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Lost treasures come to light. - 88%

hells_unicorn, June 7th, 2021
Written based on this version: 2021, CD, Metal Blade Records (Limited edition, Digipak)

Over the past decade the metal scene has been fairly preoccupied with getting back to the good old days, which has been accompanied by a back-to-basics mode of stylistic traditionalism that has seen a flourishing revival of sounds not widely heard since the 70s and 80s. Mostly consisting of younger and newly formed bands emulating the doom and heavy metal sounds of a time prior to their birth, the aptly titled New Wave Of Traditional Heavy Metal and its more psychedelically-tinged sister movement has become a veritable force to be reckoned with, but it has not been alone in shaping the current return to the old ways. Whether incidentally coinciding with said movements or inspired by them, the archaic and fantastical sounds of one of metal’s best kept secrets, namely Cirith Ungol, re-emerged following a mid-2010s reunion and culminated in a 2020 comeback in Forever Black, reclaiming their pioneering status as purveyors of epic metal with a high fantasy bent.

With plans to tour on their monster of a return opus put in limbo by the Covid lockdowns, this quintet opted to re-enter the studio soon after finalizing their aforementioned 5th studio offering to rerecord some forgotten gems from their distant past. Though this band formative years reach back into an era where the definition of metal was quite loose and the rulebook scarcely held any pages, most of their known material is tied to when their sound had been largely codified in the 80s, at least until their obscure 1978 demo The Orange Album received a re-mastered rerelease late last year. That has now been further remedied with an EP’s worth of rerecorded material that has largely not scene a proper release dubbed Half Past Human, reaching back into that more stylistically loose and chaotic era prior to the release of their 1981 debut album Frost And Fire where metal could be described as a nastier and noisier cousin to hard rock, and giving it a current production that mirrors the band’s most recent work.

The result of this unique collision of the distant past and the present, coupled with a lineup that covers every era of the band, is a sound that is quite fitting to the current old school revival craze. Kicking off with a rocking banger and ode to hot-rodding in “Route 666”, which is also the only song on here to have had a prior release (a shorter version can be found at the end of The Orange Album), the resulting sound possesses both the gritty rocking attitude of Motorhead and the adventurous jamming sound and layered ideas of Black Sabbath. It’s a song that sounds highly appropriate to the year 1978, yet is so amped up by the energetic guitar display put on by band co-founder Greg Lindstrom and Paradise Lost-era shredder Jim Barraza, to speak nothing for Tim Baker’s forceful vocal display, that it feels like it could have been written during the Forever Black sessions. Special note should also be given to the brilliant way that the guitars emulate the sound of a car shifting gears, coming off as far more realistic when put against Mick Mars’ rendition of this effect on Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart”.

For the rest of the album’s duration both longtime fan and newcomer alike find themselves is uncharted territory, as each of the next 3 songs were not to be found on any prior releases under the Cirith Ungol name. Named in reference to their own moniker, “Shelob’s Lair” lays on the heaviness something fierce, frequently shifting between a down tempo stomp and a more driving feel reminiscent of “Paranoid”, and more than living up to their jam band tendencies with a series of wild bluesy rocking solos to put all of the vintage 70s shredders to shame. “Brutish Manchild”, which made the rounds as a single release included with the May 2020 Flexi issue of Decibel Magazine, has a more concise banger quality to it that emphasizes Baker’s shrieking yet punchy vocals, but also sees drummer Robert Garven mixing things up a good bit. But what truly steals the show is the closing epic monster of a title anthem “Half Past Human”, which really lays on the balladry, atmosphere and fantastical visuals to the point of rivaling the greatest masterworks of Manowar and Manilla Road while also sounding like the precursor of both.

Great works don’t necessarily have to come in big packages, and despite it clocking in at just over 20 minutes, the level of artistic prowess on display here rivals the longer offering that was Forever Black at every turn. Despite every musician in congress here other than recently recruited bassist Jarvis Leatherby of Night Demon fame being in their 60s, there is a youthful vigor to this collection of songs that makes it sound as if the band went back in time and brought the 1979 version of themselves forward to record this long delayed masterpiece on present day equipment. With just under 50 years of existence under their belts, Cirith Ungol continues to be the band to show the younger outfits how to get the job done. It embodies elements of just about every blues-based and melodic variant of metal that has been enjoying a renaissance of late, and despite the technically archaic origins of the material itself, is very much a current powerhouse for the current day.

Originally written for Sonic Perspectives (www.sonicperspectives.com)