Proto-Doom Heroes Cirith Ungol Take a Giant Step Out of Hell
Cirith Ungol’s run of albums in the ’80s (and their 1991 swan song Paradise Lost) always seemed like lost classics in the heavy metal canon. Their combination of high fantasy themes and lumbering riffs in the Iommi / Blackmore mold should have been an easy fit for ’80s metal acclaim, but while there was always a devoted legion of fans, it’s only been in the last decade or so that Cirith Ungol have seen a real uptick in recognition.
On October 8, 2016, the Ventura, Calif., band performed their first concert in 25 years at the Frost and Fire festival (named after their first album, no less) to widespread acclaim. Below is a conversation with vocalist Tim Baker on the history of the band, as well as what the future may hold.
Cirith Ungol's history stretches well into the '70s. Though the band supposedly formed in 1972, and you joined in 1976, the first easily available material is from demos recorded in 1979 that are compiled on 2001's Servants of Chaos. Can you tell us about the early years of the band? What were your inspirations? What kind of gigs were you getting prior to getting any music out?
Hmmm ... I think I may have joined later than that. I met them around 1974 in high school. God, that’s old, man. I can’t remember the actual year I joined the band, but that was when I joined the legion, so to speak. Hanging out, watching practice, helping do sound for them, helping out when they were doing demo recordings.
Was there a scene in Ventura at that time? Was there anything going on?
Oh no. There was no rock scene. It was funny, because the way I came across them was I saw Greg [Lindstrom, guitarist], who had the Blue Öyster Cult symbol on a notebook at school, and I knew what that was, so I struck up a conversation. Greg was like, “Hey, I’m in a band — you should come hang out.” So, then I met Rob [Garven, drummer] and got directions up to his parents' house where they used to practice.
When you became the vocalist for Cirith Ungol, what was the state of the band at the time? What had they been doing? I’m curious about that early sort of undocumented era of the band since they had already been running for several years.
They used to do all those demos and stuff. Me and Rob would be up there singing along with the stuff they would record and experimenting with different ideas even before I was in the band. The singer they had at the time kind of went along the wayside, and they kind of tried out a couple of different guys before I got the gig, but as a result of just hanging around with Rob and helping out with vocals on some of the demos, I ended up as the singer. Or vocalist. I don’t know if I’m the singer …
You had a pretty unique voice for the time. What was it about you that you think they saw that made them say, “This is the guy”?
It actually wasn’t a unanimous decision. [Laughs] You know how it is, though — people either like what I do or they really don’t like what I do. Especially in the early days. It was really a lot more screechy than in the later years. It kind of grew on 'em, I guess, and it was just already kind of happening. It was an evolution, a natural progression of things. They were looking for something unique, and I guess that’s why I stuck around.
On the demos, you guys were doing a lot of songs with keyboards and synths, but by the time you get to Frost and Fire, most of that is gone. Is there any reason you guys dropped the keyboards?
Well, I guess because they were not really that heavy. You know, it was just an experiment, and everyone kind of had them at that time. I mean, what was happening in that era, punk had come along, but it was already kind of evolving into that weird New Wave stuff … A couple guys in the band were really into that. It would have been cool to have a keyboard player along the lines of Deep Purple or something, but that’s a totally different thing than what the keyboards were on some of those early demos, which were kind of a cheesy synthesizer thing. But you know, it was what it was; but, especially when Greg quit the band, we felt there was no use for having keyboards. We might have kept them if it had been a Hammond-type thing, but it was just a phase that came and went. I think it sounds better without 'em, even if they enhance certain things.
Did you guys ever play live with them?
We did. I can’t remember the songs, but for a couple live gigs I actually played a few things on the keyboard. For some of that weird stuff from the demos. But that didn’t last very long — it might have only been one time.
Before you had an album out, what were the early gigs you guys were doing like?
Mostly just local things. Those guys were playing around before I was in the band. Shows at school auditoriums, weird little clubs — there’s pictures of them playing at the beach and these things in the summertime where someone would pull up a giant flatbed and a bunch of bands would play. National Guard armories, battles of the bands and that kind of nonsense — we used to do those all the time. It was hilarious. There would be punk bands, folk bands, a whole mishmash of stuff.
