It is astonishing that over 40 years ago a band like the adamant smashers Cirith Ungol formed when High School buddies in an AP English Class allowed their teenaged frustrations, and fiery passion for music to coincide with their appreciation and fondness for fantasy based literature like Tolkien or Michael Moorcock.
With one foot in the hell that was the LA Sunset Strip, soon these servants of chaos would be looking over the dead Californication scene, filled with glam wannabes of a paradise now lost. However, with a little fire in their mettle hearts, united by blood and ironbound integrity, Cirith Ungol would willingly perform at clubs like The Starwood and The Whisky with a style quite radical at the time. They were Heavy Metal, before anyone really knew what Metal even was! Maybe that’s why with only four studio albums, after four decades, their music still endures.
Even, though they garnered very little financial success, when bands opened for them often went on to superstardom. Thankfully, they would go on to sow the seeds along with acts like Omen and Manilla Road, which would influence many Greek and Italian acts, and be rightfully viewed as the distinguished progenitors for what is now considered Epic Metal.
I had the distinct honour to speak with the gregarious and assertive Robert Garven about the band’s history, and the celebrated re-release of ‘Servants Of Chaos’. Come join us before the lash, and see who gets the last laugh.
MettleAngel: Hey Brother, I was so grateful when I heard that Cirith Ungol were available for interviews. How does it feel to be in league with the elite who set the standard for what is now the genre of Epic Metal?
Robert: We owe it all to Brian Slagel! He was so instrumental in getting the band established. He hooked us up with our first record deal, and he has been keeping our music alive ever since.
MettleAngel: Along with Manilla Road and fellow label mates at the time – Omen, I consider you as being the Holy Trinity of Influence when it comes to the creators of Epic Metal.
Robert: We are so grateful to be appreciated after all of these years. It is like getting a pat on the back until it bleeds.
MettleAngel: I am amazed how much the bands and fans from Greece and Italy so worship you. I have heard DoomSword’s cover of “Nadsokor” and Assedium’s rendition of “Black Machine”. You can really hear the influence of Cirith Ungol in so many of those Greek and Italian Epic Metal acts.
Robert: When I hear these bands, and other bands that cover us, or are influenced by us, I am blown away, because many of them play even better than we ever could.
MettleAngel: I have not heard the Tribute album called ‘One Foot In Fire’ which honours Cirith Ungol.
Robert: We were grateful when we were contacted about him doing that. It is amazing how some of those bands on that Tribute really sound better than we ever did. A fan chose to release that. Honestly, I seldom listen to our older material, though, but when I do, I am impressed with the power of the original material. Brian sent me some newer bands that I am getting into like Powerwolf, Brainstorm, Falconer, and Autumn.
MettleAngel: I love Powerwolf! Their newest album was awesome! I have always been a fan of Falconer, and Mithotyn before them. I know there is also a Tribute to Manilla Road. Many of these bands from your era like Omen and their ilk are still attempting to remain active, even if only one main member now is present. I know both Cirith and Omen have lost members, who are now sadly deceased.
Robert: Yes, this is so.
MettleAngel: Even Chicago’s Slauter Xstroyes and Brocas Helm are playing The Ragnarocker Festival in May in Chicago. Has Cirith Ungol had any opportunities to tour lately?
Robert: We would love to go to Italy and all of Europe, for that matter. We want to honour our fans. We would love to check out the Ferrari factories, and hang with our Brothers in Metal. Unfortunately, we were never able to get the support to do that when we were together, and now as we get older we incur more responsibility, and this makes it tough for us to get over to Europe and play.
MettleAngel: I am sure that just breaks your mettle hearts! You just re-released the special edition of ‘Servants Of Chaos’ through Metal Blade. That came out over ten years ago, but only as an import, right?
Robert: We were so grateful when Brian wanted to do this for us. He had already re-released our older albums on Metal Blade, except ‘Paradise Lost’, as we could not get the rights to that. The original version of ‘Servants Of Chaos’ was available through Metal Blade Records in Germany.
MettleAngel: I had actually seen bootlegs of this at Record Shows.
Robert: I do not doubt that, as I have seen vinyl picture discs of our albums, which I know are not official, as well. I am of the mindset that exposure is the most important. We did not make much money then, and we do not make money now, but at least we are being heard by a new generation of fans, and the music is the most important thing!
MettleAngel: I hear that! You mentioned the Metal Blade Re-masters, and I have all of those, but I have the original pressing of ‘Paradise Lost’ on CD, and cassette. That is still my favourite album, next to ‘One Foot In Hell’.
Robert: There is an interesting story behind all the bullshit with ‘Paradise Lost’.
MettleAngel: Do tell!
