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- 🔍Interview – Robert Garven (DuckDuckGo search or Google search or WP search)
Cirith Ungol is one of those legends of underground heavy metal, and like many, they didn’t have the success they deserved in the 80’s… But they’re back with a new album, « Forever Black », released last month by Metal Blade Records ! (you can read my review of the album here). I was supposed to interview them when they come to the Courts of Chaos Festival, for their first french show… But you probably heard about a little thing called SARS-CoV-2, didn’t you? Robert Garven, drummer of the band, agreed to answer my questions by e-mail instead. And I had a lot of questions…
With a new album just released, a live album last year, and many gigs planned (before the pandemic… ), the band seems to be at its best, even after so many years of silence. This is impressive when you know that the band split in 1992. I wasn’t even born! I’m sorry, because I know this question has probably been asked hundreds of times in previous interviews, but could you briefly tell us about the resurrection of Cirith Ungol ? How did it happen?
Robert Garven : Thank you so much Ewen. I am glad to answer your questions about Cirith Ungol ! 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, 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!
Have you ever thought about reforming the band in the past?
Several had contacted different members of the band over the years, but I had sworn an oath never to touch another drumstick as long as I lived!
You swore not to play music anymore. Are you happy to have broken your promise and to play drums again? To play live and to record new songs with the others? Was it hard after all this time?
As soon as we were seriously presented with viable opportunity to get the band back together, I was on board. I had never stopped dreaming of playing drums, and the band, so for me it was a second chance at my dream. Playing drums was easy, getting a drum set and finding a band room was a bit more difficult, but everything fell together like magic!
You could have just played your old songs in your shows, surfing on the wave of nostalgia. When did you decide to record a new album ? Did the « Witch’s Game » single make you want to go back to the studio for a full album?
As soon as we had found a band room we started working on new songs, we never thought a new album was certain, but it was something in the bands DNA. After « Witch’s Game » came out many reviewers hoped a new album would follow, and as soon as we heard that we started seriously to bang the molten metal into shape.
Could you tell us a little about « Witch’s Game » ? How did you come to compose a song for an animated movie?
« Witch’s Game » came about when Tim found mention of movie « The Planet of Doom » on the Internet. Jarvis contacted the producers as we had a song, « Doomed Planet », on our « One Foot in Hell » album. This movie is one continuous tale broken up into 15 chapters, each interpreted by a different artist and musical band. The artists in our chapter are Andrei Bouzikov, and Joel Abad. It is an animated feature length film in which the hero, Halvar the brave, seeks vengeance aboard a witch-born chopper, journeying across a psychedelic landscape on a quest to defeat the deadly beast Mördvél for the slaying of his beloved bride. The art director and producer David Paul Seymour, and the animator and director Tim Granda, were long time fans of the band, and wanted to use « Doomed Planet », during the closing credits of the movie. Fortunately for us one of the other bands in the movie had to drop out, so we were offered the opportunity to write an original composition for the movie. This song, « Witch’s Game », was composed specifically for a chapter in the movie where the hero of the movie “Halvar” enters a cave and encounters a witch who reads his tarot cards. During that reading he journeys into the cards, with some pretty trippy experiences! We are all very excited to work on this project, as we had never been involved in a motion picture soundtrack before, and we are eagerly awaiting the movie’s release, some time in 2021. You can follow its progress online.
Awesome line up, uh ?
« Forever Black », is a success in my opinion. Listening to it, it’s as if you never stopped playing, as if it had been released in the 80’s. Are these only brand new compositions or did you use some old songs that had never been recorded?
“Forever Black” is entirely new material, we wanted it to be a proper successor to our line of studio albums. That is exactly why we did not include « Witch’s Game » or “Brutish Manchild”. We wanted it to be a monument to stand proudly on its own!
Brutish Manchild was released as an exclusive flexi-disc for Decibel Magazine
Did you compose the new songs together, or is one of you the « official » composer? And who wrote the lyrics?
The songs were written in the same manner as before we broke up. We forge a song the same way a master blacksmith creates a fine battle sword, adding the correct alloys, to make it strong and true, then hammering these elements of molten metal, to add strength and character, finally quenching it in the blood of the unavenged! When it is completed, we all have blood on our hands!
I wrote the lyrics to “Legions Arise” wanting it to be the sequel to « Join the Legion » and a call to arms. The Frost Monstreme” & “The Fire Devine” being Greg’s lyrics and hark back to our early « Sword and Sorcery » inspirations, with the rest being Tim’s dystopian nightmare. All together conjuring up of the darker side of man’s eternal struggle, « A Churning Maelstrom of Metal Chaos Descending! »
Speaking of lyrics, those from « Legions Arise » are pretty eloquent : « The kings have returned » to lead their legions ! What are you planning for the future? Do you feel that « Forever Black » is only the first step of a new journey?
