Interview with Robert Garven of Cirith Ungol

Interview with Robert Garven of Cirith Ungol

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American metal pioneers Cirith Ungol blast back with their new album Forever Black, their first since 1991 and it proves that they are back with a vengeance after such a long period of time.

We had a chat with the band’s drummer Robert Garven to hear all about Forever Black, its creation, lyrics and artwork as well as hearing about how Cirith Ungol and their history and the band got back together, their music and influences, Metal Blade and the Metal Massacre compilation and heavy metal and where it is headed.

Your new album Forever Black is out soon. How did the creation and recording of the album go?
We started working on new material as soon as the band reformed, although never expecting another studio album to be released. After the release of our single “Witch’s Game”, for the upcoming animated movie “The Planet of Doom” was released in September 2018, many reviewers were hoping for a full album. Once we realized there was a demand for a 5th album, the wheels in the secret Ungol lair started turning. We recorded the album in The Captains Quarters, the studio of our good friend, Armand John Anthony of “Night Demon”.

The recording process has changed much from back when our last album came out. Thankfully, we recorded our recent single “Witch’s Game” recently, so we had that experience under our belt. We also bought a Tascam 24 track digital recorder to work on demos, for writing new songs, so by the time we got to the album, we had been exploring digital recording. Some of those can be heard as bonus tracks on the limited-edition box set released by Metal Blade Records.

The bands last album was back in 1991 with the Paradise Lost album. How does it feel releasing a new Cirith Ungol now?
We are all pretty excited to be able to release a new album after so many years, and hoping that excitement is felt by the listener as well!

Has the bands sound changed at all in the time between the two albums?
Every band’s music evolves over the years and between albums, but we wanted to try to pick up right from where we left off after Paradise Lost’, and create an album of all new material, but to stay true to our original vision of the Heaviest Metal Known to Man!

What does the album’s title refer to?
It is the title track on the album, and it is a dark and brooding song reflecting the darker side of man’s eternal struggle a “A Churning Maelstrom of Metal Chaos Descending!”

Can you tell us about the cover for the album and who did it?
This fantastic painting we chose for the cover, “Elric in Exile”, perfectly reflects the dark and brooding mood of this album. It was painted by Michael Whelan, whose art graces our 4 other studio albums, and our single, “Witch’s Game”. He is a world-renowned artist whose art has been featured on works by bands such as Sepultura, and authors; Ray Bradbury, Michael Moorcock, Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, Arthur C Clarke.

What are the songs on Forever Black about?
There is a blend of themes from the call to arms of “Legions Arise”, to the nod to “Frost & Fire”, on “The Frost Monstreme” & “The Fire Devine”, with the rest being part of Tim’s dystopian and prophetic vision of a bleak future for mankind!

Do you have a favourite song from the album yet?
Everyone in the bands has own their favorites, but I am partial to “Legions Arise”, the only song I wrote the lyrics to, it being part two of, our epic song, “Join the Legion” of “Paradise Lost”!

What has been the reaction to the new material been like so far?
It has been overwhelmingly positive with most listeners commenting that it sounds like we never took a break, which is what we were hoping for!

Cirith Ungol reformed in 2016. What led to the bands reunion?
Jarvis played a pivotal role in the reformation of the band. I had a friend Carl Valdez, who was the original drummer in a punk band Ill Repute. He was buddies with Jarvis, and kept telling me that Jarvis wanted to meet, to talk about Cirith Ungol. We finally got together, and I was amazed at the stories about how when traveling with his band Night Demon, they met many who still were interested in our old band especially on the continent and he was interested in getting the band back together. Jarvis putting on a festival in our hometown of Ventura, California, called the “Frost & Fire Festival”, and have bands from all over the world come and play. He asked if we would do a signing session and miraculously all the original members (except Jerry Fogle who has tragically passed away in 1998) attended. The festival was a success and at the signing session many showed up with albums to be signed and it seemed a new generation had discovered our music we had worked so hard on for so many years.

Jarvis had invited Oliver Weinsheimer from the “Keep it True Festival” and after the signing session he wanted to talk to the members alone, so we along with Jarvis, retreated across the street to a local sushi bar. Oliver had been in contact me since 2004 about getting the band back together, and I had told him that I appreciated his offer, but it was never going to happen. So now we found ourselves; Jarvis, Oliver, Greg, Tim, Flint, Jimmy and myself all sitting around at a table wondering what was to come next. Jarvis having just hosted an amazing festival said he planned on putting on another one “Frost & Fire II”, next year and asked us if we would reform and were interested, we could headline his show. Oliver also talked about how successful his festival was in Germany and asked us if we reformed, we could headline his 20th anniversary show in 2017!

