Never as heavy as Black Sabbath or Candlemass, California's Cirith Ungol are often unfairly overlooked in the pantheon of classic 80's doom bands. It probably doesn't help that the four albums comprising their first decade of recordings, from 1981 to 1991, have been in and out of print without any kind of consistency over the years. Metal Blade's new Ultimate of Edition of the band's arguably greatest album, King of the Dead, should help to rectify that situation: released to coincide with Cirith Ungol's first ever live gig in Europe at the Keep It True festival in Germany, this extras-laden package aims at both the layman and the diehard collector, with five bonus tracks and a DVD featuring a 1983 performance at the Roxy in Hollywood.
In spite of the group's first album not arriving until 1981, Cirith Ungol actually formed all the way back in 1972, which accounts for the retro sound of their debut, 1981's Frost and Fire. Showing somewhat of a contemporary NWOBHM influence alongside affinities for older acts like 70's Judas Priest, Blue Oyster Cult and, to a lesser extent, Sabbath, Frost and Fire finds the band on fairly sure footing, although it's somewhat of an anomaly in the their catalog due it lacking any overt doom influences. Vocalist Tim Baker was already displaying an enthusiastic rasp that made him one of the more uniquely endearing frontmen at the time, though, a voice which served him even better on the group's eventual doom turn.
That would come on their sophomore effort, King of the Dead (1984), which the band still cite as their best album. In a recent interview with (the always excellent) CLRVYNT, Baker recounts the disparity in sound between the two albums:
But it was never really something for the general public [the self-financed Frost and Fire] 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.
Aside from Baker's Steve Grimmett (Grim Reaper) meets Eric Wagner (Trouble) singing style – which frankly would have worked on just about any style of metal save Hollywood hair metal at the time – King of the Dead is resolutely doom, albeit not in the slow, downtuned manner that most associate with the genre today. The title track and "Master of the Pit" are both heralded classics, the quartet's fantasy novel/sword-and-sorcery predilections underscoring wanderlust riffs and Dungeons & Dragons lyrics.
"Cirith Ungol" and "Death of the Sun" were both written in the mid-70's, each existing somewhere at the loose crossroads where Sabbath, Deep Purple and B.O.C. made their pacts with the devil. "Death of the Sun", in particular, has a primary riff that owes a tremendous debt to Tony Iommi. "Atom Smasher" is also a 70's holdover, an uptempo, proto-NWOBHM jaunt that also has Iommi's legacy writ large upon it. That track and "Black Machine" offer more uptempo, traditional metal contrasts to the lengthier midtempo fare throughout the rest of the album, providing necessary variety to a record that didn't really require it, but is certainly enhanced by its presence.
The production on King of the Dead is a clear upgrade from the debut album, and this newly remastered version is the best the album has sounded yet, with the rhythm section clearly audible alongside the overdriven guitar and front-loaded vocals. Five bonus tracks are included: "Last Laugh" from an undocumented 1984 performance, three more recent live cuts from Cirith Ungol's 2016 performance at the Frost and Fire II festival, and an alternate mix of "Death of the Sun" that originally appeared on 1982's inaugural Metal Massacre comp. Add to that the bonus DVD and superior sound – not to mention the general greatness of the album – and this Ultimate Edition lives up to its title. Here's hoping Metal Blade has the wherewithal to give similar due to the rest of the band's catalog (the label has recently put the whole shebang up for download on Bandcamp).