Interview with Robert Garven from Cirith Ungol

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Not all legends of yore got the praise they deserved when they were still active. Cirith Ungol is one of the very first metal bands, both inside the United States and beyond it, and each of their three studio albums are venerated by ever-growing legions of heavy metal fans in the modern day—but it wasn’t always like this. Disillusioned by a lack of success, lineup difficulties, and exploitative labels, Cirith Ungol broke up in 1992, swearing to never return, with some members even throwing down their instruments supposedly permanently.

Fortunately, the band’s legacy from their twenty years of original activity was not lost to time, and their fanbase continued to grow over the years until they were persuaded that the moment to reform was, against all odds, finally here. Now the band’s first official live album is coming out in a couple of days, with the tracks on the main CD/LP release being from a live performance at Up The Hammers fest and bonus tracks being compiled from various festival appearances over the last few years. Robert Garven, the band’s original and only drummer, was kind enough to answer some questions about the new live album, the band’s past, and the band’s future.

Robert, you were the most known in my circle of friends for your reluctance to reform Cirith Ungol due to those series of reviews you left on the Metal Archives some years ago. Just five years before reforming, you recounted an oath that you “would never touch another drumstick or play drums, if it meant being in the same business as these people.” You’ve said more than enough about the topic of reforming elsewhere, but have four years of being back, playing shows, and even releasing new music given any new depth to your feelings on the matter?

Yes, it was a mistake to quit playing drums, but at the time Tim and I were the only members left in the band, and after 20 years of trying our best, it seems that we could see no clear path forward. I realize now that playing drums and heavy metal meant more to me than I ever could imagine. After we broke up, I dreamed constantly about playing again, and making a new album, buying new drums etc. Many times I would wake up sweating, as from a nightmare.

Has anything about playing drums again after so long surprised you, be it in terms of technology, your own playing, the way that live audio has changed (or not changed), or anything else?

I always have loved machinery, cars, drums, etc. and very excited again to have a drum set with all the hardware. I am a member of the Paste family of artists, and very proud of that, as the 2002 cymbals and gongs they make, are the signature sound of my style. DW made me a custom oak drum set to match my favorite color, Ferrari red. The only real change is in the digital technology of mixing and recording. It provides unparalleled flexibility, but loses some of the spontaneity of analog.

What made you guys decide to do a live album now rather than at an earlier point in the reformation? 

After Cirith Ungol reformed, Metal Blade Records approached the band and asked us if we wanted to do a live album. The concept was to record several of the major exclusive festivals we were playing, and put out the band’s first live album. Of course, we were very excited about the whole project. I don’t think we ever thought of one before, because we were always focused on our next studio album. Plus, back in the day, our live performances are about as rare as they are today, and we never had the full support of a record company!

How does it feel to have so much love from fans that you can do a proper live album now, after the turmoil that Cirith Ungol faced in the ‘80s? 

It is pretty amazing and I would be lying if I said we were not completely overwhelmed by the support of all our friends across the globe. We always had listeners from all over, but finally, we have been able to share our music live with a new generation of metal aficionados.

The bulk of the shows you’ve played since reforming have been in Europe. How do you think things might have gone for the band if you’d been able to make it overseas during the initial run?

I know there is an audience for metal music here stateside, but there is no mistake the underground heavy metal scene is on fire all across Europe, I was just at the Stockholm airport, coming home from our show in Finland, and within five minutes I was approached by two people who knew of the band! Who knows what could have happened, if we would’ve been able to play Europe so long ago, but that is only speculation now…

On I’m Alive, and indeed all of the live shows you’ve done since getting back together that I’ve had the pleasure of being at, Cirith Ungol played several songs from Paradise Lost, this time including all of the original songs from the B-side in order. Have years of playing these songs live again as well as official reissues from Metal Blade changed your feelings on the album at all? 

It is no secret that I was pretty upset at the way that project unfolded, however after Metal Blade Records re-released the deluxe edition of “Paradise Lost,” it was a good time to reflect upon our last studio album. In retrospect, there is some very good music on that album, and I think my position has changed considerably. There are still a few songs that I wish has been omitted on that album, but they are balanced out by some of the band’s best work ever. Of course, I’m speaking of “Join the Legion” and the “Paradise Lost” trilogy!

