With: Robert Garven, Jr.
Conducted by: nikarg (e-mail)
Band profile: Cirith Ungol
If there is one band that personifies true metal in the ’80s, it is Cirith Ungol. Not the poser kind, but the kind that is lurking in the underground struggling to get recognition, but also refuses to follow trends or sell out. Tracks like “Frost And Fire”, “Master Of The Pit”, “Nadsokor”, and “Join The Legion” are real metal warrior anthems, and no matter how many years go by, they will always be engraved on the hearts and minds of those who appreciate purity in their metal. Formed in 1972, Cirith Ungol were probably born on the wrong side of the Atlantic and never managed to gain the popularity of many of their counterparts in Europe. The nineties were unfriendly for traditional metal in its entirety, and the heavy / doom defenders decided to call it quits in 1992 rather than seek commercial success by altering their sound and betraying their principles like so many other bands did. Cirith Ungol reunited and performed live again as a band for the first time in 2016, then they released the excellent single “Witch’s Game” in 2018, and on April 24th their fifth album, entitled Forever Black, will be unleashed via Metal Blade Records upon the world, 40 years after the band’s debut. Drummer and founding member Rob Garven was kind enough to answer a few questions about the new album and more.
Nik: Hello and thank you for doing this interview for Metal Storm. How did it feel to be in a recording studio after all these years? What was the atmosphere like and did you feel that all this new technology is somewhat alien to you?
Rob: Good to talk to you, we recently played in Helsinki at the Blow Up Festival, did you get to attend the show? [No, I didn’t. He probably thinks I live in Estonia.]
It was an amazing experience. We recorded the new album in a studio of a good friend Armand, the guitarist from Night Demon. Of course, it was very different from back when our last album came out. Thankfully we recorded our recent single “Witch’s Game” before, so we already knew the process. We also bought a Tascam 24 track digital recorder to work on demos, for writing new songs, so by the time we got to the album we knew what to expect. Also during the time we were apart, most of us had exposure to waveforms, recording software, etc. Greg [Lindstrom] recorded two albums with his band Falcon, and Jarvis [Leatherby] has been recording for many years also, so the technology was new but not unknown to us. Some of the demos will be on a limited edition box set on Metal Blade Records.
Nik: How did it actually happen for all of you to reunite and decide to become a band again?
Rob: I had a friend Carl Valdez, who was the original drummer in a punk band Ill Repute. He was long time friends with Jarvis, and kept telling me that Jarvis wanted to meet, to talk about our old band Cirith Ungol. We finally got together, and I was amazed at the stories about how when traveling with his band Night Demon, they met many who still were interested in our old band especially on the continent and he was interested in getting the band back together. Jarvis was putting on a festival in our hometown of Ventura, California, called the Frost & Fire Festival, and had bands from all over the world come and play. He asked if we would do a signing session and miraculously all the original members (except Jerry Fogle who has tragically passed away in 1998) attended. The festival was a success and at the signing session many showed up with albums to be signed and it seemed a new generation had discovered our music that 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 with 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 if we 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 and getting the band back together seemed like a long shot. We had to shake off the dust at first, but deep in our soul the fire of true metal burned, and we all decided to unleash the being called Ungol back unto the world!
Cirith Ungol in 2020
Nik: Do you ever think that you shouldn’t have broken up when you did? Looking back, do you now see that maybe there were other options available?
Rob: Tim and I were the last two guys in the band when we finally decided to call it a day. Paradise Lost for some reason could not get released in Europe, where our core audience was. Jimmy had left the band, and we were contemplating what to do. The music scene out here was changing, all the hair bands were popular, the metal was becoming increasingly faster, and the music which we grew up on and played seemed to be out of fashion. Of course, all these were fads and true metal will never die, but at the time we saw the writing on the wall. The being called Ungol slipped beneath the waves like the elder god Cthulhu, waiting for a time when the stars would align and we would rise to unleash havoc upon the world!
