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Music is a cornerstone of the human experience - 100%

Empyreal, December 12th, 2020
Written based on this version: 2017, Digital, Metal Blade Records (Bandcamp)

I remember hearing this at like age 17 and not getting it. There’s a case to be had for just shutting the fuck up sometimes when you don’t understand what an artist is doing. But not understanding so rarely goes hand in hand with the clarity to know when you’re out of depth.

I finally came back to Cirith Ungol this year ahead of their much-awaited new album, and reacquainted myself with their old stuff. King of the Dead is a striking thing. It’s a 1984 album that sounds like it was unearthed in a strange crypt, left there from 1975 or so. The guitars groove and noodle away like nothing else you’d hear in the mid-80s, and Tim Baker’s voice is an inimitable gritty shriek that, the more you hear it, makes a lot of sense. The whole thing was a bit absurd to me when I was young, but in reality, it is a fully realized sound from a band that knew what it was doing.

The thing that strikes me about King of the Dead now is just how much fun it is to listen to. Just for hearing the band play. Growing up on modern power metal acts and other forms of digitally-enhanced stuff, I don’t think I ever used to understand how fucking cool it was to just hear a talented band play. Robert Garven’s drumwork is ear-catching and cool as fuck, and the guitarwork from Jerry Fogle whips out all manner of winding, labyrinthine leads and swaggering, mammoth rhythms, while the bass from Michael Vujejia is a warbly wave of spacey fuzz that just rolls you along like you’re in the ocean. Baker’s voice is just another key instrument in the mix. The older I get, the more I love singers like this who don’t sound like anybody else. He has character.

The whole thing just sort of envelopes the ears. It’s constantly something new and cool to listen to, and when the longer tracks come on, like the stoned-out haze of “Master of the Pit” or the foreboding drawl of “Finger of Scorn,” you go with it – they could play a 20-minute prog jam and I’m sure it’d be entertaining. But all the songs are cool and fun to hear, all of them with creative hooks, dynamite choruses and lethally badass riffing. There’s a joy to music that just produces vibrant, entertaining sounds for a good chunk of time. If anything it’s the core of the human experience, with melodic sounds and songs bringing people together since civilization was in its infancy.

The whole thing just pops, rolling along like a wave of classic-rock inspired metallic carnage. Free from trends, they just do their own shit. As an artist, I dig the conviction and the dedication to their own ideas. I’m sure they could have gotten a smooth AOR singer and put in a bunch of keys and started singing love songs, but what would have been the fun in that? Fans of eclectic, unique music should find this a treasure.

The enigma of a glorified throwback. - 81%

hells_unicorn, April 6th, 2020
Written based on this version: 1999, CD, Metal Blade Records (Reissue, Remastered)

The allure of what some might call a classic album will tend to have roots to the antiquity of its adopted style, perhaps to the point of being the original progenitor of its recognized niche. Then again, there is often an appeal to an earlier sound at play that shapes its given classic status that makes it seem archaic even within the era of its birth, and often times its prestige can be the result of subsequent generations of listeners having a distorted context of where music was at a time that likely predated their time on this earth. Among the adored treasures of heavy metal's glory days is a charmingly ambitious, yet also stylistically old fashioned collection of metal-tinged, yet heavily 70s rock-informed songs that round out Cirith Ungol's sophomore LP King Of The Dead. Drawing from the same Tolkien-based lore that inspired their name, it is an album that deals primarily with the otherworldly, featuring cover art that dovetails with Aragorn's encounter with a monarch of the formerly living in The Return Of The King, yet was originally devised for one of Michael Moorcock's novels, a nevertheless fitting visual given parallel aesthetics featured on contemporary outings by Manowar, Manilla Road and several others.

Despite the fairly current visual orientation of this album, musically it comes off as something belonging a bit more to the previous decade from the one that witnessed its conception. The heavily low-fidelity, fuzz-driven character of the guitar tone and the looseness of the arrangement has all the hallmarks of a jam band that managed to stumble into being the missing link between the Black Sabbaths, Deep Purples and Blue Cheers of yesteryear and the ascendant U.S. power metal sound represented in Omen and Attacker. The riff work of guitarist Jerry Fogle, who found himself handling all the six-string work following co-founder and multi-instrumentalist Greg Lindstrom's departure, is the most metallic element at play, drawing a fair bit from the Tony Iommi well of ideas circa Master Of Reality and Vol. 4, but also displaying a bit more of a biting character to his lead work that wasn't really heard out of Sabbath's guitarist until Ronnie James Dio came into the fold. Apart from this, everything else screams 70s blues/rock fodder with a slightly grittier edge, from the Butler and Ward styled jamming of the rhythm section, to Tim Baker's primal shrieks being all but a dead-ringer to Brian Johnson's tenure with Geordie.

