Few bands in the history of the heavy metal underground have a story as remarkable, improbable, or uplifting as that of Cirith Ungol. It is a tale of pioneering innovation, crushing disappointment, self-imposed exile, populist fervor, and, ultimately, global redemption.
The band was formed in Ventura, California, in the early 1970s, long before the rigid tropes and ironclad traditions that define today’s heavy metal genre had taken shape. There was no rulebook, no template to follow, so Cirith Ungol simply made it up as they went along, allowing their imaginations to run amok and their creativity to be their guide. Musically, Cirith Ungol emerged from the 1970’s hard rock / progressive rock tradition epitomized by the likes of Grand Funk Railroad, Blue Oyster Cult and Sir Lord Baltimore. Rather than passively channeling their influences, the band was driven to forge an altogether heavier, darker, more apocalyptic sound. According to drummer Robert Garven, even in those early days, before heavy metal as we know it existed, the band’s burning ambition was to play “the heaviest metal known to man.” Cirith Ungol’s lyrical approach was profoundly influenced by the high fantasy literature of J.R.R. Tolkien (from whose Lord of the Rings opus they derived their name) and Michael Moorcock, fittingly enough because co-founding members Garven and guitarist Greg Lindstrom first met in a seventh-grade English literature class.
For years, the fledgling Cirith Ungol (which also included co-founder Jerry Fogle on guitar and, from 1976 onward, Tim Baker on vocals) practiced in a bedroom at Garven’s parents’ house. There they honed their musical vision into something utterly unique and prescient. Baker’s anguished howls from the fiery pits of Hades, Fogle’s inventive and otherworldly lead guitar work, and Garven’s unorthodox drumming coalesced into a sound the world had never experienced before. It was obscure and arcane, mysterious and eccentric, epic and expansive, but most of all unfailingly, bone-crushingly heavy, dark and doom-filled. In an effort to secure major label interest, Cirith Ungol took the at-that-time highly unusual step to record, produce and finance their debut album, Frost and Fire, via their own Liquid Flame Records imprint in April 1981. Internally, the band viewed Frost and Fire as more of a glorified demo than an actual album for the general public, a means of drumming up label support via a professional-looking package that stood out favorably in a sea of anonymous unsolicited demo cassettes. To that end, Frost and Fire was slanted more towards the Lindstrom-penned material that showcased the “commercial” side of the band. Lindstrom actually performed all the bass parts on the record, but by the time Frost and Fire was released, Cirith Ungol had recruited a full-time bassist, Michael “Flint” Vujea, who was credited on the album. In a stroke of remarkable good fortune, acclaimed fantasy artist Michael Whelan allowed Cirith Ungol to use his famous painting from Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer book as the cover art for Frost and Fire, creating the perfect visual accompaniment for the musical content. Whelan’s instantly recognizable Moorcock paintings from the DAW Books editions of the Elric of Melnibone saga adorn the covers of each of Cirith Ungol’s four studio albums, and his breathtaking images are now inextricably intertwined with 1the music and mythology of Cirith Ungol in the hearts and imaginations of metalheads worldwide.
Around this time, the band became acquainted with Brian Slagel, who was then working for a record shop in the San Fernando Valley. Slagel put Cirith Ungol in contact with a European distributor called Greenworld (which eventually morphed into Enigma Records) that exported thousands of copies of Frost and Fire to continental Europe, sowing the seeds of what was to become a rabid international fanbase. Slagel also approached Cirith Ungol about participating in a compilation album he was working on, which resulted in a demo version of “Death of the Sun” appearing on the inaugural Metal Massacre installment in June 1982. Despite the band’s efforts to court major label respectability by smoothing out their rough edges, the music-industry establishment summarily dismissed Frost and Fire as being far too heavy. The band did not become disheartened. Instead, Cirith Ungol resolved to make the heaviest record they possibly could. At around this time, Greg Lindstrom departed to pursue his college education and his diverging musical interests. Thereafter, Cirith Ungol was configured as a quartet, united in their common objective to push the boundaries of heavy, epic metal beyond anything that had ever been done before. Bassist Flint brought a new energy to the band, and Fogle’s guitarwork took a massive leap forward. Cirith Ungol had complete creative control over these recording sessions for their sophomore album, which they paid for, recorded and mixed themselves. The result was King of the Dead. Released by Enigma Records (for which Cirith Ungol was the very first signee) in July 1984, this album has long been viewed as a stone-cold classic and the crown jewel in Cirith Ungol’s catalog.