Nothing short of world domination! I know some of our lyrics may seem outrageous, such as “Legions Arise”. However, we have truly been on a lifelong crusade to raise the banner of true metal, as a beacon for all to follow, and as Chaos Descends, false metal will fall!
It has been a long time since you recorded « Paradise Lost ». What do you think about new recording technologies?
It is amazing! As soon as we located a band room we bought a small 24 track digital recorder, mikes, headphones, cables, etc. and starting recording demos, as we were writing the songs, so that experience along with « Witch’s Game », was our introduction to the digital medium. Some of these demo versions 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. The technology of recording has changed, tape still has more headroom, however digital recording has unlimited creativity and flexibility.
Greg is also playing in his band Falcon. But were Tim, Jim and you still composing and playing during all these years? (In a band or for pleasure only)
After the breakup in 1991, the band all went their separate ways with careers, families and interests. Greg was the only one that continued playing professionally. When the band broke up in 1991, Tim and I decided to not proceed with music. The band seemed so historically significant to us, we had no interest in playing in any other group.
Tim’s voice is breathtaking on the new album (and during live shows too, according to the live album and videos). Did he have some difficulties to reach such a high level after all these years, or did he simply never lose his unique voice?
Tim is amazing, and no he never lost it. That is the number one question since we reunited, and he is a true force of nature!
As it is the tradition, Elric of Melniboné is on the artwork of the new album. Are you personally a heroic fantasy fan?
When the concept of the “Forever Black” album was coming to life, we wanted something equally dark and brooding as the music, for the cover. We found this small study of Michael’s entitled, “Elric in Exile”, which fit perfectly the atmosphere of the album concept. Ever since Greg and I were assigned to read “Lord of the Rings” in a literature class, we both were hooked on this genre, and the « Sword and Sorcery » theme has been a reoccurring image in our repertoire!
Your name comes from The Lord of the Rings, but it’s always Michael Moorcock’s character on your LPs, as if Elric was a member of the band. Is there a reason for this? Are you friends with Michael Whelan?
Ever since we forged a relationship with Michael Whelan with our first album, « Frost & Fire », our goal was to use his series of Elric of Melnibone covers from the 1980’s DAW Book editions for all our 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 be able to 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 friend, over the years!
The Melnibonean pale emperor and his black blade, mowing souls alongside Cirith Ungol since 1981
In the past, success was not always there… and few people really knew who you were. How does it feel to be considered as heavy metal legends today? To headline many festivals, and to see legions of fans wearing Elric on their T-shirts, and who know all your lyrics?
It is an honor to be thought of as such, but we still have a part to play in this ongoing saga of true metal, and we intend to build upon our past accomplishments to prove to an unsuspecting world the true nature of our being!
Do you think the internet played a role in this late success, allowing a new generation to discover your music?
The internet along with Metal Blade Records keeping our albums in print while the band slumbered, help keep the name and music alive, for a new generation of metal aficionados!
Labels weren’t always on your side. This seems really different today with Metal Blade. How does it feel to work with a label that believes in you?
Metal Blade Records has redefined our expectation of what a record company should be. The rereleases of « King of the Dead » and « Paradise Lost » along with our single, « Witch’s Game », and our live album « I’m Alive » have been extravagant productions, which we could have never dreamed of earlier in our career. We are immensely proud to be on the label that our friend Brian Slagel started, and has done so much for the metal community since 1982. We were on his first album « Metal Massacre I », with our song « Death of the Sun ». And everyone there is not just our label they are our friends!
Robert… Garvin? The last band reminds me something …
What do you think about the new generation of heavy metal bands like Eternal Champion, Visigoth, Smoulder or Night Demon (of course)?
It has been a fantastic experience to share the stage with so many accomplished musicians such as these. They are the next generation that will carry the torch of true metal forward, and when we finally exit the stage, we are assured that the torch will be carried forward in battle, by a new generation of the faithful! The bands you mentioned above are some of them for sure!
What’s your favorite album in the history of the band? And your favorite of your songs?
My favorite album is always the one we have not released yet! There are so many heavy songs over our entire catalog, it is hard to pick a favorite but for some reason « King of the Dead » has always got me worked up! On the new album it is probably “Nightmare”!
What is the favorite show of your career?
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 draw breath!