Nik: Was a new studio album something you felt you had to do? It often happens that when legendary bands perform live, the crowd demands to hear what they call “the classics”, no matter how good your latest release is.
Rob: As soon as we got back together, we started working on new material, we never knew there would be another album, but that is what musicians do. Between rehearsing for shows we would work on new songs. Tim found a movie The Planet of Doom in production on the Internet. We contacted the producers because we had a song, “Doomed Planet”, on our One Foot In Hell album. The Planet of Doom movie is one continuous tale broken up into 15 chapters, each interpreted by a different artist and musical band. 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 segment 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. When “Witch’s Game” was released in September 2018 the reactions were positive and we realized that a new studio album could be a possibility!
Nik: When listening to the new album, it feels as though Cirith Ungol never ceased to exist. Do you think it sounds closer to any of your past albums in particular?
Rob: Well no doubt we still sound the same as we are Cirith Ungol, and we sort of picked up where we left off. I think obviously it is closer to Paradise Lost because of Jimmy’s guitar work, but there are also elements and nods to much of our earlier work.
Nik: Who was involved in the songwriting? Can you describe the process a little bit for our readers?
Rob: All the music was written as a group. We write songs the way a skilled artisan creates a sword, adding all the right elements and pounding the metal until it is strong, quenching it is the blood of the unavenged! HA Jimmy is a riff master, hammering out riffs which we then all pound into molten metal! The lyrics were all written by Tim, except “The Frost Monstreme” and “The Fire Divine” that were written by Greg, and I wrote “Legions Arise”.
Nik: What are the lyrics about?
Rob: Tim’s lyrics are epic dystopian sagas, and reflect a continuing dark and gloomy recurring theme of the band, conjuring up images of the darker side of man’s internal struggle, “A Churning Maelstrom of Metal Chaos Descending!” Greg’s two songs are a link back to our roots with Frost And Fire. For “Legions Arise” I wanted lyrics that would be part two of “Join The Legion”, calling the faithful to rise up!
Nik: Did you explore the possibility of postponing the release of Forever Black due to the coronavirus outbreak?
Rob: The album and everything was already in production when this tragedy hit, with orders already placed, and to my understanding that was never an option.
Nik: Do you have an opinion on the current state of affairs in the world? Do you think this pandemic is going to change the way we view our lives in general?
Rob: Well the world is heading for some dark times, and Forever Black is just another reflection on the world we have created, truly a “Doomed Planet”….
Nik: Do you care about politics? How do you see the political situation in the USA?
Rob: Of course everyone has their opinion, but we are trying to concentrate on metal!
Nik: Is there a difference in how traditional metal is welcomed by fans in different continents (Europe, North America, Asia, etc)? Do you think there has been a change compared to the ’80s?
Rob: Well for us for sure. We never made it across the pond before 2016, and playing sold out shows is pretty amazing. Of course our brand of metal is popular over here, but to a much more spread out population. In Europe you are lucky to have so many venues and festivals that celebrate classic metal, and many fans there to appreciate it!
Nik: Which is the best concert you have played in terms of crowd response and your own performance
Rob: Of course our first show here in Ventura 2016 Frost & Fire I, Keep it True Festival XX and Up The Hammers in Greece are all standouts as far as amazing crowds. The Greek crowds are the craziest! [Tell me about it] One concert is seared into my mind, it is when 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 location that was surreal. A beautiful yet haunting valley, set between two small mountains with a lonely river meandering between them, and small train circling the compound. 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!
Nik: Which is the band you have enjoyed playing with the most and is there a band that you would like to share the stage with but have not managed to do so yet?
Rob: We played with Lucifer’s Friend at the Hammer of Doom festival which was amazing, as they were one of our major influences growing up. Many shows we have played with Night Demon, and they are an incredible band live, so much power. I am hoping some day we can play with The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown as the only cover we ever recorded was one of theirs, “Fire”. We have played with some unbelievably talented acts, and have been proud to share the stage with so many transformative metal musicians!
