impeccably heavy pace tailored to his recognisable raucousness. Talking of vocals, there's a joyous contrast on Down Below between Baker and an unknown female voice. It isn't the usual beauty and the beast contrast between a clean soprano voice and a harsh male one because it's a very different contrast between elegant calmness and unconstrained roar. The title track has a contrast all of its own, as it's a heavy one indeed mixing old school riffage with Baker's extreme voice, like Cronos singing for Black Sabbath.

Even the lesser songs shine at points. I'm not much of a fan of Sailor on the Seas of Fate, which has a monotone heaviness to it, but I'm certainly a fan of its instrumental sections, not just the pair of bookends but a stretch of a couple of minutes during the midsection too. Those are great changes and I could listen to that sort of thing all day. There's a gem of a guitar solo on Looking Glass, even if it feels a littleshoehorned into that particular song, and there are excellent riffs littered around the later songs, like Distant Shadows, Down Below and the title track.

This ought to play very well to existing Cirith Ungol fans, because it does everything they want the band to do and it does it well. Sure, it's a little top heavy, the pair of standout tracks being the two that kick it off and only Sacrifice, wrapping up the first half, coming close to them. It's that pair I'd certainly suggest to people who have never heard of Cirith Ungol before and want something very heavy indeed but not technically extreme. If they can deal with Baker's voice, then the band would have new fans, guaranteed.

However, the second half is much more for the die hards. If you relish the full immersion into Cirith Ungol's particular brand of achingly slow ultra-heaviness, then you'll be in heaven. If you're a little more picky about variety, it may become a little tiring because the four tracks do much the same thing in much the same way and they're all taken to the limit, because, as I said earlier, Baker has a habit of feeling louder than he actually is and the band happily follow suit. This isn't music to be played quietly but you'll need good speakers to keep turning this up.

I'm on board with the heaviness of the second half, if not for stellar songs, so I'm going with a 7/10. It's a weaker album than Forever Black, though, so unless you're also on board, you'll want to dock a point off that. Whichever side you end up on, I'm happy that Cirith Ungol are back and recording new material. They put out nothing in the seventies and four albums during their initial productive spell from 1981 to 1991. Now they're reformed, they're already at two and I'm looking forward to a third, even if they may need to find a new guitarist to replace Jim Barraza. I hope they find one.

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