Cirith Ungol’s Monstrous Heavy Metal Is Eternally “Half Past Human” (Interview)
Cirith Ungol’s 2015 reformation was one of the least-likely in underground metal history. The band broke up in 1992 so explosively and with so much internal despair that Rob Garven, the band’s drummer, famously announced that he would never again touch another kit, and vocalist Tim Baker would step back from singing seemingly forever. The band seemed as conclusively finished as could be, though guitarist Greg Lindstrom kept the fire alive via a post-Cirith Ungol band called Falcon that re-recorded a few old Cirith Ungol demo tunes to little greater success. To the world’s shock, the band’s current bassist Jarvis Leatherby (formerly known as Jeff Hershey) was able to convince the band that the world wanted them back after years of trying, and in 2015, after a long absence, they decided it was time to make a reunion happen.
Most reunions suck. After years of crappy comebacks and failed cash grabs, saying that is less of an individual opinion and more of an aggregate statement from metal fans across the planet. When a band gets back together after 15 or 20 years apart, there’s a certain collective dread built up from past miserable experiences—can the band prove they still have it? Generally, whatever band is in question can’t back that reunion up or even prove that they should have gotten back together in the first place. It’s a little difficult to describe the tension in the air at Cirith Ungol’s first time back on stage in Ventura at Jarvis’ own Frost and Fire festival (named for the band’s first record from 1981). In the audience there was a shared breath of anticipation and fear and hope as we all waited for the band to start playing, and then again as we waited to see if Tim Baker could still pull it off after the band’s explosive start before the vocals began.
Though that show deserves its own full writeup for the sheer wonder and majesty of it all, I’ll leave it at saying that it was a magical experience that proved that Cirith Ungol was back and in the greatest possible form. Just a couple of years later that same mixed fear and anticipation returned when the band announced their first original material since 1991’s Paradise Lost, and the same triumphant result as the live shows came about when the "Witch’s Game" 12" single astonished the world with the power that Cirith Ungol continues to have even after all these years.
Following the single and a similarly successful full length of all-original new material, which was covered in detail by Invisible Oranges’ own Joseph Aprill, Cirith Ungol have decided to look to the past with a new mini-album entirely comprised of re-recorded demo tracks from the band’s earliest years despite oaths to keep the reunion’s recordings to new material. Some of them were revisited in one form or another—via Falcon, or for “Brutish Manchild” via a re-recording for Decibel Magazine’s Flexi Series—but for the first time tracks like “Shelob’s Lair” or “Half Past Human” are soon to be available for fans in the way that the songs were always meant to be- proper studio recordings, loving attention to detail, and superior performances.
Rob was kind enough to join us for a bit to talk about it and about the band; the unabridged interview is below.
With Half Past Human on the way, what are your initial thoughts that you’d like to share on the EP itself?
With the EP it’s kind of a long story of how that came about, and it stretches back to the days when we first got together and started recording. My sister got married and moved out, so my parents had a house in the suburbs in a canyon here in California, where it burns down every ten years or so, and upstairs there was a bedroom at either end with a bathroom in the middle. One was my bedroom and one was my sister’s so when she got married and moved out, we moved our band in there.
We really had a hard time trying to find a place to practice; we basically got thrown out of every one of our parents’ houses because we got too loud. We had nowhere to play because we just blasted, and my parents let us play there. There’s a few people in the history of the band that deserve a lot of credit for keeping the band alive, and probably if it wasn’t for my parents we would have broken up.
The good news is that my sister married the guy next door, and so we put up a board in the window covered with carpet and played at the exact same time every day, so I think that the neighbor guys knew what was going to happen. Normally we’d get out of high school at 3 o’clock and play from four to five or something, and since my dad got home at 6 we’d have to be done by then. My mom put up with all that noise and bullshit and stuff, and they’d come out to see our shows, and they loaned us all the money to record King of the Dead. They did some amazing stuff.
Where this all heads to is that back in that bedroom where we started writing all our material. Every one of the songs on Half Past Human are from that era, somewhere between 1974 and 1976. What we were doing was writing songs and our dream was to get a record contract, so we put out that little Orange Album tape to send out and it didn’t really do a lot. We ended up putting out Frost and Fire and it was actually a demo record; it wasn’t supposed to be Cirith Ungol’s first album, it was supposed to be a demo to get our foot in the door so that we could get on a major record label, and also to give to promoters. We also figured we’d sell them to local record stores and what have you, and that’s kind of how all of that came about.
