Pestilence sprays across the land from lung to lung, ignorant congregations gather and die in hordes, the populace rallies against their own public health for the sake of their slaver’s prosperity and in the sky Helios looms in preparation of his fieriest whip of summer heat to date. Churning within every mounting wave of blazon doom is a magnitude higher maelstrom of chaos descending upon Earth and we knew it was coming. We heard the evil laughter in the shadows and the night’s sky for nearly five years prior — It is no coincidence that the prophesiers of doom would return and slap hands full of painted cards across our tables each warning once again of sickness and fire, of black machines and eternal wars! Back by popular demand and nearly a full twenty nine years removed from their fourth and thought-to-be final album (‘Paradise Lost‘, 1991), the masters of metal, the heir apparent kings of the dead and undisputed Ventura, California heavy/doom metal legends Cirith Ungol arrive with a fifth and magical long-player today and I’ll be damned… ‘Forever Black’ doesn’t suck. If anything they’re heavier and more passionate on tape in their sixties than they’d been since ‘One Foot in Hell‘ (1986), it is a kingly return in trying times and a massive inspiration to all.
Time and nostalgia are inescapable subjects in reference to a band that’d made their mark in the mid-to-late 80’s and ducked out as the shiftless and shameless Los Angeles metal spheres went fully poodle rock in the early 90’s. Cirith Ungol‘s experience with their label and the hands-off record industry is fairly well documented and they’ve always made it clear why they stayed away, negative experiences saw most off of them disheartened and their style was definitely ‘out of style’ at the time. If you’d happened upon this band around the turn of the millennium when Metal Blade began reissuing their first three records (as I did) you’d likely been asking why nobody’d dragged them back into the fray decades ago as traditional heavy metal, ‘epic’ heavy metal, and doom metal all solidified as better remembered institutions in the age of rampant digital documentation. It’d be Night Demon‘s Jarvis Leatherby and his devotional Frost and Fire Festival that’d cajole the old wizards out of retirement circa 2015 and soon on the path of new material sans their original bassist. The first step on that path was the 2018 standalone single “Witch’s Game”, an epic heavy metal song that was substantial and impressive; Undoubtedly a sign that Cirith Ungol were ‘back’ and still very capable but the actual song suggested that new material wouldn’t be a return to their classic sound.
As it turns out ‘Forever Black’ would find the band rethinking the sound of that single, and in the process of writing the full album they’ve gone with a more organic raw-edged recording with simpler and straight to the point songwriting by comparison. Kicking it ‘old school’ in this sense has allowed the return of the classic shrieking doom metal sway folks’ll remember, albeit heavier and more distinct than ever. The moment Tim Baker‘s unforgettable voice howls in ear amidst the the ‘Run to the Light’-era Trouble-esque gallop of opener “Legions Arise” the nostalgic fan will know they can rest easy, this is the right stuff. Consider this record the true follow-up to ‘One Foot in Hell’ if you will, the bass guitar tone is a little bit more defined and the vocals are possibly the most feral and thickly layered that Baker has ever been but the peak of Cirith Ungol‘s particular brand of restlessly apocalyptic pub-sized epic heavy/doom metal is undoubtedly resurrected within ‘Forever Black’.
The slow galloping main riff and infectious lead guitar runs of “Frost Monstreme” had their hooks in me fast but it was the unexpected Sabbath jam in the middle of the song that’d stick with me most on later listens. If nothing else they’ve not lost their knack for classic but never generic heavy metal songwriting. What’d set me over the top into a frenzy over this album and guide me through dozens of full listens? I’d say “The Fire Divine” truly set the sledgehammer to the nails. The lyrics are a soul-stirring inspiration to start and the straight forward 70’s heavy rock influenced instrumental therein make for an ‘easy’ but memorable listen, exactly what I’m looking for on a Cirith Ungol album: Big doom hooks, reason versus religion, and some true high fantasy heavy metal to maintain the right headspace. The Elric inspired ode to his beloved (and somewhat hated) sword, “Stormbringer” at the heart of the album isn’t quite an epic and isn’t a full-on ballad either but it has the same effect, really ramping up the ante at the end of Side A. Though I’d love to do a song-by-song analysis, there is no sense belaboring the point. Side B has more doom (the sub-genre and the state of damnation), more evil, and again some of Baker‘s finest vocal work to date with the title track and harrowing closer, “Forever Black” serving as a throat-shattering curse to end this remarkable album.
If you are already a fan of Cirith Ungol then the standard criticisms of the band should hold zero weight for you. The vocals are wild, over the top and legendary. The production is earthen and raw 80’s garage-rattling heavy metal to the bone with minimal fuss applied. I’ve been a fanatic since ~2004 or so, give or take a summer, and can’t help but have that bias sink into my evaluation of the (thought to be impossible) return of this exemplar heavy/doom metal band. Having seen them at Northwest Terror Fest last year and now getting this perfectly characteristic album almost exactly a year later I couldn’t be more riled up as a fan so, take my rating with a grain of salt as I give a very high recommendation for the return of Cirith Ungol.
Very high recommendation. 4.5/5.0
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