The positive momentum from this stable lineup carried forward to August 1986, when Cirith Ungol released their third album, One Foot in Hell, the band’s first release on Metal Blade Records. One Foot in Hell was in many respects a logical continuation of King of the Dead, similar in style and heaviness but with more compact, mature arrangements. Although some gripes about the album’s sound remain, it is rightfully viewed as a much-beloved entry in the Cirith Ungol discography. Unfortunately, Cirith Ungol’s creative success during this period translated into very limited live appearances. The band never did a full tour, and performed only select shows, many of them in Los Angeles’ cutthroat, image-driven club scene. As Garven recalls, “It is just sad, when we were together and kicking ass no one wanted us to play anywhere.”
The five years following One Foot in Hell’s release were difficult ones in the Cirith Ungol camp. Fogle and Flint both quit, leaving Garven and Baker to forge ahead with a patchwork assortment of new members. The musical climate was shifting away from traditional metal. Interminable delays on the business side threatened to snuff out the band’s spirit. Still, Cirith Ungol pushed onward, thanks in no small part to the musical contributions of incoming guitarist Jim Barraza. The band’s fourth album, Paradise Lost, finally saw the light of day in August 1991 via Restless Records. Although the album does contain several seminal, timeless Ungol tracks, as well as a scorching cover version of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’s “Fire,” the band’s studio experience was unsatisfying and the final production job left them profoundly disappointed. Following the release of Paradise Lost, the label promptly dropped Cirith Ungol and the other band members jumped ship. Finally, the years of frustration took their toll, and Garven and Baker laid Cirith Ungol to rest in May 1992.
In the aftermath of Cirith Ungol’s demise, Tim Baker and Rob Garven left the music business altogether and lived quiet, civilian lives in Ventura. As the 1990s progressed, however, a faint, almost imperceptible drumbeat began in Europe. Unbeknownst to the band (because they had never played a single European gig), Cirith Ungol had a diehard fanbase across the Atlantic. That audience never forgot about the kings of the dead or abandoned the dream of seeing them live. As time went on, that drumbeat grew more insistent. For his part, Garven (who still answered fan mail and granted occasional interviews) consistently threw cold water on any reunion optimism, declaring that he had sworn a “blood oath” never to touch a drumstick again. As he put it in a 1999 interview, “Sometimes it is better to remember the past than try to dig up the graves of the dead.” Any hopes of a Cirith Ungol reunion were dealt a major blow with the tragic news that co-founding guitarist Jerry Fogle died of liver failure on August 20, 1998. Yet the clamor for Cirith Ungol’s return would not be silenced. In September 2001, Metal Blade Records issued a double album entitled Servants of Chaos, a compilation of rare, live and unreleased Cirith Ungol material from the 1970s and 1980s, including extensive liner notes from Garven. With the advent of the Internet, the
spread of social media, and the emergence of underground old-school metal festivals such as Keep It True and Up the Hammers, the demand for Cirith Ungol grew louder and louder. It became commonplace at true metal fests around the world to see fans who weren’t even born when King of the Dead came out wearing denim jackets festooned with bootleg Cirith Ungol patches. Still, all remained quiet and cold in the Ungol camp. In interviews, Garven admitted that he had dreams of playing onstage again, only to declare, “I am haunted and tortured by the ghost of Cirith Ungol, and I am not sure that I will ever find peace.” Then something truly miraculous happened. Against all odds, long-dead embers began to smolder and glow. In late 2015, after intense deliberation and contemplation by the involved members, a momentous decision was made. The slumbering giant awakened. Using Night Demon’s rehearsal space and gear, the quartet of drummer Robert Garven, vocalist Tim Baker, and guitarists Greg Lindstrom and Jimmy Barraza began to knock the rust off and rediscover the magic. Much to their delight, it was still there. When Flint declined the band’s offer to rejoin them on bass, Cirith Ungol recruited Night Demon bassist Jarvis Leatherby to fill that slot. As a seasoned musician, lifelong fan, and one of the driving forces toreanimate Cirith Ungol, Leatherby was the logical choice.