There’s an infamous story that, to finance Frost and Fire, you won some money in a battle of the bands.
I don’t think we actually won, I think we came in second to some easy-listening band, but the prize was a certain amount of recording time at Goldmine, where we ended up doing all the records. One of the judges was, like, the guy that owned the studio. It was time to do something, so we took that time, plus came up with some additional money to finance the rest of it. I guess all those battle of the bands things weren’t such a crappy idea.
How long did it take to make Frost and Fire?
It took a while because it was self-financed, so we would have to wait to get studio time and then more money. It probably took maybe a couple weeks altogether, so not that long. We had all the songs, and we had already done them all at our home studio as demos. So, we already knew what they were gonna be, and what the overdubs would be. So, once we were in a real — at that time — 16-track studio, it was already kind of ready to go. It was just a matter of picking the songs and getting 'em done.
You pressed the record yourselves through a licensing deal with a distribution company. How did that get hooked up?
Here’s the thing about Frost and Fire: It was never ever supposed to be a record that was released to the public. At that time, every band in the world was making cassettes, and then they would send them out to the record company to try and get a deal. We knew people that worked in these places, and they would just take 'em home, erase 'em and record their own mixes over the tape — or throw 'em in the trash. So, we decided we had to self-finance something to show the industry what we’re actually capable of. Make a record, do it ourselves, the whole package, and then shop that around and show what we could do if we really get signed. What happened, though, is we ended up signing a distribution deal with an import company called Green World at the time, who we kind of got hooked up with through Brian Slagel, who we knew from before he was doing the Metal Blade label. He used to have a fanzine, and he worked at a record store we used to go down to all the time.
Green World decided to turn into an actual record company after that, called Enigma, so we ended up pressing more. I think we started off and maybe made 1,000, or maybe only 500. Then we made another 5,000. I have a couple around here, and you can tell by the numbers on the spine of the record that they’re original. But it was never really something for the general public, and that’s why it’s so much different then the next one, King of the Dead. We wanted to be more of a heavy band, like King of the Dead shows, but we felt like we had to show a cross-section of things that people would do at the time so we could get a record deal, and then we figured we would do all the heavy shit. So, you look at Frost and Fire, there’s some heavy stuff on there for the time, and then there’s some other more commercial stuff.
Well, don’t kid yourself: Frost and Fire is heavy, but when you get to King of the Dead, it’s definitely the fully-formed version of what the band is — the classic style. What was the process going from one to the next?
Well, it was kind of the same because we were doing home recordings already for a number of years, so we were comfortable being in a studio setting, and our practice space at that time ended up being right across the alleyway from the studio. Like 20 feet. We actually helped him build part of his studio. The guy who owned the studio held the lease on where we rehearsed, too, so it was this big family affair there. So, whenever he had openings and we had the money, we could go there and finish up this or fix that. We’re actually now back at the same place that we used to practice. Right by where we did all those records. It’s really strange and pretty cool being there. It hasn’t changed that much, and there’s a lot of history there.
That’s so cool. It’s all people that were in the band during the ’80s except your bass player, correct?
Well, Jimmy [Barrazza], the guitar player, was in the Paradise Lost era, so like 1990-'91, but everyone else — me, Greg and Rob is from the ’80s lineup, except, of course, our bass player Jarvis [Leatherby] is new.
I saw a video of you guys from the King of the Dead era where they carried you out in a coffin. Was that something you did all the time, or just at one particular show? I think it was opening for Stryper maybe?
That was just a one-off thing. [Laughs] Those guys wanted me to do that for the Frost and Fire fest just a couple weeks ago, but I was like, “No, we’re not gonna do that." [Laughs] It was just something we did for that show, though.
Do you feel the press accepted King of the Dead when it came out? There was a lot going on at the time in metal. There was the hairspray stuff, and there was thrash, and you guys were just kind of an island in the middle of all that. Going back and looking at press from that period, you were getting some coverage for sure, but how did it feel for you?