To put it bluntly, by 1984 standards this album was a bit short on originality and brought to the American epic metal scene what White Spirit and Demon's affinity for 70s rock orthodoxy brought to the NWOBHM. Nevertheless, it makes a solid showing in its adopted style and does manage to throw in a few surprises despite being several years behind the evolutionary strides of Omen's Battle Cry and Helstar's Burning Star in turning metal into a high-impact experience as well as a lofty epic journey. Of particular note is the free-flowing journey from a slow-building march to an up tempo crunch that is the title anthem "King Of The Dead", which is somewhat reminiscent of Diamond Head's "Am I Evil?" with a bit more of a Vol. 4 meets Rising demeanor and puts a greater emphasis on instrumental storytelling with minimal vocal contribution. Somewhat more compact and up beat rockers like "Atom Smasher" (which dates back to their 1978 debut The Orange Album) and "Death Of The Sun" also work well as catchier fodder, though this is an album that generally functions on longer fair with a lot of drawn out jam segments, underscored by a Rainbow-like rendition of J.S. Bach's famed "Toccata In D", showcasing Fogle's Blackmore meets Uli Jon Roth-influenced prowess as a soloist.

There is a certain logic to the legendary status that has been attributed to this album, particularly when considering the multiple revivals that this older, more primitive and rock-based mode of metal has enjoyed thanks to the entry of bands like Slough Feg, Dawnbringer and even younger still outfits in Atlantean Kodex and Realmbuilder, to speak nothing for the ongoing New Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal. All the same, there is a tad too much slavishness to older traditions at play in this album that cut against its cult-status a fair bit, not to mention the extremely uneven mixture of its various moving parts giving it something approaching mid-70s sonic territory. Given the similarly archaic album that preceded this and the greater degree of cohesion that would come about as this band's career progressed, this is a band that was in a very slow evolutionary state and wouldn't hit their full potential until the twilight of their original run, which is a bit puzzling given that they'd been toiling in some capacity since 1972. It's a solid opus in a style that was about a decade behind the times, but the greatness that is often projected upon it seems more a product of fascination with the past than anything truly groundbreaking about the content itself.

The future's here! Or hadn't you heard? - 95%

Jophelerx, August 20th, 2015

Following the progression of traditional metal throughout the early 80s is such a riveting experience; from Diamond Head to Manowar to Queensryche to...wait a minute, WHAT? Where the FUCK did Cirith Ungol's King of the Dead come from? Sure, the Californian act was never your standard meat and potatoes heavy metal act, but Frost and Fire wasn't that far out of the general ballpark. Vocalist Tim Baker didn't have terribly usual heavy metal vocals, but his performance on the 1980 debut full-length was something of a Bon Scott impression (though of course Baker brought some of his own character as well), which was hardly the strangest direction to hear a vocalist take in 1980. The occasional cheesy synths sounded a little out of place, too, but still nothing too bizarre for the time. Enter 1984's followup King of the Dead. At first glance it probably wouldn't seem much of a departure, as the fantasy art courtesy of Michael Whelan was still there, and Frost and Fire is a title that also invokes ideas of high fantasy, so the name King of the Dead, while perhaps somewhat bolder, doesn't stray far from those roots. As soon as you actually started listening to the album, though, it was clear we weren't in Kansas anymore. King of the Dead wasn't necessarily worse than the debut, nor was it necessarily an improvement, but one thing clear on the very first listen is that it's fucking weird. The production is utterly bizarre, with a murky, somewhat harsh guitar tone which makes the album even more difficult to access and wasn't like any other sound present at the time. The bass was also quite high in the mix, which might have seemed like coincidence until you realized that the bass was actually doing shit on this album. Add to that Baker's vocal performance, which essentially takes the high-pitched yells from the debut to their logical extreme, creating some insane alien goblin bark, and the album was enough to offset all but the most dedicated listeners.

