Cirith Ungol’s general ‘sound’ makes them a sort of anomaly that’s set them apart from their peers from the beginning. Whether it’s superficially recognized or perceivable on a subconscious level, that’s a big part of their allure. Critics, labels, even fans have difficulty classifying the band’s unique style. Consequently, that inability to lump them into a category or compare them to other similar bands has confounded people within the ‘industry’ for a long time, now. Regardless, the four albums they released definitely managed to establish a following, but since the dissolution of the band in 1991, their popularity and fan-bases have seen steady exponential growth. Especially since the early aughts with wider Internet accessibility and the various music-acquiring platforms.
Recently, I had a chance to speak with Cirith Ungol’s drummer Rob Garven. It’s been written that he’d been a primary source of opposition regarding any kind of band reunion. The word was he’d sworn off his drums and completely refused to play anymore after being turned off by short-sided dealings with the industry’s shady powers that be, and that sort nonsense releasing their last record, Paradise Lost. This was all present in my mind as I began talking with him.
It turns out that Rob is a great ice-breaker. I was pretty surprised to find out that he’s got some general knowledge of the Native American presence in my region here. But, what’s more, is his fascination with the whole Mothman story from out of Point Pleasant, WV. Since certain aspects of Cirith Ungol’s music have undertones that flirt with turns toward the supernatural, it makes sense that he’d be at least remotely into lore pertaining inter-dimensional manifestations.
Early on, he mentioned that he’d be heading off to band rehearsal for a few hours following our discussion. That bit of information was a reassurance of sorts, to know that Cirith Ungol is presently working as a functioning band literally as we were speaking. Not that they haven’t been, it was just somehow reinforcing to know that the band isn’t just existing to make the live rounds, but they’re actively moving forward.
I didn’t know what to really expect before our conversation but I did figure that there’d be things that Rob might refuse to get into. His supposed opposition to reforming was something that I wanted to know more about but I didn’t want to press him for anything he wasn’t comfortable divulging. I certainly have no interest in dredging up any drama for the sake of gathering gossip or anything along those lines.
When it did come up, he actually seemed comfortable talking about his position and perspective. From his explanation, I got that he didn’t necessarily want to quit, there were just so many things happening that the morale was essentially at an all-time low. The full experience just took its toll on the remaining members at the end. “After the last record we did, Paradise Lost, we kind of got screwed over where we ended up signing over our rights for the record,” he explains. “It was really just me and Tim left. We were like, ‘Do we go out and pick a few other guys who are younger or do we just quit altogether?’ So, that was it.”
He continues, “I sold off all of my drums and I didn’t want to touch drumsticks ever again. I swore an oath that I’d never pick them [sticks] up again while there were still scumbags running the industry. It was always a struggle, trying to keep our heads above water, so when the band did break up I was just like, ‘Hey man, I’m done with all of this.’”
When a band that’s been long dormant, presumably dead, manages to accrue a larger posthumous following, there tends to be a sense of intrigue or even mystique surrounding them that piques new interest. Cirith Ungol is no exception there. But ultimately, it was the music that lured the hordes of fans over the years, thanks to the older fans keeping the flag high in the air for the younger generation to find and appreciate.
Over time, all four of the albums in the band’s catalog have proven to be extraordinarily strong and influential. “We wanted to play good music,” Rob says. “We spent tons of time and energy working music out.” It really only needed some word-of-mouth praise from other bands and underground music fans to get the fire lit. So, it’s literally been the name and their legacy that’ve kept the spirit of Cirith Ungol alive for more than 35 years.
For a good long time, even years, Rob says that Oliver Weinsheimer–the organizer of Germany’s Keep It True Festival)–had been in touch with him about bringing the band over to play the festival. And then Jarvis [Leatherby] began lobbying the band stateside to suit up again. Rob and Tim finally agreed to come sign autographs and mingle with fans at Frost and Fire in the states and Keep It True in Germany, the experiences moved them. Rob speaks modestly as he talks about how blown away they were by the impact Cirith Ungol has apparently had over the years. The outcome of those two events was clearly huge for him. “Now, the fact that our music apparently does mean something to people is not only a real honor, it’s shocking,” Rob admits. “We just don’t really see ourselves as one of those bands that could’ve had such an impact that our music has become a part of peoples’ lives the way the fans say the band’s done.”
