Frost and Fire. King of the Dead. One Foot in Hell. Paradise Lost. And now, almost 30 years later, Forever Black, the fifth full-length from the Ventura band comes to remind us that CIRITH UNGOL was and still is the biggest underground Metal act alive on Earth, kings of the underground Metal together with Manilla Road, no more. They are back will all their mystic dark sound, their proverbial epic heavy metal, up to their eternal legacy. You listen again to Tim Baker’s vocals and you know they are delivering the goods one more time. This new album is a gift for old and new fans alike, more tasteful even when some years ago you might not dream even about something like that. I want to especially thank Jarvis Leatherby once again for his kindness (this guy actually breathes Metal 24 hours a day) and for making possible this interview, don’t ever change, buddy. And of course thanks to the whole band too for the time dedicated to a modest site as Metalbrothers (oh fuck, even they say it’s a pleasure to talk to us!!). CIRITH UNGOL needs no further presentation, enjoy this historical document which, I warn you, hides some big news!
Hello guys, thanks for your kindness answering these many questions! Here we go. Cirith Ungol was on hiatus since 1992 and then you came back in 2015. What was the spark that reactivated the band?
Rob: Alberto, it is a distinct pleasure to talk with you today! Jarvis Leatherby our current bass player and manager played a pivotal role in the reformation of the band. I had a friend Carl Valdez, who was the original drummer in a famous local punk band “Ill Repute”. He was friends with Jarvis, and told me that Jarvis wanted to meet, to discuss “Cirith Ungol”. We met, and I was amazed at his stories of touring with “Night Demon”. They had met many who still were interested in “Cirith Ungol”, especially on the continent. He suggested resurrecting the band. Jarvis was putting on a festival in our hometown of Ventura, California, the “Frost & Fire Festival I”, and had booked bands from all over the world come and play. He asked if we would do a signing session and all the original members (except Jerry Fogle who has tragically passed away in 1998) attended. The festival was a great success, and at the signing session many showed up with albums to be signed and it seemed a new generation had discovered our music, we had worked so hard on, for so many years.
Jarvis had invited Oliver Weinsheimer from the “Keep it True Festival” and after the signing session he wanted to talk to the members alone, so we along with Jarvis, retreated across the street to a local sushi bar. Oliver had been in contact me since 2004, about getting the band back together, and I had told him that I appreciated his offer, but it was never going to happen. So now we found ourselves; Jarvis, Oliver, Greg, Tim, Flint, Jimmy and myself all sitting around at a table wondering what was to come next. Jarvis having just hosted an amazing festival said he planned on putting on another one “Frost & Fire II”, next year and asked us if we would reform and were interested, we could headline his show. Oliver also talked about how successful his festival was in Germany and asked us if we reformed, we could headline his 20th anniversary show in 2017!
This was quite a bit to take in, as we had all spent the last many years pursuing other lives an getting the band back together seemed like a long shot. We were hesitant at first, but deep in our soul the fire of true metal burned, and we all decided to unleash the being called Ungol back onto the unsuspecting world!
In Europe Cirith Ungol is kind of a legend, I suppose in US too, how do you feel with the “kings of the underground” label?
Rob: It is an honor to be thought of as such. We are just a group of guys trying to write and play, the heaviest metal known to man! I guess it is better to rule in hell, than to serve in heaven!
A curiosity, who was the visionary that created the band’s well-known logo?
Rob: Greg showed up one day with a copy of one of the Englishman William Cheseldon’s engravings from his 1773 book Osteographia, of a kneeling skeleton. It was copyright free and we thought it was the perfect ingredient for a logo. We made a mirror image of it and put the two side by side. I was working as a graphic artist at the time, and added the typeface, which back then was called Stonehenge! This was way before computers and was all cut and paste work! Over the years I found a higher resolution version of the skeleton art, and worked a bit on the typeface’s kerning, but other than that it is the same as the original.
You have got the attention from people in the 80s, in the 90s, no one has forgotten you and now new generations are listening to CU again, what is the secret?
Rob: I think the reason some are drawn to the band is that we are focused on creating our own version of heavy metal, and not really straying from the path we have chosen. But therein lies the challenge, many see us a cult or underground band because we never had the exposure that many of our contemporaries had, which catapulted them to stardom. Our first several albums were produced in limited numbers on independent labels, and even though they were thinly spread all across the world, there was no organized promotion or touring to back them up. I believe the band would have had a much larger audience if we could have achieved this, however that is all water under the bridge now. We are now trying to get the name and music out to a larger group of metal aficionados to help spread our vision of true metal!
How do you see the musical industry nowadays and the future of the genre?
