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The tyrannical arachnid lord speaks! - 88%

hells_unicorn, April 7th, 2020
Written based on this version: 1999, CD, Metal Blade Records (Reissue)

Sometimes the legends that play out behind the stage can be even more intriguing than the ones being depicted in the regularly scheduled show, and this holds doubly true in the unique case of Cirith Ungol, an enigmatic trustee of old school heavy metal with one foot planted in the 80s and the other nestled very visible in the preceding decade. After toiling for the better part of 15 years in the underground of the California scene and some waves made by their highly regarded sophomore outing King Of The Dead, Metal Blade Records came calling and what transpired according to the cult conclave of loyalists to said album was the taming of the perfect metal beast into something safer for mainline metal distribution. Closer inspection, however, reveals this to be an inaccurate picture of what 1986's One Foot In Hell represents in relation to its immediate predecessor, as this album stands not so much as a tamed beast ready for display at the zoo but rather a schooled soldier who's newly acquired discipline gives him even greater prowess on the battlefield.

This isn't to say that the loose, jamming character that made this album's predecessor a perceived throwback to a bygone era, but more so that it has been tempered into something that is a bit more coherent and, dare it be said, accessible to an 80s metal audience. Not an iota of edge has been lost from Tim Baker's Brian Johnson on steroids shriek to the layered and nuanced interplay between the instrumentalists behind him, but instead these seemingly clashing elements are unified into something more cohesive. Then again, the riff work of Jerry Fogle has a bit more of a heavy-ended, punchy demeanor that is a fair bit closer to the signature USPM sound of Omen and Crimson Glory, though part of this can be credited to them being bolstered by a more tempered and less free-flowing performance of the rhythm section, particularly Flint's bass work, which blends in a bit more with the arrangement and goes a bit easier on the fills. Yet when comparing the result to the likes of The Curse or Chastain's Ruler Of The Wasteland, it retains a slight vintage Sabbath character, particularly when Fogle's Iommi-inspired guitar solos chime in.

Perhaps the only real casualty that results from this fine-tuning in approach is the prominent doom elements that permeated the entirety of their last album and gave it that vintage 70s demeanor. It is not completely gone, to be sure, but when hearing the fist-pounding gallop of "Blood & Iron" or the speed metal angst of "100 mph", the focus has shifted from a take on metal that is largely informed by what had occurred up until Judas Priest's Sad Wings Of Destiny towards where said British icons and a few others were pushing things towards the turn of the decade. It's an interesting contrast when Fogle's lead guitar playing, which is heavily informed both by Iommi's bluesy shredding and the more archaic sense of dueling harmonies explored by Thin Lizzy, because these songs are a bit heavier and swifter than where Sabbath was even during the first run with Dio. Even when getting into rich melodic anthems like "War Eternal" and the crunchy, bass-happy riff machine "Chaos Descends", there is a lingering affinity with the earliest days of the NWOBHM, largely shying away from the evolutionary steps that Iron Maiden had been pushing since Bruce Dickinson entered the equation.

Then again, there are some moments when the overt doom influences that shaped the previous album come raging forth and work even better than they did previously. The most auspicious of these is the full on Sabbath-inspired romp "Doomed Planet", which has some traces of lighter 70s rock a la UFO and Scorpions, but listens mostly like a darker and more aggressive cousin of "Hand Of Doom" minus all the quiet moments and plus a ridiculously neurotic performance out of Baker. It's not a full on seven minute jam like much of what typified King Of The Dead, but it distills that same spirit of fatalistic rage into a shorter and more potent package, and is arguably the most iconic song ever set to recording under the Cirith Ungol name. Similarly loose and gloomy takes on the metal format include the faster but free-flowing, drum happy cruiser "Nadsokor", naturally representing a more chaotic take on the doom aesthetic, and the almost "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" tribute and title track "One Foot In Hell", which arguably reaches the furthest into the 70s rock/metal throwback realm apart from "Doomed Planet" and features the wildest and most impressive lead guitar displays that would ever be heard out of Jerry Fogle (R.I.P.).

