For all of its touted underground status, metal is just as prone to trends and fads as any other genre of music. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily; it’s just something to keep in mind next time you consider paying hundreds of dollars online for an “obscure” shirt from a band that’s still currently active. But Cirith Ungol are a classic example of when fads and trends work against you. Much admired today for their seminal contribution to the modern state of doom metal, they never enjoyed the success that they probably should have during the 1980s.
While debut album Frost And Fire was an eccentric piece of ’70s-inspired hard rock and metal – Uriah Heep’s fingerprints very much in evidence – 1984’s King Of The Dead leaned very heavily into METAL. Crushingly dense Sabbathian energy sits comfortably alongside a smattering of NWOBHM-inspired gallop riffs, all while vocalist Tim Baker wailed stories of a fallen fantasy era with terrifying conviction. The Michael Whelan artwork was simply the final ingredient required to elevate it to greatness. The combination makes it a heady brew of listening even today, and essential listening for anyone with even the vaguest interest in doom.
Yet it’s perhaps not surprising that it didn’t garner the accolades it deserved on its time of release. Hitting shelves in the same year as Metallica’s Ride The Lightning and Mercyful Fate’s Don’t Break The Oath, King Of The Dead is an album that sounds totally of its era while also being completely out of step with the surrounding trends. Listeners seem to have been looking away from a direct connection to the progenitors of metal and towards a speedier, thrashier future. Sure, Trouble attracted some attention with a similarly doomy Psalm 9 – but King Of The Dead was and is a stranger beast altogether, with an almost proggier edge.
The band were aware of this disparity too; though they would record two more albums after King Of The Dead, the band struggled to gain attention or adequate promotion. The final nail in the coffin came in 1991, when Paradise Lost was released just a few months before Nirvana’s seminal Nevermind. The band called it quits shortly afterwards – but the years since have been far kinder to the their legacy. With multiple generations of subsequent doom bands citing them as a major influence, Cirith Ungol have begun to take their rightful place as metal pioneers.
Cirith Ungol reformed in 2015 and released a new single, ‘Witch’s Game’, in 2018. They are currently playing festivals throughout the US and Europe. Rumours of a new album abound. Their discography can be found for purchase here.
Words: Tom G. Wolf