Sunday Old School: Cirith Ungol
The band that I bring you this week is so old school that it formed during the times of older rock acts that influenced the independent metal acts of the eighties. In terms of being unique, Ventura, California metal band Cirith Ungol has no parallel. Having met in 1969 in High School, drummer Robert Garven, bassist Greg Lindstrom and guitarist Jerry Fogle started jamming under the name Titanic. Another school friend, Pat Galligan, joined them until eventually going on to play for the Angry Samoans years down the road.
Robert Garven had liberal minded parents that allowed the band to practice at their house. The year was now 1972 and the band had changed its name to Cirith Ungol, which is a reference to Lord of the Rings. Cirith Ungol means "pass of the spider Shelob" in Elvish as per the trinity, the members of the band being huge fans of Tolkien's novels in English class. Frodo and Samwise fight the spider in Tolkien's "Two Towers." In practice, the band would cover Cream, Mountain, Sam Gopal's Dream, Ursa Major, Freedom and also their renditions of Budgie tunes long before Metallica even existed.
In the early incarnation of Cirith Ungol, long before the first album in 1980, the band had a vocalist named Neal Beattie - who called himself Ptery Dactyl. Neal fancied himself a modern day Iggy Pop, writhing around barely clad and inspiring such songs as "Rock'n'Roll Hooker," "Tight Teen" and "Neck-Romancer." As the band members would say at the time, 'Iggy Pop was his Elvis.' Needless to say, the Ventura cops were always on his ass for his free spirit lewdity and he didn't last since the band had other ideas for what their sound should be like. Deciding to put epic fantasy into retro metal, Cirith Ungol singlehandedly helped create two genres before their respective terms were coined. When you hear all the epic folk, doom and some of the pagan metal bands nowadays, many were undoubtedly influenced by this band.
Through the mid-seventies, the band cranked out early renditions of "Half Past Human" and "Shelob's Lair," creating a sound no one had heard before and blowing the speakers in the process. Right around when Neal left, the trio would play instrumentals at the Roxy and the Whiskey, recruiting school pals to be its road crew. Both Dan and Tim Baker were roadies for KSage in that period, and Tim tried out for the Cirith Ungol vocal spot unchallenged. He was a smoker, but somehow he could hit those wild notes, and his voice didn't deteriorate too much over time.
Tim Baker's voice has to be one of the most unique in metal. Nobody, but nobody, sounds remotely like him. He hits these crazy screeches and snarls and then goes low - but it made perfect sense once you got used to it. You have to 'get' it, and some people didn't. The first recording Tim did with the band was a duet with the departing Neal about an alien invasion, titled "We Know You're Out There." The man who would become Cirith Ungol's iconic voice had just joined. Looking completely hippie with his headband and super long hair, he would help cement all these fantasy sagas to epic doom metal. Interestingly, Tim had auditioned in 1979 with the track "Hype Performance," which years later would become the first track on "Servants of Chaos."
Robert Garven wanted to create sword and sorcery type metal from not just Tolkien. While their chosen name was now Cirith Ungol, the band had chosen from it from one of the lore names Khazad Dum, Minas Trinith and Uruk-Hai. The books that mostly interested Cirith Ungol were the Michael Moorcock tomes Elric, Hawkmoon and Corum. This trinity and other epic tales like Conan inspired what would become the band's lyrics. The band set about recording tunes on a dokorder four-track reel to reel, which ended up on the self-titled and "Orange" demo. Tracks such as "Show You All" (sung by Rob), and "Route 666" (sung by Greg) and "High Speed Love" (with Tim at the helm) were born. The track "Death of the Sun," written in 1977, appeared on Metal Massacre 1.
Right before 1980, prior to the debut album "Frost and Fire" on Liquid Flames records, Cirith Ungol had financed its two demos and recording for the album by doing all sorts of things such as knocking on people's doors and offering to wash their cars. That classic debut album was issued and none of the LA radio stations would play it since it was 'too heavy.' Cirith Ungol had purposely toned it down on the record to make it more radio accessible. This irony made them realize that they should just go as heavy as possible into that prog/doom style they aimed for. No more holding back.
Upon releasing "Frost and Fire," those in the scene were unaware of how influential this album was to become. The guitar was tuned a bit higher and the bass full on low, creating a truly interesting style. A new band out of Switzerland took 'frost' from this album title and changed the 'Cirith' to 'Celtic' and went on to become huge. Cirith Ungol knew of this, but despite having nearly a thousand live shows to its credit Celtic Frost's management would not allow them to support the band on any of its LA gigs.