Of course, even to those who hated it upon first listen, it's also clear this wasn't just some slapped together, low budget (well, it may have been, but I'm sure the production choice must have been at least partially intentional) bedroom project; the album is not only weird as hell, it's also complex as hell. Classically-inspired riffing patterns, long and involved guitar solos, and fairly long track lengths abound; whether or not you enjoy the album, clearly a lot of work went into the songwriting process. It's hard to say what exactly inspired this dramatic increase in ambition, grandiosity, and all things esoteric; it could have had something to do with the replacement of bassist/second guitarist Greg Lindstrom with bassist Michael Vujejia, or, more likely, as the story goes, they used some of their more commercial material on Frost and Fire in an attempt to become commercial successful and, failing that, decided to turn the weird factor up to 11. Whatever the motivation, King of the Dead is certainly a one-of-a-kind work, and even the lyrics are quite the departure from their previous effort. The lighter, rock 'n' roll, somewhat humorous lyrics of the debut are replaced with involved and more complex fantastical storytelling, which fucking rules especially with Baker's inimitable delivery. I can't imagine anyone else singing (or insanely barking) lines like, "CROWN UPON HIS HEAD! KING OF ALL THE DEEEEAAAAD!" or "THE FINGER! OF SCORN! POINTS, TO, US ALL!!!" It's been said before and I agree that Tim Baker would sound terrible in virtually any other band, but in Cirith Ungol, especially this magnum opus of theirs, he's perfect in the most bizarre way possible. The only other vocalist I've heard who remotely resembles his performance here (I did say he resembled Bon Scott on the debut, but he doesn't here at all) is Skullview's Quimby Lewis, who more than likely took a lot of his direction from Baker himself, as their music, at least on their debut, is of a relatively similar style.

The album does also seem to follow an overall progression, rather than a collection of individual songs. It doesn't seem to be a concept album lyrically speaking, but musically there is a definite buildup throughout the album. The first two songs are relatively tame (and when I say relative, I mean only in relation to the songs after it on this album, as they're really not tame at all), then "Master of the Pit" comes in with those crazy classically-inspired super long solos I mentioned, most of which feature a bass and guitar harmony that's absurdly complex, with the bass essentially playing the role of a second guitar. While Michael Vujejia doesn't handle any lead guitar duties, the bass lines are so unorthodox and relentless that I can't fault him for it at all; among traditional metal albums, this is definitely in my top five for bass work, possibly even number one. The energy continues to rise with the title track and "Death of the Sun," which pummels you with this extremely frantic, relentless energy and finally leads into the slower, monstrous opus "Finger of Scorn" and ends (I know not technically, I'll explain in a minute) with the equally complex but less bizarre cover of "Toccata in Dm." Yes, "Cirith Ungol" is technically the album ender, but it feels completely out of place. It's a pretty significant step down from the rest of the album in both complexity and quality. Still not bad by any means, but a 4/5 song rather than the 5/5 we had with the first 6 tracks, and it doesn't really follow the energy progression that the rest of the album has. Overall, if this album consisted solely of the first 6 tracks, I would give it a 100%, but with the last two tracks being slightly under par, it's "merely" a top tier album and not the greatest album of all time. But if you're a fan of any sort of metal and don't mind getting into more esoteric albums as long as they're ambitious and rewarding, you need this album.

Cirith Ungols Best Effort - 100%

robertgarven, December 26th, 2010

As co-founder and drummer of Cirith Ungol for 22 years I feel I can say without a doubt that this was our best effort. A previous reviewer mentioned that "Frost & Fire" sounded thrown together. The real truth is that we had been in the band for 9 years already and "Frost & Fire" was our attempt to get airplay and find success with what we considered some of our more accessible music. When the local LA station KLOS played it once and considered it too heavy, we decided to go for broke with our second album. I disagree and think Tim singing is not only excellent and that "Frost & Fire" has some of his best vocals. "'I'm Alive" was one of our all time best songs, which we started almost every set with. The LA Times said that Pearl Jam's "Alive" was a blatant rip off of our song, which is debatable. Considering we produced, self recorded and paid for the entire project and that we were one of if not the first independent band to put out their own album during the wave of indie productions during that time, I think F&F and KOTD is a mandatory listen.