For a full year, the reformed Cirith Ungol worked tirelessly to rehearse, restore their playing abilities, and become a full-fledged band again. The members were cleareyed in their decision to come back for the right reasons: Not for money, not for glory or fame, but for the love of the music and, more importantly, the love of the fans who had wanted to see them live so desperately and for so long. On October 8, 2016, Cirith Ungol headlined the Frost and Fire II festival at the Majestic Ventura Theater, playing to a packed house of metal fans and friends from around the world who had converged on Ventura to see the kings of the dead rise from the grave. It was only fitting that Cirith Ungol’s rebirth should take place here.
After all, the band’s final performance had been on this very stage on December 13, 1991, in front of a nearly empty room. This night was vindication. This night was resurrection. In Garven’s words, “When the ancient stars aligned, Cirith Ungol crawled out of its ancient slumber, to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting world.” The Frost and Fire show was a smashing success, exceeding the most demanding expectations and converting the most hardened skeptic. Two days later, fresh off their Frost and Fire II conquest, Cirith Ungol were honored by the City of Ventura, which declared October 10, 2016 to be Cirith Ungol Day. There was a ceremony where the Mayor of Ventura read a proclamation thanking, congratulating and
celebrating the band.
In the ensuing years, Cirith Ungol have held fast to their objective to bring their music to as many metalheads around the world as possible. In 2017, Cirith Ungol played at eight festivals throughout the United States and Europe, including Keep It True (Germany), Up the Hammers (Greece), Defenders of the Old (New York), Chaos Descends (Germany), Psycho Vegas (Las Vegas), Frost and Fire III (California), Days
of Darkness (Maryland), and Hammer of Doom (Germany). In 2018, the band delivered additional triumphant performances around the globe, including select club gigs in Greece and Germany, headlining shows at Hell’s Heroes (Texas), Spring Bash (Wisconsin) and Frost and Fire III in the USA, and Cirith Ungol’s inaugural UK appearance at Frost and Fire London in May. The band have kept the momentum
going into 2019 by flattening audiences at the Legions of Metal Festival in Chicago, the Northwest Terror Fest in Seattle, and the prestigious Bang Your Head Festival in Germany, where not even torrential downpours and thunderstorms could stop the kings of the dead’s relentless metal attack.
At this stage of the game, every Cirith Ungol show is special, so audiences flock from around the globe to see them. And the live performances just get better and better. So it is only fitting and proper that the band have chosen this moment to unveil their first official live recording, an expansive double-live album and multi-DVD package entitled I’m Alive, to be released on Metal Blade Records worldwide on , 2019. Capturing Cirith Ungol at the peak of their darkened, mystical powers before a rapturous crowd at the Up the Hammers festival in Athens, Greece, this recording showcases the magic and might of Cirith Ungol onstage. I’m Alive documents an unforgettable night in the history of a truly legendary band, and will allow fans worldwide to share in the glory of this cult quintet from Ventura California, firing on all cylinders and rocking harder than ever more than four decades after their inception.
As Robert Garven is fond of saying, Cirith Ungol remains “[a] churning maelstrom of metal chaos descending.” Long may they reign!
No shows booked at the moment.