The cover of "Frost and Fire" comes from Michael Whelan's painting 'Stormbringer.' Whelan's work graces most of the novels by Michael Moorcock, and he surprised the band by allowing them to use it. Originally, Cirith Ungol had planned to use Frank Frazetta's 'Berserker,' but southern rock band Molly Hatchett beat them to it. This marked the first time Michael Whelan's artwork would appear on an album cover, and it was one of several collaborations between him and the band.
Cirith Ungol used his Elric series on nearly all of it's album covers. The 'Stormbringer' from the Michael Moorcock series not only influenced them, but also the eponymous Deep Purple song, Hawkwind's "The Chronicle of the Black Sword," Magnum's "Stormbringer," Blue Oyster Cult's "Bane of the Black Blade" and Blind Guradian's "Fast to the Madness." Elric was the classic anti-hero who fights, can't overcome all of the evil and in the process unwittingly aids it. The title "Frost and Fire" was always inferred until it was actually listed on the cover of the 1999 remaster issued on Metal Blade - one of three reissues.
Greg Lindstrom bowed out during the recording process of the album even though he recorded every song on the album, making way for bassist Michael 'Flint' Vujea, who appeared on the album credits. The band liked him so much that they put his picture on the album to give him an initial sense of belonging. Greg had been with the band ten years at the time, and years later would have misgivings about his exeunt. Around this time, Kerrang! gave the album the worst possible rating - a zero. The reviewer just didn't get it. This actually made the disc more popular, as people were intrigued as to what a zero sounded like - earning them more fans. They paid for the first 3000 copies themselves, too.
Strangely enough, the LA Times mentioned years later that the Pearl Jam song "Alive" was a blatant rip off of the Cirith Ungol song "I'm Alive." I have listened to both songs side by side and while there are similarities in the opening strains, the lyrics are completely different. In 1981, Enigma reissued "Frost and Fire." It was a full four years before Cirith Ungol released its next album on Enigma, 1984's "King Of The Dead." Featuring another Michael Whelan painting, Cirith Ungol had taken such a long time releasing it due to them having to finance all the recording and layout.
This album is special because it showed the group taking a heavier and spacier epic doom turn, as it had complete control over the recording process. Besides the mesmerizing title track, the band tried something different in terms of putting a Bach cover on it, "Toccata in DM," and the live bonus track "Last Laugh." And who could forget the classic song "Atom Smasher?" The music on this record was so unlike any of the thrash bands in the scene that they became an oddity. There were also standard metal themes such as "Master of the Pit" and one of the first songs about Robert Garven's love of automobiles. "Black Machine" referenced him taking apart a carburetor in his home garage.
"One Foot in Hell" got released on Metal Blade in 1986 (and re-released thirteen years later with King Fowley liner notes). This third release had some of the most college radio-friendly metal anthems on it such as "Doomed Planet," but the band was highly dissatisfied with it. Brian Slagel had taken too much control, leaving out many of the solos and the multi-tiered vocals being changed or left out completely. To this day, relations are strained between Robert and Brian over this. His general disgust with the music industry is no secret and is the reason songs such as "100 MPH" were penned. Rob and Greg got more heavily into their obsession with fast muscle cars and Ferraris when music began to fail them.
After a five year break, Cirith Ungol returned with its fourth album "Paradise Lost" in 1991 on Restless Records. It featured the Michael Moorcock cover 'Sailor on the Seas of Fate,' another beautiful painted rendition. Unfortunately, this album was one of the reasons why they disbanded a year later. Jim Barranza entered on guitar and Vernon Green assumed the bass, and while the band felt that Jim was a competent axeman he didn't have Jerry's spark.
"Paradise Lost" was produced by Ron Goudie, and saying that the band was unhappy with how it turned out was an understatement. Members were not allowed in the studio while each other was recording, and Ron spooled out the best twenty seconds of the title track on the floor. Cirith Ungol and fans alike found that some of the best and worst songs of it's discography appeared on this release, the better ones being "Chaos Rising" and the cover of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown song "Fire," and tracks such as the commercial sounding"Go it Alone" not in the same league with the band's earlier material. This album was re-released in 2007 on Noble Rat records.