If one were to go by which album best represents this band's spirit of sound the best, this would be the one, both from a standpoint of accessibility and effectiveness. It retains a sufficient amount of the band's 70s roots while also showcasing a more complete embracing of 80s metal, the aspect of their sound that would come to dominate their final offering of their original run Paradise Lost. It's the earliest album in Cirith Ungol's career to come off as more metallic than it does rocking, and also a testament to the fact that even genius outfits will need some outside direction in order to truly maximize their potential. Sadly the cathartic state established by this band's union with Metal Blade Records would prove to be short-lived, as per the testimony of drummer Robert Garven, disappointing sales led to a short stint with another label that resorted to tyrannical means in order to morph the band into something more akin to where metal was going in the late 80s against their wishes, culminating in the exodus of Fogle and Flint not only from the band, but the entire music scene. But when all is said and done, an album lives and dies by its sonic content, not the drama surrounding its creation, and in that respect the latter days of this band's initial run is where things truly came together.

Doomed Planet - 80%

PhantomOTO, February 20th, 2008
Written based on this version: 1999, CD, Metal Blade Records (Reissue)

King of the Dead was an album that totally blew me away the first time I heard it, and continues to do so today. It's a monumental epic, flowing with dark atmosphere, apocalyptic imagery, and Cirith Ungol's unique brand of doomy metal (compared to Black Sabbath usually, but that's not entirely accurate), infused with a bit of psychedelic and progressive rock and topped off with Jerry Fogle's emotive guitar work, Tim Baker's banshee wailing, and the powerhouse rhythm section of Flint and Robert Garven, who came together to make the band a unique assemblage of talent, as each could have easily led his own band through sheer distinctiveness and mastery of his position.

In many ways, One Foot in Hell is a continuation of King of the Dead, but also condenses it. It is worth noting that although both albums feature eight tracks, One Foot in Hell is a full 10 minutes shorter. One can correctly guess from this that the arrangements are thus stripped pretty bare. There are no acoustic passages like in "Finger of Scorn", no extended lead breaks like in "Master of the Pit", and no instrumental classical interpretations like "Toccata in Dm". While the absence of such elements are somewhat missed (especially the extended lead breaks! Fogle remains one of the real greats of metal guitar), especially because the band was able to execute them so well and helped create the distinctive feel and experience of King of the Dead. In fact, at first I was somewhat disappointed in this record because of that. However, it soon becomes apparent that this is indeed Cirith Ungol's most metal album to date, thanks indeed to this stripped down aesthetic. Perhaps a contributing factor to this is the absence of Greg Lindstrom, who wrote most of the band's early material, and despite having left before King of the Dead was recorded, helped write most of that album. Despite that, this is a lean, mean album, a muscular affair unlike any other by Cirith Ungol. And as further listens reveal, this still retains the key elements to their greatness, the atmosphere of evil and destruction lurking just around the corner, and more simply, killer heavy metal riffs.

Song-wise, there aren't any real highlights, as the length and new approach to songwriting makes for a very consistently excellent listen, from the faster opening cut "Blood & Iron" with its gang shout chorus through slow burning stompers like "Nadsokor" and "Doomed Planet", sometimes trading off between tempos. "100 MPH" is the odd song out, dating from the 1970s and noticeably more like something from Frost and Fire and lyrics focused being a kick ass metal band (which ring true coming from them). On a slightly humorous note, an original demo recording of the song circa 1978-9 on Servants of Chaos has the second line sung as "we're the boys who play it," while on this version they refer to themselves as "the men who play it". Quite a bit of time had passed indeed for the band, as they had been at it almost 10 years before their debut. "War Eternal" has a stand out solo by Fogle, the only one here that really harks back to the glory of the middle section of "Master of the Pit", though each lead on the album is a small masterpiece as usual for him.

Arrangements aside, the element that suffers most from Lindstrom's absence is the lyrical department. Though sometimes there was less "mature" material like "Better Off Dead" or "Edge of a Knife" from their first album (not including the ultimate teen angst anthem "What Does It Take"!), they also came up with some very effective verse with powerful imagery on songs like "Frost and Fire", "I'm Alive", "Finger of Scorn", and "King of the Dead". Now, the lyrics are simpler and somewhat less imaginative when taken on their own. In the context of the music, the dark imagery is still very much present, and perhaps even the simple lyrics contribute to this, making it easy for the listener to visualize the scenes of war and Armageddon being described. The stark lyrics may also indicate the band's growing internal problems, for although they had dealt with similar subjects on their last album, this time the band was nearing a breaking point.