That said "King of the Dead" is my favorite and the last album which we had total control over. I am proud that we are mentioned in the same breath as bands that were epic and hope you all appreciate what we were trying to accomplish at a time when only big label bands had any chance of distribution or airplay.

If you play it loud it will kick your ass, if don't get it that's OK because we did not write it for you. If you do then all the suffering and hardship we went through for 22+ was worth it......... We were not trying to be like any other band, we were trying to be ourselves. Considering we are more well known now than when we were playing and will only see real success after we are dead, if even then you should all give us a break.

How many of you would work 22 years, 5 nights a week for free, this after putting in an 8 hour day job during just to pursue an ever elusive dream that is somehow always out of reach .............

Sincerely,

Rob Garven

Crown upon his head!! - 92%

caspian, January 3rd, 2010

My first listenings to Maiden, Priest etc. were somewhat disappointing. Back in '03 I think; I bought British Steel, Screaming for Vengeance and the Maiden s/t. I remember putting on BS and being completely underwhelmed. This is what was so revolutionary, got the christian right so angry, and still inspires so much passion? At the time I was a straight forward Metallica and Pantera fag, and really couldn't see what the fuss about this sort of music was about. Not as epic as Metallica, not as angry as Pantera, not as heavy as either, so it seemed.

Of course times changed, I got a bit less lame and slowly got into more of the "older" (read, pre-thrash) metal. I can't help but feel that if I heard something like this early on, though, it would've completely changed the way I viewed trad metal.

King of the Dead is a freakin' weird album. Vocals aside it's still super strange; long, progressive, genuinely dark and atmospheric. The bass is like a three legged crocodile in all of it's huge, swampy awkwardness, the guitar lines all skittering around like a drunken spider; splintering off into quick, squiggly lead lines whenever there's not big riffs to be played. The way the two guitars harmonise is weird as hell; coming in when it's not expected, not always perfectly on time but still somehow fitting it all perfectly.

The songs themselves remind me a lot of the first Iron Maiden album; fairly unpredictable song structures; essentially a band with progressive intentions getting the verse and chorus over and done with as quickly as possible so they can get to the next long instrumental section. It's extremely well done. Typically the focus is on enigmatic, monolithic sabbathian riffs (King of the Dead, Master of the Pit etc.) but there's a decent amount of variety here; a few very evocative acoustic sections, faster Maiden-esque sections and a lot of emotive, otherworldly lead workouts. The guitar tone here is fairly fuzzy and certainly not very powerful but it's weird tone really works; Cirith Ungol aren't trying to be the heaviest band around, and the mid rangey, fuzzy tone increases the strange, otherworldly feel that pervades the whole album.

The final piece to the already somewhat strange puzzle is the vocals. Baker's powerful-but-completely-tuneless vocals might seem as a total love or hate proposition (they're certainly the most famous/infamous part of the band) but that's not really the case; they're not used very often, and they really just aren't that bad. Like the guitar tone it's not really something that would work were the band covering, say, Blind Guardian, but Cirith are more about the atmosphere and the blistering, banshee wails of Tim Baker fit the band like a glove. He's not perfect, but could any other voice fit the otherworldly instrumentation as well as his? Probably not.

King of the Dead is weird, epic and dark- basically what heavy metal should sound like. Essential listening if you're a fan of any sort of metal; it's certainly traditional stuff that anyone, whether a committed black metal fan or drone doom fanatic can pick up and (with a few listens) enjoy.

How does a nine-foot skeleton sneak up on you? - 95%

Cheeses_Priced, April 20th, 2009

Makes sense that this band would cover Bach's famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. J.S. Bach, if you are not familiar, was sort of like the Cirith Ungol of the 18th century. Although universally recognized as a genius by the non-stupid in modern times, in olden days everyone thought he kind of sucked.

Keep in mind that he lived at the very tail-end of the Baroque period, and that the ongoing trend was toward more accessible and transparent music. All of that crazy polyphony sounds quintessentially Baroque to us moderners, but he was a little too Baroque for his contemporaries, who found his music backward, unhip, and out-of-touch with the times.