Robert: Back when we were younger, it was always our dream to be on Warner Brothers Records with all of our idols. Well, we did not know that when we signed the deal for recording ‘Paradise Lost’, that we literally signed our lives away, forever.
MettleAngel: As did so many naive bands at the time, when Record labels were so corrupt.
Robert: The funny thing, is now Warner owns the rights to that album, so in a way, I guess you could say our dream came true, even if we did not see one red cent!
MettleAngel: That is sad, and cool, at the same time!
Robert: Yeah, the joke was on us, right!? I often unintentionally intimidated those Record executives. One time when there was a meeting at Restless Records, the president thought that I was there, but it was only Tim and the producer. As it turns out, they found him hiding in a closet trying to avoid me.
MettleAngel: No way!
Robert: All I ever wanted to do was promote the band, but sometimes, unfortunately, I think my enthusiasm losed more doors that should have stayed opened.
MettleAngel: That is hilarious! I am glad you gave that nebbish poseur some hell! We cannot always maintain our sang-froid demeanour.
Robert: The truth is that we were never pleased with the sound or recording process of ‘Paradise Lost’. It just did not have that live feel, and we all were in the studio separately, laying down our parts, me with a click track. I am more pleased with the versions found on ‘Servants Of Chaos’. These songs were actually demo versions which we did in order to get signed.
MettleAngel: Oh really?
Robert: We never paid for them, but the studio graciously gifted them to me for the project. They came closest to what we originally had in mind for the project.
MettleAngel: I always wondered why that German version was available in the US. Those live tracks on the DVD from the three disc re-issue of ‘Servants’ taken from the Los Angeles “Country Club” show really showcase how the band must have sounded live, back then. Your drum solo on the song “Cirith Ungol” is intense.
Robert: The rough video footage does that as well. Have you seen the DVD?
MettleAngel: Oh no, I only have the digital promo of this.
Robert: Then you are really missing out!
MettleAngel: I will have to check YouTube. I first discovered the band on a Metal Blade Compilation with the song “Blood & Iron”, which is weird, because I was also listening to Overkill’s song with the same name. Your band just really affected me, especially those eerie vocals.
Robert: I can see where his voice would have that effect. Tim’s vocals changed a bit from album to album. He did smoke cigarettes at the time. Although, I am not sure if that had anything to do with it, but I personally still like his vocals on the first two albums the most, as they are high pitched and sharp!
MettleAngel: Yes they are! Another thing that I will always remember is when I saw “Richard Pryor – Live On The Sunset Strip” on HBO. As he is getting out of his limousine, right there on the moniker at the Whisky is displayed Cirith Ungol playing live. I pointed that out to my wife when we recently watched it on DVD!
Robert: Yeah, that was a weird experience. I know that they blotted it out when it came out on VHS. There we were watching him pull up; not really knowing what was going on, as we were just playing another show at that club. Somehow the camera caught the Billboard, and now it is right there as the credits begin.
MettleAngel: If you are not looking for it, and you are caught up in the Richard Pryor introduction, you may miss it. I noticed it right away; and just laughed. I guess back then you were really tearing up the Sunset Strip.
Robert: We were always playing in LA. We played with some big names, who, at the time, were not that well known. Oh the stories I could tell you. I will say this, our album ‘King Of The Dead’ was released the same time as ‘Master Of Puppets’.
MettleAngel: I was not aware of that…
Robert: I am not sure why our album was not better received. However, having just spoken with Tim yesterday, we agreed that we were ahead of our time, and behind it.
MettleAngel: That is a good way to look at it.
Robert: With all the Glam and Speed Metal stuff going on at the time, we could have succeeded if we would have just been a few years earlier, or later…
MettleAngel: This is sad, but true. Metallica were on tour with Ozzy which really boosted their careers. The same thing happened for Mötley Crüe.
Robert: We knew all those bands. We even hung out with Rush before they hit it big. I took karate lessons from the same instructor as where David lee Roth’s father was training.
MettleAngel: I must say the new Van Halen did surprise me. It is way better than I had hoped. I am amazed that Cirith Ungol was not as successful as those other acts.
Robert: No one really knew what to think of us, save Brian Slagel.
MettleAngel: The style you played was hardly what MTV or the radio recognized as being quality music. I personally respect the band for creating the sound that you did, even if like Sabbath, you were unaware of what you were giving rise to, and the level of expertise that would influence generations; especially when you consider the subject matter and lyrical themes.
Robert: Yeah, we did not know what to label our sound as. We just wanted to play the music that we loved, and wear our influences on our sleeves. We were so into Scorpions before they ever hit it big in America. We listened to a lot of Prog. Rock too. We would shop this place called Moby Disc to get all the best imports. Brian Slagel was at Oz records, which is how we met him.