They had been around for over a decade and simply could not catch a break of any kind. Jerry Fogle was also battling alcoholism, and he and Flint would depart the band after this album, with Garven and Baker soldiering on for a desperate final stand in 1991 with two new members Paradise Lost, after which their terminally outdated and uncommercial approach and record company intrigues finally slew a mighty beast of heavy metal. Even more tragically, Jerry Fogle's drinking claimed his life in 1998. May he rest in peace, but the legacy of Cirith Ungol will live on as long as heavy metal is still loved. This, as with all Cirith Ungol, is essential listening for anyone who loves unique and powerful metal. Avoid it if you have some bizarre hatred for traditional metal, or are too busy posturing yourself as a "mature" and "enlightened" pseudo-Übermensch who is so consumed by a desire to listen to "higher-functioning" music, which is only sought for its use in furthering the self-absorbed image you put forth, that you are blinded to such a demonstration of skill and power through well done metal.

A Slightly Weaker Successor - 90%

Lord_Elden, July 31st, 2007

After the release of King of the Dead Cirith Ungol had gathered enough interest to get signed by a larger label: Metal Blade. Such deals are sometimes two-edged swords, while this ensured better production values, Metal Blade put the dogs of hell on a short leash diminishing the artistic freedom for the creative and innovative band. The music suffered a deficit of proper cirithungolism as it was molded to get a more "mainstream" sound for a larger market. Gone are most of the vintage roots from the 70's, instead the sound is more similar to the contemporary normal Heavy Metal bands. Whether this was a decision made by the band or if the label is behind it I do not know. Thankfully Tim Baker's raspy gnarl still evokes some mysticism and ensures that the band remains obscure but much of the old magick vibe is gone.

Fortunately, even if somewhat crippled by the new label, Cirith Ungol hadn't lost all their steam. The songwriting was still more or less top notch (100 MPH was written as early as 1980 when Greg Lindstrom was still in the band but the rest of the material is newer, the old version of 100 MPH can be heard on the compilation ' Servants of Chaos') even if the song structures are less complex and awe-evoking. The pace has been upped since the doom-laden King of the Dead, not a huge surprise taking in consideration it's 1986, the grand year of Thrash Metal. Whether or not it was progress is questionable but it was a rather logical evolutionary step. With that said, there are still a couple of slower doomy songs (Chaos Descends and Doomed Planet) but most of the material is now mid-paced and occasionally Cirith Ungol steps into Speed Metal territory (well, not quite, but compared to the other songs, 100 MPH is pretty damn fast).

Although, without doubt, a weaker album than the predecessor, it's a still a very worthwhile album, especially for Cirith Ungol fans.

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

I like the bug guy on the cover - 94%

Cheeses_Priced, March 25th, 2007

I'll make no secret of the fact that I listen to a lot more black/death/screamy/growly metal than “normal” heavy metal with singing and such, and for me and others in the same boat, finding really enjoyable heavy metal, when we're in the mood for it, can be a bit tough.

(Here and throughout the rest of this review, the term “heavy metal” is used in a sense that is somewhat generic but distinct from metal writ large; Iron Maiden and Metallica are very heavy metal, Deicide and Immortal are kind of heavy metal, Skepticism is barely heavy metal if at all – but they're all still metal. I'm not picky with terminology, I just want you to know what I'm talking about.)

I was raised on Paranoid and I sure hope we can all agree that Sabbath were a great band (they are the Beatles of metal), and I have my other favorites but truthfully I'm not spending a whole lot of time cranking up Priest/Maiden and it's usually annoying when proper death metal bands make a point of paying tribute to their roots, respecting the past etc. by including a lot of cliched '80s-riffs and hold-the-microphone-out-to-the-audience choruses. That's not the stuff I'm here for.

Yes, I hear you, grandpa – you used to walk to school in three feet of snow fighting off polar bears and you listened to Dio and he had big choruses and a solo in every song and you damn well liked it, and there's nothing that makes you more sick than this horrible death metal trend that's been going on for the past, uh, two decades and all these young whippersnappers who don't pay proper respect to the true roots of trueheavy metal. Okay. I was raised on Dio too, you know, and then and now he had not a solitary thing on Sabbath*. Or, as it turns out, on Cirith Ungol.

I must admit with no small amount of shame that while I've had this disc for years but have only begun to appreciate it recently. I'd listened to it maybe once or twice before – and then not all the way through, I don't think. Maybe I just wasn't approaching it from the proper frame of mind.

You have to give singer Tim Baker a moment or two to sink in, for starters. At first he's horrible... but then, you give it a second, you let your brain absorb it, and then, all of a sudden, he's perfect. His peculiar delivery is one of the more distinctive (and notorious) things about this band. It's a gravelly heavy metal wail, but totally tuneless for the most part, especially during the verses. It seems like the band hired a guy who has a powerful voice, one well-suited for the style, but never bothered to check up on the fact that he's tone deaf.

