Cirith Ungol – King of the Dead

Cirith Ungol – King of the Dead

1984, Enigma

So pretty!

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!


  1. Thanks for posting and ‘explaining’, as it is always a task. I just remembered these guys after 30 years of forgetting. I actually still have the Tshirt that I wear from time to time. I now live in Chile, but grew up in LA. Saw Ungol 2 times in 1981/82. The guitarist always reminded me of Schenker. I eventually graduated to punk, Anarcho-Punk stuff at that point, mostly from UK: Crass, Subhumans, Zounds, Poison Girls, etc and tucked away my metal stuff, partly due to the lameness that I found in the lyrics, especially the misogyny in many of them, and partly because nothing could move me more than Discharge’s “Hear Nothing, See Nothing, Say Nothing”!!! My first band was “Black Widow” when I was 15. We recorded a song on the Metal Massacre III. After that I joined “AHC – America’s Hardcore”, then I started “Naturecore”. You might like that one: an obvious transition FROM metal to punk. They are all on youtube.
    I saw Metallica in 1982 and Raven also. Good times. Lemmy stepped on my foot while I had my hands on the front of the stage in 1982. Girlschool was also there. !

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Addendum. How could Lemmy step on my FOOT??? I meant to say “HAND”. I think I didn’t wash it for 3 days, and also live with the tinnitus after the deafening set. I had serious ringing for 2 weeks after.


      1. Wow that is a great story! Just got round to listening to the Black Widow track – so much promise, whatever happened?! Metallica and Raven in 1982 – well that is the dream!

        I actually also had a chance encounter with Lemmy, which I don’t think I’ve told many people as I can barely believe it happened: I think it was 2008ish? I was a penniless medical student and couldn’t afford the ticket for the Motorhead/Saxon gig. A mate however, determined to get me out at least for the night, paid for my entry (£5) to the club where everyone was headed to afterwards. I got chatting to someone who turned out to be Motorhead’s road manager, and then basically ended up spending the night in a casino in Sheffield drinking (JD of course) and having a go on the slot machines – Lemmy was a polite man of few words, and I was so intimidated that I had nothing interesting to say! I would’ve thought it a drunken dream when I woke up but for the casino photo-ID that I still had in my purse, haha!


  2. Well my epistemological answer to your question is no, King of the Dead in NOT american power metal. It isn’t now, but even more so, wasn’t back then.
    The record stands closer to European melodic Heavy Metal, or some specific, artistic NWOBHM.
    That said, KotD doesn’t fully qualify as Euro HM either, mainly due to it’s 100% fantasy thematology, or atmosphere, if you like.
    It’s thus better to say that KotD is in it’s own league.
    KotD created this whole Epic Metal subgenre, where emphasis is put to lyricism rather than power, and the landscape is dark rather than illuminated.
    This of course is mainly due to Jerry Foggle, a once-every-100-yrs talent that shunned rhythmic play to the great advantage of solos.


    1. On your first point, we may agree to congenially disagree.
      As to the others, a few things spring to mind:
      I suppose I can see some tenuous parallels with contemporaneous ‘darker’ NWOBHM, but really struggle with your comparison to European heavy metal! Can more agree and accept that it could be considered in its own league.
      To say that KotD created the Epic Metal subgenre, I definitely take umbrage with. Into Glory Ride had been out for a year already when KotD was released, and records like From the Fjords (Legend) had been in existence since 1979!
      Happy to discuss further over virtual or real beers one day 😉


  3. Thats how music rolls
    Some music takes time to take part in our heart forever. The way you explain about the music is enough to understand how old it had grown deeper inside you


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