Between being taken aback by the unexpected fanfare and discovering the level of their current popularity on two continents, it’s safe to say that the guys were in awe. Because so many people were willing to travel great distances and stand for hours in long lines, it helped change the way they’d been feeling about playing to the fans again. Rob says that came down to the fact that everyone was still around and theoretically and physically able to pull off a couple of shows. “We’re all still here and moving around, able to get up on the stage and actually play,” Rob asserts. “At that point, it almost felt like we’d be insulting all of the people who actually care about the band and the music.” So, they felt like it was the least that they could do for the faithful legions; bring the music back to the stage. Even if only for a few select engagements.
It’s kind of ironic that Cirith Ungol never really had an opportunity to do any touring anywhere, outside of a gig in Mexico City, when those influential records were being released decades ago. Fast forward to late 2019, since their incredibly successful performances at Frost and Fire and Keep It True following a decades-long dormancy, the band is in high demand and frequently appearing on festival rosters around the world.
Early on, after they’d done the first couple of gigs, the idea for a live recording came up. It definitely makes sense, just in case they would decide to pack it in, there’d be a recorded document of the ‘reunion’ performances for posterity if nothing else. “Then Metal Blade asked us if we wanted to do a live album,” Rob explains. “They were like, ‘Brian [Slagel] said that we could record two or three of our major shows during the year, take the best selections from all of them, and put a live record out.’ We’d never done a live album before.” By the time it was all said and done, they selected four performances to use: Up The Hammers Festival 2017, Hammer of Doom festivals in 2017 and ’18, then Germany’s Rock Hard Festival from 2018, as well.
“There’s a lot of great stuff on there,” Rob says. “I think we’re picking up steam with every show, getting more into the grove. We’re getting a little bit smarter along the way. Stuff like learning how to get the monitors set, quicker setup time, getting my drum set put together, learning all of the equipment, things like that. You know, just learning what to do so we can get out there and put on the best show experience we can.”
Remaining humble, throughout the whole of our conversation Rob kept going back to the fans, clearly still in amazement of their abiding support of the band. The reality of the love the fans have for the music that the band made together seems to really resonate with him. “It’s still real cool to look out into the crowd and see half of the people wearing Cirith Ungol shirts,” he says modestly. “Seeing the people out in the audience raising their hands and loving what we’re doing is so cool to see. For us to be able to get out and play for all of these people, especially having never been able to tour before, is just an honor. You know, we dreamed about it our whole lives but we never thought it would happen. Yeah… It’s just amazing to be able to get out and play again.”
We talked a little about the big question so many fans want to know–“Will there be any more new music from Cirith Ungol in the future?” Our fingers have been crossed since they released 2018’s surprise “Witch’s Game” single. Cirith Ungol – ”Witch’s Game” artwork_medWhile he was talking about band rehearsals, Rob told me that the band actually began throwing ideas for new music around during their first rehearsals for the Frost and Fire appearance. He says that it was immediately obvious that the chemistry is something that never went away. “We’ve got some really good material that we’re working on now,” he says, coyly. “I’m real excited about what’s going to happen. Other than that, all I’ll say is to stay tuned.”
He adds, “We weren’t planning to do a lot, but a lot of things just started happening. Now we’re playing a lot of big shows in places that we’ve all been wanting to go to. When the opportunities started coming, we wanted to take advantage of everything that we could. So now, we’re doing a lot of big things. It’s not like we’re ever going to get to make a second ‘comeback’. So, we just want to take this as far as we can. Take it day by day and see what we can do.”
As the conversation is wrapping up, it’s going through my mind that after jumping off of the line with me, Rob Garven will be heading out to rehearsal with the band that just happens to be Cirith Ungol. Despite the fact that their plans for the future are still relatively guarded for the moment, there’s a very hopeful feeling that’s generated by the thought that Cirith Ungol could quite easily be brewing something stellar on this very evening. Who knows? We’ll have to be patient and see.