The pandemic has dealt a severe blow to all artists, forcing to cancel or postpone every gig, as the Keep It True festival, where you were supposed to headline two evenings in a row. How do you live this strange period? How do you feel about it?
This is a nightmare unequaled in our lifetime, and many have suffered many 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 Oliver’s « Keep it True Festival », as it was the first show we ever played on European soil, and we were so honored to have been asked to play two nights, one being the new album in it’s entirety. However, it will rise again also, and we will be there!
Your first French show was planned in the Courts of Chaos Festival, in Brittany. It’s a young festival, where bands like Manilla Road or Jag Panzer have already played, and I can assure you that you were very expected. As you know, this festival is postponed, and we don’t know yet when (or if) it will takes place this year. (it will be next year) Will you come and play for your French fans when it will be possible again?
After « Keep it True Festival » the band was going to travel to Brittany to visit, and see the megalithic monuments at Carnac, before the festival. This is a great disappointment, as playing in France was always a dream, a country of such rich historic figures, landscapes, and traditions. We will come to France and I hope soon!
The Courts of Chaos will rise again next year ! Be prepared !
Do you know some French metal bands?
I don’t have heard that many, but the ones I know of are ; Alcest, Year of No Light, Blut Aus Nord, and The Great Old Ones ( I am a huge H.P. Lovecraft fan too). I am looking forward to seeing more French bands at the Courts Of Chaos Festival when we come!
This is the end of this interview. Do you have something to add? A message to get across maybe?
Thank you and your readers, for you interest in Cirith Ungol! We would like to send our best wishes to all of you, and hope you are safe and healthy. Please pick up our new album “Forever Black”, and we look forward to seeing you, at a rescheduled Courts of Chaos Festival! We still have a few surprises up our sleeves, so stay tuned, and spread the news, so the Legions will Arise!!
Thank you for agreeing to answer my questions, it was an honor for me. I hope we will soon have the opportunity to meet in France! (I promise each of you a good French beer on occasion!) (I will not escape it, it’s written!)
Ewen, the honor has been all mine. I hope we can meet soon, and will gladly accept that French beer! Nous arriverons en France! Au revoir mon ami.
29 ans. Il aura fallu 29 longues années pour que le cinquième album de Cirith Ungol nous parvienne. Après 4 albums et un succès qui ne venait pas, le groupe semblait avoir définitivement renoncé, non sans s’être battu honorablement, acceptant de sombrer dans l’oubli. Seulement, le destin sait se montrer capricieux… Les années passant, le groupe a été redécouvert, et a progressivement obtenu un statut culte, les fans de heavy et de doom « traditionnel » offrant enfin à Cirith Ungol la reconnaissance qu’ils méritaient. Mieux vaut tard que jamais, comme on dit. Ça aurait très bien pu en rester là… Mais avec l’aide du bassiste Jarvis Leatherby (Night Demon), c’est une véritable renaissance, que nul n’espérait, qui a eu lieu. Une apparition à un festival organisé en leur honneur, puis un concert, puis d’autres… Et enfin un single, un album live, et ce 24 avril un véritable album, chez Metal Blade. Les vétérans sont de retour, et pour de bon semble-t-il.
– Petit aparté : Cirith Ungol est un groupe tout particulier pour moi. Je l’ai découvert quand je devais avoir une quinzaine d’années, un peu par hasard. Grand fan d’heroic fantasy, je dévorais les romans de Michael Moorcock, et en particulier le cycle d’Elric, ancien empereur de la civilisation décadente de Melniboné, un personnage extraordinairement puissant et à la fois très fragile, dépendant pour sa survie de son épée démoniaque Stormbringer, dotée d’une volonté propre. Quelle ne fut pas ma surprise de l’apercevoir un jour sur la pochette de « Frost and Fire » chez un disquaire! Sans même connaître le groupe, j’achète le disque… Et ce fut sans doute une des meilleures décisions qui soit. J’ai écouté les 4 albums en boucle pendant longtemps, et j’y suis souvent revenu. Ce fut une véritable surprise d’apprendre le retour du groupe, et depuis j’espère les voir enfin en live, ce rêve d’adolescence devenant enfin une possibilité. (Le Courts of Chaos devait les avoir en tête d’affiche au mois de mai pour leur premier concert en France, mais vous connaissez tous la situation actuelle… je garde espoir!) Les vidéos et l’album live sortis en fin d’année dernière prouvent qu’ils sont encore en grande forme, aussi dire que j’étais impatient de découvrir ce nouveau disque studio est un euphémisme. Mais je vais arrêter de parler de moi, et je vais revenir à ce « Forever Black »…
Vous l’aurez compris avec le morceau « Legions Arise », Cirith Ungol est bel et bien revenu, et et avec ces paroles on ne peut plus claires, ils tiennent à le faire savoir! Après une courte intro, c’est une déferlante de guitares qui nous frappe de plein fouet avec ce premier titre musclé qui vient faire le lien avec le « Join The Legion » de Paradise Lost. Oui, ça commence fort. Mais ce qui est particulièrement surprenant, c’est le chant de Tim Baker. Les années ne semblent pas avoir affaibli sa voix si particulière… Au contraire, il est plus affûté que jamais, et ne semble tout simplement pas avoir de limite ! A-t-il vendu son âme à Arioch pour conserver son timbre unique ? On dirait bien ! Mais il n’est pas le seul à être bien conservé, la performance de Robert Garven à la batterie est impressionnante, digne des anciens albums. De leur côté, le duo de guitaristes formé par Greg Lindstrom et Jim Barraza (réunis sur un album pour la première fois) fonctionne à merveille, assénant coup sur coup riffs destructeurs et solos redoutables, démontrant que les ans n’ont en rien entamé leur dextérité. Et quant au « nouveau venu », le bassiste Jarvis Leatherby, c’est comme s’il avait toujours été là, son jeu soutenant brillamment ses comparses, apportant une véritable épaisseur à tout l’album. On le sent à sa place parmi ces vétérans du metal !
