Cirith Ungol – King of the Dead
So, let’s just get this out of the way, so we can focus on the music: is this record really United States Power Metal? I think in order to answer that, we need to delve into the question that I struggle so hard to answer satisfactorily, even to myself – what is USPM?
At work, I’m considered fairly innocuous, boring even, I imagine, to some. I like reading the showbiz section in the Daily Mail, refer to my dogs as my ‘babies’, and am partial to a bit of Radio 4 in the car. I live, however, in terror of that oft-asked small talk classic: so what music are you into?
When I was younger, I somehow felt the need to answer this in the greatest of detail. But years of being asked whether I liked ‘the screamy stuff’, if I was a goth, or once, to my great horror, if I liked the Lost Prophets, ground my little spirit down. Today, I’ll often just say – mainly heavy metal – and then after explaining no, I don’t mean Rammstein, and no, I loathe Slipknot, I’ll provide a suitably well known example like Iron Maiden or Metallica, and the conversation usually dies out, because I can no longer muster the congratulatory enthusiasm that seems to be expected of me when the other person is in fact aware of these bands.
So faced with this question now – how should I answer? It would be shamefully hypocritical to shy away from trying to describe the music I’m writing about.
I once tried to explain NWOBHM to a friend. Convincing them that the New Wave of British Heavy Metal wasn’t actually new was pretty tricky! Furthermore, for simplicity, I (erroneously, I think) referred to it as a ‘genre’. Using that term implies that it should all sound formulaic and similar. And yet, if you played your average person say… Suzie Smiled (Tygers of Pan Tang) followed by Broken Treaties (Satan), and said – oh yeah, they’re the same genre – they’d probably think you were a muppet.
I think USPM is, in that regard, exactly the same: it’s not a genre at all. That it was a movement in the United States in the 80s is an easy explanation, but that still tells you nothing about the music. I think a better way of describing it, perhaps, is as a spectrum with some principal themes in common: progression, aggression, harmony and virtuosity in variable measure. And at one very far end of that spectrum (I do rabbit on, don’t I?!), is Ventura, California’s Cirith Ungol.
I picked this record because I think it’s their best. And even if we can’t agree on whether they are USPM or not, they need to be mentioned here, because discovering them opened a window into a fraternity of music that has continued to enrich my life for over a decade.
A far cry from their prog-tinged full length debut (Frost and Fire, 1981), King of the Dead takes on an inimitable tenebrosity, not only in the feel of the music, but also in the beautiful artwork by Michael Whelan. Their commitment to depicting his illustrations, even when the commercial success of their peers eluded them, is proof of their uncompromising devotion to their craft.
The chunky riffs might lull you into thinking that the offhand comparisons to Black Sabbath are actually true – but the raspy caterwauling of Tim Baker will soon cure you of that belief. From bizarre sci-fi-meets-sword-and-sorcery themes emerge some fairly elegant lyrics – He is the hero of the atom age, born in a test tube, raised in a cage – from the opening track, Atom Smasher, is a particular favourite. The bass is ostentatiously loud throughout the entire album, but I adore the simple, sombre lead into Master of the Pit, complemented by the perfectly timed staccato of Rob Garven’s drumming to culminate in one of the most glorious intros to a song ever. And the title track – well, that is just a masterpiece.
Whilst I love the eccentric cover of Bach’s Toccata in Dm, the highlight of side B is the epic ‘Finger of Scorn’. The unassuming introduction, so deceptively soothing, carries you into the dark belly of this beast, and over shrill cries warning of the accusatory finger, you are lead through an instrumental interlude that somehow manages to be harmonious in its disjointedness. Finally, the grandiose ending of the eponymous finisher makes for a strong close.
I’ve never been the sort of person on whom a record ‘grows’. Liking something you hear, I think, should be completely effortless. Life is too short to listen to something six times to be able to enjoy it! I can’t, therefore, really encourage anyone to give this record a second try. If, however, anyone has been put off by reviews or descriptions of the music – let me assure you, no review can truly convey the nature of this completely mental record. So – give it a go. Welcome to the brave new world!