Same deal with Cirith Ungol: they're unique due to being more stereotypical than the stereotype. If somebody tells you that Iron Maiden is just some guy tunelessly yelling about Tolkein and science fiction, you can prove them wrong. If they say that about Cirith Ungol, they're closer to the truth, but they're still clueless. They embody the heavy metal cliché, right down to the apocryphal so-called-singer-who-is-just-screaming, but they're just so damned good at it. The aficionado will be pleased whereas listeners looking for “more than just metal” will be confused about the appeal.

The band can't be said to lack in creativity, either; they reinvented themselves with every album, even while sticking to their same trusty guns. “King of the Dead” is the doomiest, most diverse, and most progressive face the band put forward, veering from fairly straightforward and catchy heavy metal to lengthy epics, and is generally considered to be their best album. I think I prefer “One Foot in Hell” for sheer consistency, but it's not an issue I'd waste time arguing about. The dark, doomy title track, with a riff to rival Sabbath, is probably my favorite song by the band.

No less than King Fowley contributed the introductory liner notes to the remaster of Cirith Ungol's debut, “Frost and Fire”, and in them he makes a case for the band being an early example of death metal. I'm not altogether convinced, but the man does make a certain amount of sense: the atonal vocals are there, though more in the form of a wail than a growl, and their music is a little darker than we'd ordinarily expect of a heavy metal band. Regardless, consider this as a heavy metal band with special appeal for death metal fans, and be sure to check them out, if you haven't.

Bow Down and Kneel to Cirith Ungol - 100%

Lord_Elden, July 30th, 2007

I've noticed a funny thing about album cover art: The better the art, the better the music. While this isn't always true (say hello to Manowar's Into Glory Ride, horrendous and cheesy cover, but hey, the music's great), it's most definitely true in case of this album, fantastic cover art and consequently fantastic music. Interestingly enough the cover creates the same atmosphere as the music: epic, cavernous, gloomy and sinister. With other words, the cover art by Michael Whelan fits like a glove.

Agreeing with the band's drummer, Robert Garven, this is Cirith Ungol's best album. The band builds upon the foundation they laid down with the debut, but they manage to take it two notches further: the music is even darker and more sinister, akin to Doom Metal every now and then. Even if it's less evident than on the debut, the band is still rooted in the 70's and the influences occasionally shine through the mystical haze: Blue Öyster Cult, Sir Lord Baltimore, Bang, Mountain. However, never do they play copy-cats, even the moments where they slow down and go doom 'n' gloom they aren't exactly drenching the music with Black Sabbath worship, yes, it's there, but it's brilliantly subtle. Lead troll Tim Baker sounds more sinister than ever, his vocal chords summons demonic raspy schreeches which brings in mind the dark tongue of Mordor (and that perhaps isn't so much off considering the name of the band). Many persons are put off due to the nasal voice of Tim Baker, but I can't imagine a more fitting voice. His unique style combined with the mystical musical brew, which mostly flow from the slower doom-laden backbone to the occasional mid-paced stompery (and once even into the realm of classical music, Toccata in D minor works wonderfully well as an intro to the epic song Cirith Ungol by the way), conjures sonic-apocalyptic destruction of unimaginable magnitude.

Many are unhappy with the production claiming it's weak and terrible. It's not underproduced in the underground black metal fashion but it's not dandy or flashy either. The album was recorded on a shoe-string budget and for my money the cavernous production fits the sinister music perfectly creating an unsurpassed magickal aura (hell, at times Jerry's guitar almost sounds like a harpsichord of all things and, yes, it works, especially well when they play Bach).

A true landmark in the history of dark music Cirith Ungol's King of the Dead must be heard ("Made to be played at Maximum Volume" as the backside of the vinyl sleeve proudly proclaims) and experienced to be fully understood because mere words cannot possibly do it justice. Welcome to the brave new world of Cirith Ungol, a bizarre world of darkness and despair, a world which you'll re-visit again and again after the initial shock...


(Originally written for rateyourmusic.com under the moniker KingBizarre)

not so odd but utterly gloomy - 84%

metalpesant, April 5th, 2006

Considered by too many as merely an oddity in the then growing metal universe, Cirith ungol nonetheless left a unique mark on the style with a couple of brilliant albums. Their best known is without question King of the dead released in 1984, three years after their debut Frost and fire, an eternity considering that bands used to shelf a record at least once and sometimes even twice a year in those days.