That's what happens when a label like Restless is a subdivision of another and gets bought out. You get a producer that comes in and makes you keep time with a little box instead of jamming in the studio. The two new members then quit after "Paradise Lost," Vernon because of his Christian beliefs. Tim and Robert were left looking at each other in a motel room, saying 'what the f**k' after twenty-two years. Cirith Ungol was now officially disbanded. It was May of 1992.
Years later, all the members of Cirith Ungol were officially involved in other bands but still kept tabs on each other. They released the double album "Servants of Chaos" in 2001, (which was reissued a decade later), as a way of atoning for their disdain of "Paradise Lost." That album could never be reissued by them since they had signed their rights away to it via Evan Cohen at the label. So, they remastered the songs to their liking and issued rare and bonus tracks on "Servants of Chaos."
This was three years after Cirith Ungol guitar legend Jerry Fogle died of liver failure in August of 1998, setting back any talks of reuniting even if they existed. Jerry had quit after "One Foot in Hell" after fifteen years with the band and no label support. He had dreamed of touring Europe and when that didn't come to pass, he bowed out. He regretted leaving the band, as it killed his creative outlet. After he quit playing, his drinking had spiralled out of control in a sort of clinical depression until it claimed him twelve years later.
Robert Garven likes reissues and even bootlegs. He sees it like this - the band never made any money from it's record labels, so why would they be mad at bootleggers? Before even the compilation came out and long after appearing with the Armored Saint song "Lesson Well Learned" on Reborn Classics, all of the Cirith Ungol members got involved in other projects which read like a Who's Who of indie metal. Robert is still pretty committed to Cirith Ungol in his own way, and you can see him commenting on the YouTube uploads occasionally with the fans.
Before getting into the wealth of different bands spawned by its members, there were so many compilations that Cirith Ungol appeared on - too numerous to mention them all. On 2002 they appeared on Metal Blade's 20th Anniversary, "LA Steel," and the "One Foot in Hell" tribute from 2006, etc...These alone should give anyone a vague idea of how influential these hippie metallers were. There are at least ten compilations featuring their songs that I have not mentioned, and that is not even including all of the Metal Massacre ones.
If you think that is something, there are well over a dozen bands that the ex-members of Cirith Ungol have contributed to. Vernon Green joined the AOR female-fronted band Broken Silence and seven other Cirith Ungol members from various periods have spent time in such diverse acts as Holy Martyr, Battle Ram, Reverend Bizarre, Doom Sword and Static Laughter - and that isn't even the half of it. The biggest congregation of Cirith Ungol members is undoubtedly in the band Falcon. This was bassist/keyboardist Greg Lindstrom's project after Cirith Ungol and it only took 24 years for him to return with Falcon's debut.
Falcon also features Perry Grayson on guitar/vocals and Darin McCloskey on drums. Robert Garven had been asked to join initially, but declined. Falcon has released 70's songs from Cirith Ungol as their own tunes now, such as "Show You All" and "Edge of the Knife" to name just a few. Falcon's 2008 second album "Die Wontcha" was also released on Liquid Flames records like the first album - some things just come full circle. The title was a play on words of the 1973 West, Bruce & Laing album "Why Dontcha."
Perry Grayson and the band had been rooming with the guys from Blue Cheer when they produced it at the Polar Bear Lair studio in Maryland. Falcon plays great hippie rock/metal. If you haven't checked out these elder statesmen of metal, do so. The trio has it's own Reverbnation page and is going strong. You can't keep a die hard musician/road dog down. They play plenty of old Cirith Ungol songs, so it's almost like hearing certain elements of the band. But, Tim Baker is not part of the mix and neither is Robert.
Tim's son Matthew had ran the Cirith Ungol Legion Myspace page for awhile, showing that the dedication was still there in the family. Tim has remained noticeably silent on the issue since he's retired, and Garrett Mutz of Sacred Steel was offered the job of replacing Tim if the band ever reformed. He was smart, though, and turned it down. He realizes, like all of us, that it is nearly impossible to replace a legend. Some things are better left as a time capsule of a special era in our minds.
Cirith Ungol - "Frost and Fire" - Frost and Fire
Cirith Ungol - "King of the Dead" - King of the Dead
Cirith Ungol - "Doomed Planet" - One Foot in Hell
Cirith Ungol - "Atom Smasher" - King of the Dead
Cirith Ungol - "Chaos Rising" - Paradise Lost
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