Cirith Ungol / Dark Parade An Album Of Colossal Power

There was an indescribable feeling of excitement in 2020 when Cirith Ungol returned with Forever Black. The band, who had captivated me as a teenager with their works in the 1980s, complete with the incredible artwork from Michael Whelan’s Elric series, had slumbered in the shadows for too long, a mere memory for most, for nearly three decades.

Cirith Ungol – Dark Parade (Metal Blade Records)

Release Date: 20 October 2023

Words: Paul Hutchings

Reformed by Night Demon’s Jarvis Leatherby in 2016, the band, named after the Pass of the Spider in Mordor in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings, proved that they could still punch it with the best. Forever Black was a magnificent reminder of Cirith Ungol’s power, their unique style, tempered with a wistful “what if they had never split.”

Three years later, the band returns once more with what could well be their swansong. If it is to be their last, then they are leaving on as massive a high as they could ever have.

Photo of the Heavy Metal band Cirith Ungol
Cirith Ungol. Dark Parade is classically black. Photo: Peter Beste.

This is a band whose cult status has grown exponentially in the past few years, reaching a level of interest which wasn’t there at the time for those seminal albums, Frost And Fire, King Of The Dead, One Foot In Hell and 1991’s Paradise Lost.

They’ve never followed a musical blueprint, yet Cirith Ungol have carved an individual sound which is immediately recognisable. The distinctive vocals of Tim Baker, the driving riffs that envelope the classic Heavy Metal sound, which swirls with the darkness of their doomy subject matter, and the powerhouse drumming of founder Robert Garven make Cirith Ungol simply a level apart from most other bands.

Dark Parade is classically black. Take the driving opener Velocity (S.E.P.). It’s got everything. Down-picking chugs that change the band’s usual approach, less of the standard gallop and more of a connection to Sabbath and Priest, with Baker’s inimitable vocals as soothing as sandpaper across the knuckles.

It works magnificently and paves the way for an album that moves from the shadows, a shapeless form drawn from Lovecraftian writings of 100 years ago. Relentless follows, the first of the eight songs to be written over 2022, and one that features some exquisite guitar work from guitarist Jimmy Barraza, his ability to mix Egyptian and Hindu guitar scales giving the song a refreshingly different vibe.

The band have drawn on The Horror at Red Hock, H.P Lovecraft’s writing from 1925, and combined it with observations about the collapse of society. The precursor to extinction. “Like the best horror writers, our main goal has always been to make something totally dark and doomy all the way through,” says Baker. “An unrelenting journey into the particular chaos which is Cirith Ungol.”

Whilst Cirith Ungol are at their most exciting when the tempo is high and the band is in full force, their ability to slow things down and change the atmosphere in mere seconds has always been one of their strengths.

The combination arrives early on the galloping Sailor On The Seas Of Fate, which switches speed but never compromises on the heaviness.

The second single, Looking Glass, leads the listener into the second half of the album, four tracks interlocked through the conceptual themes. The smashing glass introduction, followed by the gritty chugs, suddenly gives way to a fabulous bluesy solo that echoes the likes of Deep Purple and Blue Öyster Cult without losing a single element of the band’s sound.

It’s here that Garven’s ability to use percussion and drums comes to the fore as he provides the backdrop to the song. His fill at the start of the solo is just magical. It’s followed by the title track, which, despite its Lovecraftian horrors and Naker’s nails down the blackboard screams, doesn’t drift into the sword and fantasy lyrics that one might expect from the Whelan’s epic artwork.

“Truth be told, I haven’t cracked open a sword and sorcery novel since the late ’80s,” says Baker. “The songs I do write that have a fantasy theme are metaphorical tales couched in the general tropes of that genre. But I really detest the fact that everything and every band must have a certain label put upon them. Usually, the label is just a lazy excuse to either condone or condemn the band or the type of music they play. We have always just thought of ourselves as a Heavy Metal band.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the band drew on experiences in the pandemic for inspiration. Cruelly stripped of their triumphant two-night set at Keep It True, as well as a host of other events, Cirith Ungol retreated to their writing.

Dark times provided dark thoughts. “Band members lost close relatives, and we struggled as best we could through the pandemic, which ravaged the earth’s population and economies,” Garven says. “As horrifying as it was, it was the perfect backdrop for our doom-laden message of a world on the edge of destruction.”

The final two tracks begin with Distant Shadows. A smouldering burn, this has a swagger about it that is the essence of the band. Baker’s vocals rise about the chugging riffs in an epic manner whilst the whole song proceeds in its own time.

Brooding, menacing and yet fluidly expansive, the guitar work is stunning, featuring some of Barraza’s finest work for the band. It leads to the grand finale, Down Below, which opens with eerily placed female vocals and Baker’s voice otherworldly before he comes right back at you. It’s rightly placed as the final track, bringing a conclusion to a timeless release that rightly elevates the band into godlike status.

This is an album of colossal power, seeping with the terror and gloom that the band has always brought. “The band has always had the dual personality torn between fantasy and doom-related themes”, says Garven. “As the world spirals out of control, the doom side of this personality has ascended — an unrelenting cacophony of Tim’s prophetic view of mankind’s twisted future.”

Whatever happens next, Cirith Ungol have unleashed a release to savour.

For pre-orders, visit Metal Blade Records. Cirith Ungol play a record release show at The Roxy, West Hollywood, CA, on 20 October 2023.

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