Are there plans to record any of the stuff that you guys wrote in the ‘80s that never made it to album? If you did, would the songs Greg recorded with Falcon be off the table? 

The majority of that music we put on “Servants of Chaos.” I think we possibly could re-record a song or two of some of our earlier material at some point, but we are focused on the future right now. Greg’s involvement with Falcon is pretty impressive, but that’s his standalone project, and I can’t see the band playing any of their material. However, they did cover a few of our earlier songs, and who knows if we would like to do an updated “Cirith Ungol” version of one or two!

Some reissues have included live tracks or video. Is there anything in the vaults that could be released as a standalone archival live album at some point?

Unfortunately, no, as I mentioned above, most of that material was released on “Servants of Chaos.” At that point there was no reason to ever believe that the band would ever play again, and all the original tapes were deteriorating rapidly. It was our goal to get some of that early music out there, before it disappeared forever. There’s some pretty amazing stuff on that album, and a few of the songs are some of my favorite ones we ever did. However, the band has matured a bit, and our youthful ignorance has been replaced by Darkness & Impending Doom!!

 Will there ever be a proper release of The Orange Album in its entirety?

I was recently going through a lot of my archival material and that was very exciting because I thought I found a complete version of that tape, however it was just the sleeve. To this day no one in the band, or any of our friends, has one of those original demos. Most of the significant songs that we’re on there, are also on “Servants of Chaos.”

I read a story about a Cirith Ungol show to 10,000 people in Mexico at a skating rink. What’s the story there? 

That was a pretty crazy night and it was dark, so I think that story may have become a little exaggerated. I think the number was closer to a thousand. We played a dinner show and it was at a pretty fancy location, and I think most of the audience was pretty well-off. After that show we were taken to an outdoor skating rink, where we jumped on stage and played a few songs. That was the band’s first ever experience outside the country, and we thought we were on our way, but with no serious management or record company support, our next international show sadly would be decades later.

Tim is sounding better than ever. Are there any changes responsible that you’re aware of?

That is a comment we hear all the time, and we are happy to hear that. His voice has always been a Cirith Ungol trademark and seems to have stood the test of time. His style has also matured over the years into the brooding crooner he is today!

How does it feel playing festivals with bands that influenced you, and even headlining over them?

That is truly amazing. We played with Lucifer’s Friend at Hammer of Doom, in Germany, and with Captain Beyond at Days of Darkness in Baltimore. We are all part of a sadly disappearing generation of early metal bands and I encourage all your readers to get out to see this (our) generation of bands before we disappear like the setting sun…

Cirith Ungol is playing back to back headlining sets at both nights of Keep It True next year, which won’t be your first time playing the festival. What is going to make the sets special? Is there anything you’d like to say about it?

Some of this is still under wraps, and has not been announced yet, but we promise to not disappoint. We were shocked that we were asked to do this double header, but when asked we did not hesitate to accept. The band has so much strong material, at every show we struggle to decide not which songs to include, but which ones we unfortunately have to leave out. It is a dilemma which is good to have as a band, but disappointing for those that want to hear “Nadsoker” or “Edge of a Knife!” Out of our whole catalog there are only about three songs I would not want to play!

Speaking of festivals, you’ve played Ventura every year since reforming at Frost and Fire, but Frost and Fire seems to either be done entirely or to be moving from Ventura. Does that spell the end of Cirith Ungol playing hometown shows? 

Yes, that was the main reason we reformed, and it was Jarvis Leatherby’s brainchild. Hopefully he will put on another one someday. Although a beautiful location for a festival, Ventura is not really a hotbed of metal activity. At each show, the majority of the crowd were from either abroad, or other parts of the US. I don’t think the local music scene understands how significant these shows were. Also, Jarvis’s band Night Demon is really on fire, and in demand to be on tour during that critical time each year! Who knows what the future will bring.

Did any of the old songs give you any trouble? 

Not at all.

You guys only had a handful of longer songs back on the original material, but the “Witch’s Game” is one of your longest. Is that indicative of a trend with the stuff you’re writing or was it just a result of it being for the movie?