This was quite a bit to take in, as we had all spent the last many years pursuing other lives an getting the band back together seemed like a long shot. Were we rusty of course at first, but deep in our soul the fire of true metal burned, and we all decided to unleash the being called Ungol back unto the world!

Do you hope to tour the album when all the coronavirus madness is over?
That is the plan!

What have been some of the best and most memorable gigs that the band have played?
Our first show we play after our reunion Frost & Fire II was pretty amazing as it was at the same venue we played right before the band broke up so that was very memorable and not without a sense of irony!

Who have been some of the best bands that Cirith Ungol have played with?
We have played with so many talented acts that there is not enough room to mention them all, at the Hammer of Doom festival in Wurzburg, Germany we played with Lucifer’s Friend, a band that we grew up listening to and a big influence on our music. That was very cool!

What bands are you listening to at the moment?
Right now I am totally focused on the return of “Cirith Ungol”, and listening to past and future material!

How is life on Metal Blade Records and how did you come to sign to the label?
We could not be happier, than to be on Metal Blade Records. They are a company that loves heavy metal music and supports their bands. They kept many of our albums released during the time the band slumbered, keeping the vision alive. Now that we have reunited, they have been instrumental in making our comeback a success, releasing ultimate editions of King of the Dead & Paradise Lost, our 2018 single “Witch’s Game”, our live album I’m Alive late last year, and now Forever Black. Their deluxe editions, box sets and general packaging and promotion have been over the top, and beyond the bands wildest dreams!

The band featured on the first Metal Massacre album alongside Metallica. How was the experience of featuring in such a legendary compilation?
We released our first album “Frost & Fire” in 1981 as a demo in an attempt to get record company attention. When that did not succeed, we were trying to find record stores to carry it and we were friends with Brian Slagel, who at the time worked at a record store near Los Angeles, called Oz Records. He helped up get in contact with a company Greenworld, which we eventually signed a deal with to distribute the album worldwide! Brian shared his dream to start his own record company, Metal Blade Records, and he asked if we would play on his first album “Metal Massacre I”. We agreed and the song “Death of the Sun” appeared on Metal Blade Records first album! That started our long enduring relationship with Brian, and Metal Blade Records!

The band are named after a place in The Lord Of The Rings. Is LOTR and Tolkien a big influence on the band and their music?
It was when we first began, and still plays a role in our consciousness, but our influences have evolved over the years, spanning a wide variety of the Sword and Sorcery, Horror and Sci-Fi imagery, in literature and the media.

How did Cirith Ungol start as a band?
The band started in 1971, when Greg Lindstrom, Jerry Fogle and I decided after the breakup of the band “Titanic” to form a heavier trio. We were about 13 years old at the time.

Who are the biggest influences on Cirith Ungol?
Some of the bands earliest influences were bands such as; Mountain, Budgie, Dust, Sir Lord Baltimore, Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Uriah Heep etc. Our band was always searching out new music mostly by scouring the import sections of local record stores around the Los Angeles area. Back then before the internet this was not an easy task. We bought the first album of many of the bands mentioned above, not even knowing who they were at the time, some based on their covers alone.

Who are your biggest influences as a musician?
My personal influences were drummers; Corky Laing, Bill Ward and Ian Paice, Denny Carmassi, Brian Downey, Ray Phillips and Marc Bell, among others.

What are some of your favourite metal albums of all time?
I can’t speak for the rest of the band here, but a few of my personal favourites; Black Sabbath “Master of Reality”, Dust “Hard Attack”, Thin Lizzy “Vagabonds of the Western World”, Deep Purple “In Rock”, Budgie “Squawk”.

What do you think if the state of heavy metal in 2020?
It is thriving beyond our wildest imagination with genres and sub genres of every conceivable variety of metal, for every taste and persuasion. It is incredible!

What have been some of the most memorable moments in your time with Cirith Ungol?
When I look back on the recent years, the memories I have, are burned indelibly into my consciousness! They are filled with endless flights to distant destinations, meeting new friends, and playing at venues that once were only a dream back when we started. One moment however is seared into my mind. We played the Chaos Descends Festival out in the forest near Crispendorf Germany. The festival is named after one of our songs, and set in a scenic rural location that was surreal. A beautiful yet haunting valley, set between two small mountains with a lonely river snaking between them, and small train circling the area. I remember looking out from behind the drums, while pounding out our song ‘Chaos Descends’, vseeing the trees and stars, and hearing the huddled masses humming out the refrain, louder than our amps. I could feel a direct connection to the earth elementals, and all those fevered souls in attendance, rhythmic swaying in frenzied unison, with the pulsing of the molten metal we were laying out before them! The feeling I experienced was beyond description, and will remain as long as I draw breath!

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