MettleAngel: Lars mentions this Record Store in the new Metallica Biography.
Robert: We had just finished producing our first album ‘Frost & Fire’, as a demo, and we were trying to get signed to a major label. He was starting his record company at that time.
MettleAngel: Ahh, the burgeoning early days of Metal Blade!
Robert: When he decided to do his first compilation known as ‘Metal Massacre 1’, he asked us to be on it.
MettleAngel: That also included bands like Malice. In San Diego, when it came to finding good underground music, we had places like Off The Record, Wherehouse Records, Tower Records, and Blue Meannie Records. I too loved getting into obscure bands. Hearing “Metal Shop” every week on the radio really helped me to learn about the Euro acts, as well.
Robert: Our photographer, who worked with us, later toured with Metallica. We got to go backstage with Maiden at the Long Beach Arena show. There was the backstage area, then the “real” backstage!
MettleAngel: I listened to everything on Metal Blade Records in the ’80s. I never considered Cirith Ungol to be thrash, any more than I saw Lizzy Borden as being “Hair Metal”. I felt that Omen had a very strong NWOBHM influence, but with Cirith Ungol I did not know what to make of it, or even how to pronounce it.
Robert: We use the “soft C” sound (Sirith Ungol). However the correct pronunciation in the book is like a “K”.
MettleAngel: I knew that Tolkien had the “Hard C” sound (Kirith). I saw the animated “Lord Of The Rings” when it hit theatres, and I was aware of the proper pronunciations. I first used the “Hard C” to address the band, until I heard someone say it with the “soft C”.
Robert: Greg and I were kids in a seventh grade AP English class reading Tolkien, not knowing how to properly pronounce it. We knew it made for a great band name, given the stuff we were totally into at the time.
MettleAngel: I guess it is like Celtic Frost. I have heard it spoken both ways. I too was way into D&D and Tolkien, so I loved it when I saw bands named after his works. When I first heard “Blood & Iron”, I was totally aware of the Tolkien reference. Back in the late ’70s reading Fantasy Novels was fun, and what I did when I was not doing school work, or playing with my Star Wars toys.
Robert: The band really struggled a lot in the early days. This is why it took so long between album releases. When we once won a “Battle Of The Bands” contest, and got a gift certificate for a free recording, this allowed us the opportunity to consider releasing our first album.
MettleAngel: I can see that…
Robert: We were one of the very first, if not the first band to release our own self-produced album at the time. It seems that directly after the release of ‘Frost & Fire’, there was a flood of other people doing it.
MettleAngel: No doubt! I wish I could have heard that when it first came out.
Robert: We had to borrow so much money to release more albums. We borrowed money from my parents, and rehearsed in my sister’s old bedroom. We were so over the top with huge Marshall Amps stacked to the ceiling and my drums set up to pound out those booming sounds.
MettleAngel: Like with so many other great bands that set a standard like Diamond Head, many of the bands influenced by you have been quite successful, even if over all you were not as fortunate.
Robert: Yeah, that is the way it goes, I guess. Life is all about struggle. Like I said, as long as people are hearing our music, I do not care if it is a bootleg, or a cover. However, I do want everyone to support Metal Blade Records; since they supported us.
MettleAngel: I agree! I have done this for well over two decades.
Robert: Also, if fans have not picked up our re-mastered CDs, they should, as they are still available!!
MettleAngel: I know I purchased all my Cirith Ungol re-masters on Metal Blade, and I just played them the other day. I wanted to ask you if the One Way Records 2 on 1 CD of ‘King Of The Dead’ And ‘Frost & Fire’ is official. This was the first way I was able to get these originally on CD, before the Metal Blade re-issues were unleashed.
Robert: Yeah, that one is official, and even if we were not properly reimbursed, at least we approved of the 2 on 1 release. There were still legal issues though. The Reborn Classics version was not an official release!
MettleAngel: Oh Yeah the Reborn Classics Boots are shit. That guy took everything off vinyl, and sold those boots for a fortune! I fell for a few of those back in the day too. I assumed the One Way Records was legitimate because I got my CD at Barnes & Noble, and they would not sell bootlegs.
Robert: Ultimately, Tim and I love doing these interviews to meet with fans like you. We appreciate all the recognition and would like for a new generation of Hard Rock / Heavy Metal fans to hear our music.
MettleAngel: The longevity of the band’s sound will always endure. Robert, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, and share with me so much about the band’s past.
Robert: Yes, Michael it was great to meet you and journey back. Thank you too, and do stay in touch.
MettleAngel: I will, and I wish all surviving members of the band, even if you are inactive, all the best, and know that we Metal fans are ever grateful for all that you have accomplished.
Robert: That means a great deal to me, Michael. Thank you again!