Rob: It is pretty amazing to see all the types of metal out there including the sub-genres. There is music for every taste, and metal is thriving, in large part because of the internet and the widespread access to more music.
Almost 30 years without recoding a new album, what were the feelings in the recording sessions?
Rob: It was amazing! Soon after we reunited, we bought a 24-track digital recorder, mikes, headphone, cable, etc. and started making demos, some of these can be heard in the limited edition box set of the album coming out, where you can compare some of the original versions, to the final takes. We learned many lessons, many that we will carry with us onto future projects.
Jarvis, you are a man that breathes and lives Metal, you play also in Night Demon, music manager and since several years Cirith Ungol’s bassist. How do you think you have contributed to what CU is in 2020?
Jarvis: My sole purpose here with Cirith Ungol is to protect and preserve the legacy of the band. I am the orchestrator and the enforcer behind the wall. Nobody gets in or out except through me.
Amen. Jarvis, do you remember what you thought the first time you listened to the King of The Dead album and at that time did you ever imagine that some day you would be part of that band?
Jarvis: I remember I liked it a lot more than Frost and Fire, but I also remember really not liking the production at all and it made it really hard for my undeveloped ears to listen to. So no, I never ever in my wildest dreams thought I would be playing on the band. It means a totally different thing to me now.
Tim Baker, you are one of the most recognizable voices in the Metal universe, that is still a plus for the band, what do you think?
Tim: It might be a plus now, but it certainly wasn’t always the case. Most of the time people didn’t know what to think about the band, especially the vocals. But over the years I guess people have gotten used to us and there has been a bit of acceptance to what we do.
I have always said that you cannot begin listening heavy metal with bands like Cirith Ungol or Manilla Road, you need some previous training of your ear to really enjoy it, what do you think?
Tim: I’m not sure if anything can prepare you for what we sound like. Bands like us and Manilla Road, and of course many others, have their own unique sound and style. It’s always been just a matter of personal taste. Lots of people like to find things that don’t necessarily follow the mainstream, and search the underground for music that appeals to them. The search for music that you can connect to, can lead you down many paths.
I was surprised by Baker’s voices, you still keep the magic, maybe notso raw as in the early years but Tim Baker all the way, what do you think?
Tim: Not as raw as the early days, I really think is a good thing .. Some of those early recordings were much too harsh, at least as far as I’m concerned, but I do try to keep some of that energy and rawness in the new album!
Baker, did you need some training to be back in top shape or you never lost it?
Tim: I never had training back then, and I didn’t have any upon our return. I’m sure that any training would have been to say; “Don’t sound like that!” lol. Really that’s just the way I sound, for better or worse.
Amen. Let’s talk about your fantastic new album. Forever Black is an album that collects all the past of the band but looks to the future?
Rob: As soon as we reunited, we started writing new material. After “Witch’s Game” was released we saw that there was a demand for a full length album, so we started pounding out metal. The songs started leaning in a dark and somber direction probably a premonition to this disaster, and as soon as “Forever Black” was written, we all agreed that would be the perfect theme and title. As always there are some buried references to the past and future that is uniquely “Cirith Ungol”!
I love all the songs, but the beautiful melodies of Stormbringer and the 80’s flavour of Nightmare, together with the best riff of the album really captures me. Any special song for you?
Tim: No, not really. I really like all the songs on Forever Black, and truly feel that is our best and most consistent album, but let’s see what the future holds ……
Oh yeahhhh! Forever Black seems an album with a lot of hours of rehearsal behind, as if you wanted to give the best of you, you just didn’t want to live from the past glories, did you?
Rob: I’m glad you hear that but that is not actually the case, we were working on the new songs along with playing our other albums keeping ready for all the upcoming shows we had scheduled. The band all has different lives so we do not have as much time together as we would like. The best is still to come!
You leave me without words! What are the lyrics about?
Rob: There is a blend of themes from the call to arms of “Legions Arise”, to the nod to “Frost & Fire”, on “The Frost Monstreme” & “The Fire Devine”, with the rest being part of Tim’s dystopian and prophetic vision of conjuring up the darker side of man’s eternal struggle, “A Churning Maelstrom of Metal Chaos Descending!”
As it should be. The cover artwork is perfect, in line with your previous albums, just what you expect from CU?
Rob: This fantastic painting we chose for the cover, “Elric in Exile”, perfectly reflects the dark and brooding mood of this album. Yes, it was painted by Michael Whelan, whose art graces our 4 other studio albums, our single, “Witch’s Game”, and our live album, “I’m Alive”. He is a world-renowned artist, whose masterpieces have been featured on albums by bands such as Sepultura and Smoulder, and authors; Ray Bradbury, Michael Moorcock, Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, and Arthur C Clarke.