So, fast forward to when the band reunites. We had the single, "Witches Game", and we weren’t really sure what people were going to think about that, but everyone said, “Hey man, this is so great, we can’t believe that you guys can still write songs, you guys should do a full album!” That’s what we were wanting to hear because we’d already started writing material for that, so we knocked out Forever Black, and part of our contract with Metal Blade was to do an EP. We were trying to think of what stuff we wanted to do, and most of the band was thinking that we’re on a roll here and let’s put out another album.
We’re thinking like we’re Grand Funk, we’re gonna put out an album every six weeks, right? So that’s what we were thinking about, but we had this EP that we needed to do, and so many people had been asking about us redoing some of our old songs. Our internal conversations we like, yeah we can do that, but we’re older, if we don’t put out some new music we won’t be able to do that. You guys can always go back and listen to our older stuff, but in our limited time we want to put out something new, work on some new material.
We ended up deciding that every once in a while when people ask for stuff, you need to listen to them, so we sat down and we thought that hey, this is just a four song EP, it’s not going to have enough songs for us to do a full album of new material like we wanted to, so let’s take the best songs that we could that we haven’t done. Where that also kind of came from is that we were trying to think of a theme for an album, and we already had the painting from Michael Whelan that we wanted to use, and it’s called The Weird of the White Wolf, and it shows Elric with his sword Stormbringer killing this kind of beast monster warrior kind of guy, right? So what we did is we pieced together four songs that had a theme around this same beast type image.
That’s how the whole album came about, and we were really excited to record it. I think what we really wanted to do, since we were going to pull out these old songs, was to make them real heavy if we were going to do it, and go real crazy on them.
You mentioned that you were looking for songs that met the theme that you wanted to match the cover artwork. Was it difficult at all to narrow it down within songs that fit, or was it instantly like hey, these four songs are what we’re going to do?
Yeah, I think that’s kind of what it was. The band before Cirith Ungol was called Titanic and a lot of people are like, oh my god, do you have recordings of that? We actually did and they’re lost to time somewhere, and we tell people that’s actually good news. We were like 13 when we started with the band; I’m not sure you want to see Picasso’s baby drawings, you know? By the time we started writing the songs on this EP we were in high school and a little bit older, but we were still perfecting our craft. As a matter of fact I’ll give you a little about each one of the songs about where they came from and how they kind of fit in. Greg wrote all the lyrics to all these songs, and most of the musical structure. We kind of re-tweaked some of the lyrics to update them to something a little bit more modern, to how the band is thinking now, but mostly the song structures stayed relatively close to how the original songs turned out.
On "Route 666," I think that’s kind of Greg’s take on the song "Crossroads"—you know, it’s late at night, you’re out on a lonely road, out in the middle of nowhere, and in the song "Crossroads" the guy is trying to decide which way to go, left or right. It’s kind of like a Faustian bargain; which way in my life do I go, do I take this path or another path? I think Greg’s take on that was that you encounter the Devil or The Beast or whatever you want to call him, some monster guy, and that’s kind of where Route 666 is. We’ve always had a car starting it off and ending it and there was some debate on whether we should use that still again and I’m glad that it came out, because I think that it really tied the new version to the old version.
"Shelob’s Lair" of course is about a giant spider monster that lives in the tower of Cirith Ungol, pronounced kee'reeth oo'ngol by J.R.R. Tolkien. It wasn’t technically a beast, like a beast image but it was still kind of a giant monster beast, so it kind of fit the goal on that. Then we had "Brutish Manchild". We’d done that earlier for a flexi disc on Decibel Magazine, which was kind of cool that they put that out, and what we wanted to do was to do a totally different version, so we remixed that and added a few more things that weren’t on that version.