As it turns out he can sing about as well as he feels like at any particular point, and with a wide range on top of it, doing a big sing-song chorus here and then there a verse that's a little more like thrash metal, some deep booming barks but then an odd bit of backing falsetto. Even when there is an obvious melody for him to sing he's not one to color in the lines all the time, tending to wander out of key and favoring theatricallity over a strictly “correct” delivery.

The vocals set the tone of the music, not just with their over-the-top delivery but with the apocalyptic lyrics. The liner notes give special thanks to Michael Moorcock – maybe it's time I read a bit of his work? Because I can really feel this band's vibe. Iron Maiden's 3rd-grade book report literariness, for instance, doesn't quite gel with me and Mercyful Fate's spookiness is a little too “plastic cape” if you follow, but Cirith Ungol's ABCB rhyme scheme tales of barbarian warriors and earthly apocalypse hit just the right wavelength.

Way back when I heard, say, Kiss or Iron Maiden for the first time I was disappointed by their lack of evilness – this is what's got late-night televangelists up in arms, a bit of pyrotechnics and a rather cheerful song about the mark of the beast? Cirith Ungol are like what I imagined heavy metal to be like before I'd heard much of it: exaggerated and over-the-top, loaded with guitar solos and those bluesy early-80s riffs, but still dark and threatening. And no compromises. No flimsy attempt at a radio hit, no backing off the riffs and letting the vocalist do all the work so that we can have something easy to sing along to. There are slow doomy songs and fast aggressive songs, melodic parts and noisy parts and one “fun” song about being metal, but no laziness. Every single riff is attention-getting and distinctive and not for a single second does the music fail to rule.

Coming across this band now, after I've heard lots and lots metal, I still feel, weirdly enough, like I've never heard anything like them before. But if you played this for just some regular non-metal person, they wouldn't get it at all. Fantasy lyrics and yelling and playing fast – nothing that hasn't been done a million times before, right? But if it's this good it doesn't count as cliche, it's just doing things the way they ought to be done, and doing them right when any number of others have failed or ended up mediocre. It's unsurprising that this band has such a cult status.

* I'm thinking of Ozzy-era Black Sabbath here, but I guess Heaven and Hell would work about as well.

They’re Coming at 90 MPH - 90%

Reaper, August 14th, 2004

This is an excellent album that offers an enjoyable listen but does have a negative element to it. I am talking about the general atmosphere of the album. It does offer spectacularly catchy melodies and lyrics, but some of the songs do not coincide the vocals with the music as well as the song, “Chaos Descends.” In this song the music corresponds perfectly to Tim Baker’s unique and moderately raspy voice. Other songs, although almost perfectly executed, do not have the same concurrence between the music and the vocals. The songs are still kick ass, just not as much as “Chaos Descends,” which you probably already figured out, is the highlight song on the album.

The album opens with a moderately commendable song, “Blood & Iron.” The melody is catchy and riffs are adequately implemented throughout the whole song with a few impressing guitar solos in the middle. The lyrics do get a bit repetitive and the vocals correspond a bit weakly to the music, but other than this minor drawback the song is satisfactory.

As I have mentioned before, “Chaos Descends” is the strongest track on the album. It has the catchiest melodies, the finest chorus, and overall it produces the strongest atmosphere with its relatively tuned down guitars. The Doom Metal characteristic of Cirith Ungol’s genre is somewhat noticeable in this song due to the relatively deeper sound, which is produced by the guitars and bass drums. At about the middle, the tempo picks up and excellent guitar solos are introduced adding noteworthy variety to the song. The album is almost worth buying just for this song alone; however let us not overlook other notable songs, which make this album superior.

“100 MPH,” is another highlight song that offers vivacious instrumental parts and fun sing-along-to lyrics. The vocals are comparatively adequate as the vocals in, “Chaos Descends.” “Doomed Planet,” is the second best song on the album, as it closely resembles “Chaos Descends,” both in composition and general instrumental structure. It has similar mesmerizing choruses and melody. The last notable highlight is the title and closing track, “One Foot In Hell.” It concludes the album in an energetic manner, however a better closing track would have been “Doomed Planet,” as it literally ends with a bang. The song ends in a nicely carried out decrescendo that ends with a powerful snare drum blast. It’s not too big of a deal, just a personal opinion.

This is a very worthwhile album that offers memorable lyrics and melodies and is filled with energetic riffs and powerful solos on occasions. The Doom Metal characteristic is not very prevalent as most of the songs are lively and dynamic in nature. One Foot In Hell is a very worthy addition to any Metal collection.