Well, it seems that there is an 80s metal revival party going on right now so I may as well jump on and enjoy the ride. The legendary Californians, Cirith Ungol are back with their first release in nineteen years and to be honest, I forgot they even existed. I have mixed feelings on this album but they tend towards disappointment. Although I do appreciate it for what it is, a loincloth infused battle-axe wielding barbarian of an album, the music is also just as tropey as that metaphor.
I can’t say I have ever been a massive fan of Cirith Ungol. I found other bands of a similar vein to be more appealing, however, that is not to say I haven’t done my fair share of listening. I used to love putting on “Atom Smasher” and cruising with the windows down as much as any other weeb but after a few listens the repetitive vocal style would wear on me. One thing I have to say I prefer about Forever Black is the vocals. They are significantly improved from what I remember. Tim Baker’s vocal style, although as grizzly as ever, is far more versatile than before and I think it is admirable that he is taking the time to improve on his style and performance.
This album is also full of decent sounding riffs, all the way from slow gallops to blazing shreds. Compositionally, however, this album does not really give us anything we haven’t heard before. Tonally, I find Forever Black‘s mix to be rather bright and a little thin. I wouldn’t say this is so prominent that it makes the album off-putting and it is rather representative of classic 80s metal mixing, though I am not a huge fan of the thin guitar tones in this instance. I am generally a guitar solo junky but the ones off this album I found to be lackluster bar a couple. I think my biggest criticism of the album might be the tired themes. I can deal with cheese; I can deal with dragons and swords (in fact give me more), but I’m sure the lyricist/s could have come up with a better chorus than “the blind will lead the blind.” I personally am a huge fan of the ‘sword and sorcery’ genre and its subsequent appropriation by metal but using age-old tropes is not an excuse for generic writing.
Let me get to what I did enjoy about the album: although cliché, “The Frost Monstreme” has a great hammered-on riff coupled with a militaristic galloping verse that embodies almost everything I love about heavy metal. The triplet patterns heard in the chorus are unexpected but provide a pleasant groovy quality to the refrain. The middle section of the song goes full Sabbath although with a less satisfying solo but suitable, nonetheless. “Stormbringer” begins with an austere acoustic guitar part that instantly gives me the urge to drink mead around a wintery campfire. This song might include some of the best solos on the album and one of the most memorable choruses. The chorus riff has a great rhythmic quality, with the aforementioned triplets returning to bring the groove. This might be my pick of the album.
“Fractus Promissum” kicks off with a powerful anthemic quality. The primary riff has a folk-like tone to it that I enjoy, however, the song soon devolves into another stale set of tired riffs that don’t seem to catch my attention. A final mention goes to the main riff on “Before Tomorrow”; a song, which once again starts strong, before too long begins to sound like all the others.
Unfortunately, that is where my enjoyment of this album ended. I am far from a snob when it comes to music. I love cheese and I love heavy metal, but I just found that Forever Black didn’t hit many highs. It has a plodding quality and the songs meld from one to the next with only a few riffs bringing me out of my glazed overexpression. Many of the riffs and sounds on the album share a lot in common with bands such as Iron Maiden or Pagan Altar; however, I find both the lead guitar and vocal of both those bands to be stronger in presence and hold my attention far more.
As much as I tried my best to not disparage the entire album and highlight some qualities I enjoyed, I do not think I will be coming back to this one. Much like Robert E. Howard’s constant comparison of Conan to a lion or a leopard in the famous short stories, this album harps on with the same musical metaphors that we have heard since the dawn of metal. Like those paintings of animals you can buy on the side of the road or at a flea market here in South Africa, sure some of them may be painted by different people, but they all just look the same. At least the cover artist got the memo.
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Go grab a digital copy of Forever Black on the Cirith Ungol Bandcamp page. You can also grab a vinyl or CD as well as other various merch over at either Indie Merch or Kings Road Merch as well as tape if that’s your vibe.