With Half Past Human, you know the band’s always had one song that was kind of like the title song of the album—"King of the Dead", "One Foot in Hell", "Paradise Lost", whatever have you- and so we decided that "Half Past Human" was going to be the title track for this thing. I actually have a book right here from when Greg would write a song and then write down the date, and this song was originally written in 1976. That song originally was called "Half Past Human a Quarter to Ape", and I think back in the day when we were younger, a lot of the songs that we wrote kind of had some satirical content to them. I think his play on words there was kind of like saying, it’s half past twelve, a quarter to one, but his thing was morphing it into "Half Past Human a Quarter to Ape", like we evolved from apes, we ascended this ladder of evolution, and through our own devices were headed back down the other way.
We decided to leave that off. We’d done a variety of different songs over the years, most of them heavy, but some were earlier songs that were regular heavy metal or rock songs- sex, drugs, rock and roll, cars, what have you—and from King of the Dead on what we wanted to do was point in this super heavy direction, and that’s how we wanted to write songs. I think we left off the "Quarter to Ape" part to bring "Half Past Human" into that new mold that we wanted. Plus also we’d promised ourselves that if we were going to do these songs, we were going to do them as heavy as we can, and that’s kind of where each song came from and a little bit of background on each one on how they were written and how they fit.
Once again with the little beast image in each song and the cover art it just seemed to pull it all perfectly together.
When you were picking those songs, was it most important that they be something that could be easily updated to match the updated vision of the band, or did you figure that you could make it work as long as the lyrics fit?
I think we looked at them on several levels, and I didn’t complete this thought that I had earlier, but people keep asking if we have more songs, and yeah, we could put out like four more full albums of old stuff, but most of the stuff that’s good is already out there. When the album Servants of Chaos came out in 2001, me and Greg were working on that, the band had broken up, and the reason that album came out is that we were approached by Metal Blade by Europe and they were re-releasing our old albums, and they wanted to know if we had anything left over that nobody had heard.
I don’t know if you or your readers know, but most of the tape that was recorded on back then has severely deteriorated til there’s nothing left. It’s not just us; you pick any band all the way from Tijuana Brass to the Rolling Stones or whoever that recorded on that super expensive tape at the time, the tape was just falling apart, so we wanted to get any of the stuff that we had on that album. We went through all the songs and the songs we left off were the ones that we thought were embarrassing or that we weren’t happy with because they weren’t professionally recorded by us or well written.
Between this album and the Orange Album tape that we recently re-released that was the precursor to Frost and Fire, which some of the stuff on there the band considers primitive too, but it’s part of our history. We thought about redoing some of the other songs that were on Servants of Chaos, and Greg, one of the guys who founded the band with me, has a side project called Falcon that he was playing with when Cirith Ungol was broken up, and put out a couple of albums with early Cirith Ungol songs, but the truth is that we were looking for the ones that were left that hadn’t been recorded by Cirith Ungol that were truly deserving of having a remake.
Overall we didn’t pull them out of a hat; we pieced them together with the beast thing in mind, and actually that kind of came together as we were pulling those cool songs together, and we realized that they had this common denominator and we decided to just go with it.
How did it feel to revisit material that you guys wrote so long ago?
Well, this is amazing, and I have to give a lot of credit to Jimmy Barraza, our main lead guitarist. Just an unbelievable guitar talent, I’m just blown away by him. Even Greg, an original member, will just sit and watch him do leads and stuff, and he just has amazing talent. There’s also Jarvis, our manager and the guy who brought us back together and without whom we wouldn’t be talking right now. Both of those guys really embraced these old songs and they added a lot of new crazy cool material.
As a matter of fact, "Half Past Human" I always liked and thought it was heavy and knew that we could do it, but it felt like something was missing. Jimmy came up with what we call a signature lead, which is a lead part that doesn’t fit the song but is kind of like a counter-melody, and that’s right at the beginning of "Half Past Human". After we recorded that and listened to the demo in our band room I was just blown away. I used to like the song but now it makes this one of my favorite songs of all time. With Jarvis we told him to go crazy on the bass and do whatever he wants to, and he did. Those are the guys that really put the effort into this thing.
I’m not going to lie to you, me and Greg and Tim, even though it’d been maybe 40 years since we’d played some of those songs, right off the gate with "Brutish Manchild" and "Shelob’s Lair" and "Route 666", we were a little bit rusty but the three of us it’s like we’re just reliving past history and never put them down. I guess it’d be like if you’re Edgar Allen Poe and someone asks you if you remember "The Raven"—well, yeah, I’ll read it off to you right now, and that’s just kind of how this was. As a matter of fact it was kind of scary that some of us could play the songs so well and remember how they went from the get go, but that also allowed us to kind of create that heaviness to them because we knew the songs inside and out and knew what we wanted to do to beef them up and make them kick a little bit more ass.
