Sunday, 18 September 2016

Cirith Ungol - Paradise Lost (1991)

Cirith Ungol are a band whose evolution is a very salient one to observe. 1981s "Frost and Fire" sees our underrated underground heroes make their full-length debut; a catchy and rocking adventure through around thirty minutes of ballsy and attitude-filled heavy metal, in an era where extremity was but a rumour perpetuated by some noisy men from Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Three years later, 1984s "King of the Dead" carried the flag onwards to greater heights of ambition and grandiosity with longer-running and more epically inclined material, while also becoming a little more heavy. The elapsing of a further two years brought forth 1986s "One Foot in Hell"; a snappier, punchier and more to-the-point record shaped and mutated by a musical environment now brimming with thrash, and thrash-fans. Scientists have speculated that there is also a mysterious fourth album somewhere beyond these first three, lurking in the outer-reaches of the band's discography... but neither the band, nor many of the fans, appear to particularly enjoy talking about it. So I will. Devils-advocate and tedious contrarian that I am, I'm going to take a moment of your time to make the case for 1991s maligned final Cirith Ungol record, "Paradise Lost".

I've got a soft-spot for records which get slightly overlooked. I am, to some extent, the guy who'll try to sell people on the merits of Candlemass' "Chapter VI", or Venom's "Prime Evil". Meritorious these records indeed are. I even had a go at being an apologist for Bathory's "Octagon" once, but even I know when to stop. When it comes to Cirith Ungol, I stuck un-adventurously to the classics for quite a long time; namely Frost and Fire, and King of the Dead. Enthused more recently by thoroughly enjoying the slightly less spoken-of "One Foot in Hell", my attention was ultimately drawn to the darkest sheep of the discography, ignored and rejected to an extent both by the fan-base and by the band themselves. "Paradise Lost" is, indeed, something of the quintessential early-90s metal record; plagued by all of the various issues of the music industry at the time. The album doesn't have that "instant classic" sheen that the band's earlier body of work does, but perhaps expecting that would be foolish. Instead, the record faces something of an identity crisis; slathered liberally with heavy production, it is a far-cry from the rock n' roll warmth of the bands earlier work. This is, one might speculate, one of the many insistences of producers and so-forth which the band were inundated with at the time. Likewise, the record can be a little meandering; there are pockets of filler here and there, which are liable to form a thick soup of homogeneity through whole sections of the record if you don't give it your full attention; plodding on at a fairly uniform tempo in a way which here and there screams "deadline". The album is less memorable, and certainly less stacked in terms of quality than its predecessors - you can't pretend otherwise.

Criticisms aside, however, Paradise Lost is far, far from being abominable. While guilty, perhaps, of blowing its load immediately by opening with its standout track - the almost malevolently catchy "Join the Legion" - many of the things which set the record apart from the rest of Cirith Ungol's work - and no doubt stand as negatives in the view of some people - also stand to give the album a character all of its own. Evidently, especially in tracks such as the aforementioned, it is more prone to simplicity than earlier records - in many ways the natural progression from "One Foot In Hell". The record has a straight-forward approach reminiscent of the works of Manilla Road in the later stages of their original run. In other words, Paradise Lost tends to be extremely riff-based, relying on its chiefly mid-tempo meatiness to deliver, as opposed to whimsy or flare, although it certainly bares mentioning that tracks such as the title-track succeed in being as epic and ambitious as one could desire. The anachronistic but effective combination of the band's heavy metal approach with the clanking and hefty production of the post-extreme-metal paradigm give the riffs dosage of grit which, combined with the prominent vocals, themselves extremely gritty - perhaps the most so in the bands career - gives the record a sense of weight and toughness akin to the equally and rebelliously anachronistic early works of bands like Iced Earth, who were coming to the fore at the beginning of that decade. Cirith Ungol's final-stand is the product of a similar environment; a decade in which, if you planned on making traditional sounding heavy metal, you had to run the gauntlet of nobody having a clue what to do with you.

Odds are, when my initial hype for "Paradise Lost" dies down a little, it won't be my favourite Cirith Ungol record,  if you made me rank them. But why rank them? When faced with any such dichotomy my answer is the same: I'm lucky enough to live in a world where I can listen to them all - and indeed, I would recommend Paradise Lost as being an essential listen for someone who enjoys the band more than merely casually, and indeed, with a re-release of the out-of-print record imminent on Metal Blade, there's no excuse not to. Making a slightly sub-par traditional-metal record in 1991 was hardly an exceptional occurrence, and compared to a lot of the questionable releases of that period, it certainly appears to me that Cirith Ungol actually fared rather well. While the record may have been a little cursed, and the band split up relatively soon after releasing it, the music itself makes for a stronger record than even the band themselves are willing to credit it for.  

Yeah c'moooon, join the legiooooon! 8/10.