Nik: What is happening to your plans for live performances amidst this uncertainty caused by the coronavirus?
Rob: Everyone is on a break right now, and many of our shows have been cancelled and rescheduled. We all hope that everyone makes it through safe and alive, and we hope to continue on the other side
Nik: Which is your favourite of Cirith Ungol’s first four albums and why?
Rob: My personal favorite is King Of The Dead as I feel we had reached a point where we sort of knew what we were doing yet totally unrestrained. We were still calling all the shots, and the music is very heavy. I love everything on there but “Master Of The Pit” and “King Of The Dead” are very heavy songs, also the solo on “Cirith Ungol” to me is one of the best we have ever done.
Nik: Do you have a song on Forever Black that is more special to you? And may I ask why you didn’t include “Witch’s Game” in the album?
Rob: Everyone in the band has their own favorites and there are many brutal and doom laced songs on that album, if I had to pick one it would be “Legions Arise”, I really dig the up-tempo beat to it, and Jimmy’s solo is epic. I explained above about how we came to write “Witch’s Game”, and that is a killer song we are all very proud of, but it was a separate project altogether. We wanted Forever Black to be a standalone new album, with all new material to take the band forward into the post-apocalyptic times.
Nik: Can you tell us more about the excellent artwork that reminisces the times before we had internet, when we bought records just because the cover was great?
Rob: I am so happy that albums have made a comeback for various reasons, especially the one you just mentioned, having a large format for the cover art is so incredible. But you brought up the conundrum, back in the day sometimes you would buy an album based on the artwork, only to have it not be so good, because there was no way to hear it easily.[You cannot imagine how much money I have wasted like that] Of course we have been privileged to have Michael Whelan’s incomparable art gracing our albums this being no different, a small study of his called Elric in Exile which perfectly reflects the brooding gloom and impending darkness of the album. The internet has caused many problems but the accessibility to all forms of music and genres is something I think has been very good. I think without it we would not be talking, because the new generation of Cirith Ungol listeners became aware of us because of this medium!
Nik: What kind of music and/or bands do you like listening to? Do you follow contemporary trends in music, either metal or other? And is there a new band or artist that you would recommend to our readers?
Rob: I listen to lots of music, much older stuff that influenced me, but also many new bands. There is so much good music out there, we are just happy that when the time comes to pass the torch of true metal, there will be many awaiting to raise it high and carry it forward.
Nik: Is there any advice you would give to young musicians and bands that are only now starting?
Rob: HA, I am not sure we should be the ones giving out advice. Many bands we came up with became very successful, while we languished in darkness and despair for so long. We recently shared an interview with a young band on a Texas college radio station where the same question was asked. Tim thought about it for a few seconds and then said, “You need to break up for 20 years”!
Nik: There has been a resurgence of traditional metal worldwide in recent years as well as an adoration for everything that is ’80s-related. Do you think the time has finally come for Cirith Ungol to get the recognition they deserve and become popular? Relatively speaking, that is; after all, it is metal we are talking about.
Rob: Some good music came out of the ’80s but it also, like many other eras, sometimes looks better from afar!! We went so long without much recognition so we are grateful to accept a bit now. The band will continue to play our own style of unique metal, and a few enlightened souls will rise, heed the call, and “Join The Legion”.
Nik: Have you got anything more you want to say to our readers that we forgot to ask you?
Rob: I would like to thank you and your readers for taking the time to listen to Cirith Ungol. Hoping everyone gets to check out Forever Black, and try to make it to one of our rare shows once we get through this painful period! We have a few tricks up our sleeves left and hope to carry the torch of true metal for a few more laps!
Nik: Thanks again for this interview.
Rob: Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions! Hope we get to see you soon at one of our shows!
Much appreciation to the legend Rob Garven who took the time to answer my questions. And also thanks for the shout out to the crazy Greek crowds, you’ll see me among them when you visit again.
nikarg @ Metal Storm