ALBUM REVIEW: Cirith Ungol takes its legacy by the throat with ‘Forever Black’

Cirith Ungol, Forever Black

Only one year after Black Sabbath’s debut birthed the genre, Cirith Ungol began pushing boundaries in Ventura. Considered an early player in both doom and power metal, the band’s obsession with Tolkienic sword-and-sorcery blazed a trail for much of metal as it’s known today. The band’s 20-year initial run had its highs and lows, but its resurrection in 2016 proved there were more stories to tell. With a revitalized lineup intact, the time has come for the first Cirith Ungol album in 29 years. Forever Black comes to christen the new wave of traditional heavy metal with timeless, battle-hardened heavy rock music.

Forever Black
Cirith Ungol
Metal Blade Records, April 24

The howling winds and gloomy guitar strains of intro “The Call” evoke the artwork of long-time collaborator Michael Whelan, before “Legions Arise” kicks off Cirith Ungol’s second wind. “Long have we slumbered, but now we awake/ We dreamt of your souls, whom now we shall take,” vocalist Tim Baker cries in his signature hair-raising rasp. Say what you want about bands like Witchcraft and Graveyard. It takes true veterans like Greg Lindstrom and Jim Barraza to hit those galloping riffs just right. Their chemistry with new bassist Jarvis Leatherby is palpable, and they still have their perfect foil in Baker’s sing-screaming.

If a single like “Before Tomorrow” proves anything, it’s that good old-fashioned heavy metal can’t be eclipsed. The triumphant leads, intimidating singing and gnarly chords maintain their connection to late ‘60s hard rock, but the band’s sense of brazen power is not to be ignored. This only becomes more apparent when the Sabbath-esque licks of “The Frost Monstreme” give way to a war-march-like riffing. Drummer Robert Garve balances propulsive fills with lumbering grooves, uniting with the guitarists in bluesy band hits. Cirith Ungol’s song structures remain robust and varied, making Forever Black more than a cash-grab.

“The Fire Divine” and “Fractus Promissum” pack muscular impact into their proto-power metal battle charges. The former borders on thrash with its propulsive rhythm and Baker’s snarling, falsetto-sung vocals. The latter brings old-school Judas Priest to mind with its bare-knuckled mid-tempo beat. In both cases, the arrangements bridge the gap between metal’s roots and its extreme branches. Guitar solos balance blues scales and shredding straight out of the new wave of British heavy metal (NWOBHM), while Garve’s and Leatherby’s rhythmic assault more than contends with the doom bands for which Cirith Ungol paved the way.

With classic and doom metal having their respective booms, Forever Black’s longer, slower tracks have more relevance than ever. “Stormbringer” brings a cross-section of anthemic vocals and foreboding down-tuned guitars, driven by dynamic percussion and memorable leads. The guttural “Nightmare” shares an affinity for plodding beats and minor-key riffs. In both cases, they make you want to start “doom stomping” like in the video for Candlemass’ “Bewitched.” From banshee-like scratches or ball-busting riffs, it’s incredible to hear one of metal’s oldest band’s sounding this tough—even after Cannibal Corpse and Madball joined the scene. 

The title track closes the album with everything that makes Cirith Ungol great. Diamond Head’s bludgeoning guitar work and Withfinder General’s crushing eeriness come together with fervent passion. The band pushes and pulls the tempo just like old Black Sabbath songs, yet pierces like a javelin thrown by the NWOBHM legends. The best part is that none of Forever Black sounds like it came from a 49-year-old band. Cirith Ungol hasn’t just returned. It has retaken its throne.

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