Ever since we forged a relationship with Michael Whelan with our first album, “Frost & Fire”, our dream was to use his series of Elrić of Melnibone covers from the 1980’s DAW Book editions, for all our future covers. Of course, back then we were a young band and had no idea what the future held for us, or how many albums we would ever produce. Once again, we are honored and privileged, to have this renowned artist’s work again gracing our latest album, and hope to continue to work with him on any future projects! He has been one of the bands best and most constant friends through the years, even coming out to see the band play in Brooklyn, New York!
Jim Barraza, you are a long time member already, and you did a great job on Paradise Lost, how hard was to take the place of Jerry Fogle at the moment?
Jim: Thank you for your compliment. Well, at the “Moment” of Jerry’s departure and my transition into filling the position, I had to learn the basic song structures enough to be able to play some gigs. I adapted well to material from King of the Dead and One Foot in Hell, as it was closer to my own playing style. Plus, Flint was still in the band, so we worked things out together. The Frost and Fire stuff, had me kind of stumped, so we just moved onto what was doable for me. Looking back, I remember when it came to learning solos, I only picked up on the most prominent signature parts of solos. I guess that I just didn’t spend enough time listening, and paying close attention to details in Jerry’s soloing nuances. For Paradise Lost, I was set free to be more of myself, while still remaining conscience of my predecessors’ legacy. For The 2016 reunion, as we put our set list together for our first show in 25 years, I decided to spend a lot more time listening very closely to Jerry’s playing. Now that I have computer technology that allows for playback manipulation, I was able to learn and practice more efficiently. Also, as I went through Jerry’s solos, section by section I tried hard to get as much note for note as possible, and document it on Power Tab Editor 1.7 for easy reference. All of that payed off in the long run. Now that I have a better understanding of how Jerry played, it’s become second nature and muscle memory has taken hold.
A hard work that magnifies both you and Jerry’s legacy. You have also recruited Greg Lindstrom, an old mate of the band. How does it feel Greg to be back on the epic ship?
Greg: It’s amazing to me the amount of respect we get. Or maybe people are just being polite because I’m old! A friend of mine said to me that it’s too bad it took so long for CU to get recognized, but I just feel grateful for the fact that people still love our music. There’s a whole lot of people who have achieved great things and have only been recognized after they die, or maybe never acknowledged at all. It’s pretty humbling to have a hall full of people singing along to your lyrics, so I feel blessed (by Cthulhu).
Very true. The fucking covid19 has deprived us from your show in the Keep It True, how are you dealing with this situation?
Rob: This is a nightmare unequaled in our lifetime, and many have suffered, including the ultimate fate. Our hope is that we survive, and come out the other side stronger, and more appreciative of what we all have. I was so looking forward to our show at “Rock the Night” as it was the first show we ever played in Spain. However, it will rise again, and we will be there when it does!
Hopefully so, man. There will be more editions of the Frost and Fire fest?
Jarvis: When the inspiration strikes me, then yes, I’m sure there will be. I only do things when I’m inspired and can put my whole heart and effort into it. Otherwise it’s cheap and it feels and looks that way.
We are finishing, thank you for the patience. Favorite album of you career and a moment you have frozen in your mind to never ever forget?
Rob: My favorite album is the one not yet created! When I look back on the recent years, the memories I have, are burned indelibly into my consciousness! They are filled with endless flights to distant destinations, meeting new friends, and playing at venues that once were only a dream back when we started. One moment however is seared into my mind. We played the “Chaos Descends Festival” out in the forest near Crispendorf Germany. The festival is named after one of our songs, and set in a scenic rural location that was surreal. A beautiful yet haunting valley, set between two small mountains with a lonely river snaking between them, and small train circling the area. I remember looking out from behind the drums, while pounding out our song “Chaos Descends”, seeing the trees and stars, and hearing the huddled masses humming out the refrain, louder than our amps. I could feel a direct connection to the earth elementals, and all those fevered souls in attendance, rhythmic swaying in frenzied unison, with the pulsing of the molten metal we were laying out before them! The feeling I experienced was beyond description, and will remain as long as I live!
What better way to finish than with those beatiful words, Rob! Thank you for your time, for all the albums you have created and for being back in the only way possible: up to your legacy. If you wish to add something…
Rob: Alberto, thank you again for your interest in “Cirith Ungol”. I hope that when “Rock the Night” is rescheduled, we will pay our long overdue first visit to Spain. I hope to see you, and all our friends there, and we will share with you all, the power and might of Ungol!