It’s funny you mentioned this, as I think of Cirith Ungol songs as being long, “King of the Dead” 6:48, “Master of the Pit” 7:09, “Chaos Rising” 8:43. We never really write a song based on length or speed, sometimes the subject would come up, but not as a determining factor. “Witch’s Game” was written especially for the full-length animated feature film The Planet of Doom, to be released next year. The band worked closely with the producers on the timing and subject matter to fit the movie like a glove. The Planet of DOOM is an animated film produced by Riff Lodge Animation, in which the hero, Halvar the Brave, seeks vengeance aboard a witch-born chopper, journeying across a psychedelic landscape on a quest to defeat the deadly beast Mördvél for the slaying of his bride. In a saga conveyed through 14 chapters, where artists and bands are paired together to create their representation of the film’s story, written by artist David Paul Seymour, and animated by director Tim Granda.

We are really excited about this and hope the movie will be a lasting icon, much like the movie Heavy Metal from the 80’s was.

Any word yet on when we can expect some more new Cirith Ungol material? 

At this point in time we are focused on the live album I’m Alive, to be released October 25, however the band has been working on new material since our reformation!  Stay tuned, we still have a few tricks up our sleeves!!

The new live album features, as did all of your studio albums, the visage of Elric of Melniboné. Will there be any further tributes to his character in the future? 

We are very lucky to have the cover art by Michael Whelan, whom we consider a friend and one of the greatest fantasy artists of all time. The artwork for this album depicts the albino king and eternal champion, Elric of Melnibone from the series of books by Michael Moorcock. This masterpiece was the original cover of the book “Elric of Melnibone,” printed and released in 1976 by DAW Books. It was the first book in the series about this haunted protagonist, who brandished a supernatural sword named “Stormbringer.” Stormbringer existed on several dimensions, but on the one Elric occupied, it was a semi-sentient being, and when wielded by Elric, it would suck the souls of whom he had slain into his frail and weak body, making him invincible. This cover for our live album I’m Alive shows Elric, pumped full of vanquished souls after a battle, raising his sword “Stormbringer” above his head, while the souls of the fallen swirl around him! Winner of numerous awards, too many to mention here, his art has graced the covers of worsk by H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur C. Clarke (2010 A Space Odyssey), Isaac Asimov (Robots of the Dawn), and Stephen King (Firestarter). We were the first musical group to showcase his work, and being able to display his “Elric” series of art has transformed our covers from the ordinary to the magnificent! He also provided chilling art for our song, “Witch’s Game,” which was released last year as a single, and in the movie The Planet of Doom.

I believe that if it were not for his art gracing our covers, our legacy would have been greatly diminished, and hope to be working with him on any future projects!

In 2005 a tribute album was released with bands covering beloved Cirith Ungol songs. If a second volume was to happen in the future, what bands would you like to see take part?

HA! That was amazing, many of those covers were fantastic. I would like to see Night Demon do one of our songs, as it has been a long time since I have seen a power trio with so much potential!

Tying into the previous question, given your covers of “Fire,” “Secret Agent Man,” and “Go It Alone,” are there any other songs that you think would make for a good reinterpretation by Cirith Ungol? 

We have talked about that. The only official cover we ever recorded was “Fire” by Arthur Brown. Tim and I wish we could do a James Bond song, but not sure that will ever happen!

Do you have anything else you’d like to talk about, promote, or share? 

On behalf of the band, I would like to thank everyone who has come out to see the us, or has supported Cirith Ungol over the years. We are playing only a handful of shows each year, and urging anyone that has ever wanted to see the band to try to get out to one of these rare appearances. Check out the new live album, and or one of the deluxe editions of King of the Dead, or Paradise Lost, or Witch’s Game which are all pretty awesome! Metal Blade Records has gone to extraordinary lengths to make these molten metal project glow red hot!!!  Blending Sword and Sorcery themes, with fiercely intense Heavy Metal, Cirith Ungol’s music conjures up images of the darker side of man’s eternal, “A Churning Maelstrom of Metal Chaos Descending!”

Cirith Ungol’s live double album I’m Alive
releases tomorrow through Metal Blade

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