Their quite original sound seems to have left a large number of fans and critics alike puzzled as to whom they should be compared to. Simplistic comparisons to Black Sabbath are somewhat pretty inaccurate and do not credit the group’s identity . Yes, they tend to lean on the doomier sides of things with slower atmospheric moods than others, but besides a couple of Sabbath sounding intro riffs (for example on the eponymous track Cirith ungol) they have scarcely anything in common with Ozzy’s former gang.

Actually, Cirith ungol on this record sounds a lot more like old Rush from their Caress of steel period and bits here and there from the Canadian band’s first four records up to 2112. Again this comparison is far from giving justice to Cirith ungol but I feel it is the closest one that could sum up the band’s sound. This is mostly audible, first in the bass sound,in some of the riffs and of course in Tim Baker’s raspy, high pitched wails, not unlike those of Geddy Lee from Rush.

The first side of King of the dead consisting of the first four songs reflects just that, Rush sounding riffs (complete with flange effects-Alex Lifeson trademark), fattened bass lines, precise drumming and of course the inhuman pitch from Baker.

Atom smasher opens things up with an apocalyptic tale of the atomic fate of mankind, one of the few upbeats songs on the record along with Death of the sun. Then follows two of the better tracks from Cirith ungol’s catalogue, Black machine and the epic Master of the pit considered to be their best song ever. By that time Cirith ungol have already taken us into their eerily dark world and finish side one with the doomy title track.

Side two is not as equally strong mostly because the numbers are not as memorable, this is not to say that it is uninteresting, the song Cirith ungol as a matter of fact could have easily been featured on the opening side, but all in all the first four tracks are the better. Toccata in D minor shows good musicianship but I find it a bit obsolete on this record, I would have preferred another original number besides this one.

Finally, I would just add that this album would have lacked something if it didn’t feature the magnificent Michael Whelan cover art, record covers often set the tone for the listener to indulge in the magic of the music and it was even more so in the times when vinyl was king.

Not terrible, but annoyingly underproduced - 69%

UltraBoris, June 9th, 2004

This album sound more like 1968 than anything else... a lurching creature, born of acid rock and struck by lightning, unleashed to tear the heads off of unsuspecting villagers as they sit and move their bowels. The production is somewhat reminiscent of Black Sabbath's first few LPs, though not nearly as gloomy. Ram Jam comes to mind, actually, as do any number of acid-rock bands (Cream, Iron Butterfly).

The riffage is undeniably metal, but the tone is somewhat questioning of this. The album is very 70s in nature, and stands in stark contrast to the year of release (1984): lots of strange, progressive constructions lifted straight from Deep Purple or even Yes, combined with an occasional inconsistency of riffage, where the intensity is gated under the choruses, a la Mountain. See "Atom Smasher" - when the vocals take over, they do truly take over.

Speaking of the vocals, that is probably the main drawback of the band. The singer isn't a shrieker in a traditional sense - he mocks power and manages to exude nothing of the sort. He's almost a parody of Ozzy, which is difficult enough to accomplish, given that Ozzy already is pretty much a parody. He's got a bit of a snarl, but at times it turns into a whine as he loses control of the middle and upper registers. "Cirith Ungol - tower of FIRE!" - that last word doesn't come out sounding nearly as impressive as one would expect.

The main highlight has to be the lead guitars. When the rhythm is being played, it is muffled, indistinct, and second-fiddle to the bass. But the leads are soaring and complex without being particularly noodly. The song structures tend to meander on the whole, but when the requisite solo interval comes in, a particular coherence is gained. Also, special note must be given to the Bach piece, which is integrated nicely with the rest of the work.

This band is hailed as being legends of classic metal... unfortunately, actually listening to them may result in somewhat of a shock. This may very well be for the most anachronistic of metalheads only. Those that reject everything after Sad Wings as being far too modern, take heed of this. No speed metal to be found here, so most reviewers from the 70s take note (I've read so many contemporary reviews decrying the late 70s Judas Priest, or even the end of Stairway to Heaven, as being complete noise, just because it is played fast!).

When all is said and done, this is no Black Sabbath. It's not bad, but certainly not legendary. At least two listens are required: first to get used to the shock of the strange production, and a second to hear what is actually going on. At that point, it becomes pretty enjoyable, but not a perfect album.