Well, yeah, whatever you call it. I don’t call it hair metal. It’s just hair bands. We started kind of too late for the ’70s era, but too early for the ’80s. So, at the time, we did get some press, and there were certain people that did like what we were doing, but we were despised by a lot of people, man. If you look in some of that stuff, it says we’re the worst band in the history of heavy metal, which we wear as a badge of honor. So, we got some good press, we got some bad press. We were in some European magazines like Kerrang! and things like that, but it was hard to get traction in the midst of all the hairspray. Playing in L.A., you’re playing with, like, Stryper and Ratt, and it was tough. But that’s what you had to do: Play for the fans and try and get a following. I’m glad there’s still a market for the classic metal now. It’s bigger than it ever has been. It’s really shocking and cool.
Did you guys do tours back in the ’80s?
No. No, we never had the management or the support. We never had the money. We played around the West Coast and, like, Mexico City, but we never did a full tour.
So, you never made it out even to the East Coast?
No never. Uh …. hopefully … we won’t be doing the full tour this time around, but we want to come out east. We did the Frost and Fire thing, and we’re doing Germany in April, but hopefully maybe we’ll see YOU sometime! I can’t go any farther than that, but there’s some things on the table.
Which part was the mistake?
Well, here’s the thing: We had had Frost and Fire out before he did Metal Massacre 1, and we were on that thing. But it was like he had a fanzine and was doing compilations, but he hadn’t really established Metal Blade, so he hooked us up with this distribution deal and helped us along with getting the pressing done. And we helped him along, too, from our experience, telling him where to get covers printed and stuff. So, we had kind of already signed this deal with these Enigma guys by the time he got Metal Blade going. At the time, he had no idea where it was going to go, and neither did we. You never know what’s gonna happen. Once he got going and stuff, we should have signed with Metal Blade because it would have been so much better for us. But, you know, hindsight is 20/20. You can’t say enough for what Brian has done for the metal world over the years. He’s one of the all-time icons with what he’s done for keeping things going over the years. We’ve stayed friends all this time. He’s a really cool guy — I can’t say enough good things about him, and I appreciate everything he’s ever done for us, and putting out all the rereleases and stuff.
So, Metal Blade owns the whole Cirith Ungol catalog now, right?
Yeah, they took it over and did all the rereleases, and if it wasn’t for them, who knows what would be going on right now? Probably absolutely nothing. I love the guy.
You gotta feel pretty vindicated now in relation to the Paradise Lost album. I won’t go into the whole backstory of it, but that was always kind of the sad story in your history. It was barely released at all; the band fell apart during the recording. It was out of print for many years, but now it’s rereleased and out on vinyl for the first time ever, and I feel like the fans are finally recognizing its place in the canon. How does that feel for you?
Well, it’s cool, but for me it was never a downer. I consider that stuff some of the best we ever did, and it sounds the best out of all the records in terms of the sonic quality. So, I never had a problem with the album, but the record company stuff and the recording situation — that was the part that sucked. I’m not going to go into all that. It’s great that it’s finally on vinyl for the first time, and it's got all kinds of extras. Extra outtakes, a giant booklet and poster. It’s all remastered, and it’s really unbelievable. I don’t want to say it’s vindication, because that makes it seem like we’re bitter. We’re just glad it’s finally out there and it got the release it deserved, and that we’re able to hear it as it should be heard, and as it should be seen. It’s great that it’s on vinyl because the album cover is so great. I got the vinyl just to look at the cover! They couldn’t have done a better job.
I’ve heard through the grapevine that you’re thinking about doing a new album.
We’d like to! There’s nothing stopping us from doing that. We’ve been practicing and doing all this stuff leading up to these shows, and in the meantime … well, we have been working on stuff. We may go and revisit some old material no one has ever heard. So, we’re really looking forward to doing another record — that’s really the thing we want to do in the next year. So, we’ll see what happens. I can’t talk about what label it would be with or anything like that. Hopefully, though, it’ll be as soon as we can get it going. Right now, though, we’re just enjoying doing what we’re doing and playing places we never got to play back in the day. It’s awesome that finally everything worked out where we could get back together and play as a band again. We never thought that was going to happen again. I never thought … Rob never was going to touch another drum set as long as he lived when the band broke up in ’92. We’re not ancient yet, so we wanna get out there and do this while we still can, and while it’s still fun.