Given that the original plan was to play two full sets at Keep it True before the pandemic canned that and given the band’s recent revisit of older material, would there be any chance of a live set of just material from Frost and Fire and before at some point?
You know, we talked about that, and when we first started we wanted to be big and famous, but I’m not sure that ever happened—I’m sure a lot of people know about us but I don’t know how big and famous we ever got. But what we did do is put out quite a few records now, and on those records there’s some pretty good songs, and we’re at that point where we’re fighting over what’s going to be going forward in our set. Now, we’re not like Blue Öyster Cult or Deep Purple where there’s hundreds of songs to choose from, but we probably have around 60 songs altogether through all the records that we could play.
Let’s go back to that Keep it True thing, because this is why we’re so bummed out about it. I know the pandemic has destroyed lives and killed a million people around the world, and has really wreaked havoc, so it’s hard to complain and whine about what we didn’t get to do. Still, separating out how it’s destroyed so many lives and just focus on the entertainment industry, except maybe for if you’re a Netflix actor or something, but we planned on playing Forever Black in its entirety the first night along with some stuff from Paradise Lost and then we were going to do our hits from our first three albums the second night, all the best of stuff.
We had never been stronger. All of us are getting older so we have some health issues and stuff, but we’ve been practicing and playing so many shows, we were ready when Forever Black came out to just kick ass. We had Forever Black down so tight, it would have just blown people away and we were just so excited to be able to do that. Now that this has come on, we never see that happening again.
Maybe at some point some promoter may say hey, we want you just to play Frost and Fire or King of the Dead or what have you, but I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. I think what fans are going to see and what they want is like when I go see a band that I like; when I go see Blue Öyster Cult, I want to see "Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll," I don’t want to hear something else. I’ll give you an example. I saw Scorpions recently, and their favorite albums of mine are their three or four albums, right? They put the best songs on those first three or four albums on a five minute medley, and then they played like 20 songs I’d never even heard of. They were all good but I was just kind of disappointed, because this was this band that I worship and love, and I wanted to hear "Fly the Rainbow" or "In Trance" or what have you and they stick them all together with ten seconds for each song and I was kind of insulted.
That’s the way we kind of feel as the band. I think what we want to do, and I can’t speak for everyone in the band, but I know that me and Tim would feel this way, and we want to go out and play Forever Black and all our new stuff—but if you’re one of the people who never saw the band before, you want to hear us play "Frost and Fire", or "I’m Alive", "Chaos Descends", or "King of the Dead". The dilemma now is that we have so much material that we have to pick and choose and decide what people want to hear and what we can deliver for them.
Now, we put together a bigger set that we may be able to play at some festivals where we can stick together an hour and a half of material drawing all across the best of our discography in there. It’s a question that we’re talking about in the band right this very second.
Have there been any other reunions or re-recordings especially, to stay on topic, that inspired you guys as an example of how to do it right?
I would say no and I’ll tell you why. On almost all of the reviews that I’ve read about our band getting back together, people were saying man, these guys are tight, they know all of their songs, and they didn’t fall off the stage and stuff. What that made me not want to do is go search out those bands that came back together after a long breakup after hearing so many negative things. Now, there’s a lot of bands I listen to going back through time, but I can’t think of any of them that have managed it. Of course there’s KISS and Black Sabbath and bands like that who didn’t necessarily break up, but just went on a hiatus and came back for a later tour and reformed sort of, but no, to be honest, I would say no.
So what’s next for Cirith Ungol?
What’s next for Cirith Ungol is that we’re going to try and hit the road again, and get out and promote Forever Black and Half Past Human. We’re going to try and pick up where we left off. We’re pretty good at that. We took a 25 year break, so we’ll just figure like this was another two year break, and we’re going to pick up where we left off and start kicking some ass. That’s the plan.
Do you have anything else that you want to talk about or promote?
Cirith Ungol: Our music is a churning maelstrom of metal chaos descending!
The Half Past Human EP releases May 28th, 2021 via Metal Blade Records.