Après la cavalcade effrénée de « Legions Arise » (qui serait parfaite pour ouvrir leurs prochains shows !), les titres qui suivent explorent les différentes facettes de la musique de Cirith Ungol. On retrouve les racines hard rock 70’s du groupe avec « The Fire Divine » ou « Fractus Promissum », du doom aux riffs écrasants avec « The Frost Monstreme » qui respire la nostalgie (on y retrouve d’ailleurs un bout du riff de « Frost and Fire », du premier album), ou le rouleau compresseur qu’est « Nightmare »… Le morceau central du disque, « Stormbringer », est un vrai bijou mid-tempo, s’ouvrant sur du chant clair, qui se change bien vite en rugissement quand les guitares durcissent le ton… Il s’agit du titre du disque qui se rapproche le plus d’une ballade, et c’est probablement une des meilleures chansons dédiés au personnage de Moorcock (et dieu sait qu’il y en a eu, j’y reviendrai un de ces jours, promis!).
L’album s’achève sur deux mastodontes, « Before Tomorrow », et le morceau titre, qui n’ont pas de quoi rougir face aux morceaux cultes du groupe, et qui devraient se faire sans peine une place dans les setlists à venir. Le premier aurait été à sa place parmi les meilleurs morceaux de King of The Dead avec un Tim plus furieux que jamais, son solo épique, et ses riffs dévastateurs qui évoquent une armée en marche, ne laissant que ruines sur son sillage fumant… « Forever Black » vient ensuite apporter le coup fatal, gravant au fer rouge ses mélodies sombres dans votre crâne, où elles devraient encore résonner un bon moment.
Cirith Ungol bénéficie également sur cet album d’une production de haut vol. Il faut dire que les techniques d’enregistrement et de mastering ont bien progressé depuis 1992! Le son est net, les instruments ressortent tous à la perfection, la voix est bien mise en valeur, et le résultat n’est pas lisse, mais tout en relief. Vivant. C’est bien simple, jamais le groupe de Ventura n’a si bien sonné. Et malgré les années, malgrés les progrès et l’apport de techniques modernes, leur son si particulier parvient à rester le même, comme si Forever Black n’était pas sorti ce mois-ci, mais à la fin des années 80, comme s’ils ne s’étaient jamais séparés.
Oui, Cirith Ungol est de retour, balayant les doutes, et prouvant que les années ne sont pas parvenues à émousser le tranchant de leur lame. A l’instar du Loup Blanc qui leur sert d’emblème, ils se sont dressés face au destin que les dieux de l’Ordre et du Chaos voulaient leur imposer, et ils semblent bien disposés à faucher de nombreuses âmes, à nouveau. Avec « Forever Black », le groupe parvient à rester fidèle à son style unique. A une époque où des groupes comme Eternal Champion ravagent tout sur leur passage, et où les grands de Manilla Road manquent cruellement, un comeback de ce niveau était inespéré. Si cet album doit être le dernier de leur carrière débutée en 1972, on ne pouvait rêver d’une plus belle épitaphe. Mais je pense qu’ils ne vont pas s’arrêter en si bon chemin, et qu’ils nous réservent encore de belles surprises!
Interview – Robert Garven – Cirith Ungol 🇺🇲 / 🇨🇵