JESTER’S WAYBACK REVIEWS: CIRITH UNGOL “Frost And Fire”
By The Great Sun Jester
Posterity is sometimes a bitch and CIRITH UNGOL knows this well. Their initial run is a story of fan adoration, critical disrespect, near-misses of virtually every variety, and improbable turns. They are still out there, albeit in a different form than their halcyon days, and rightly heralded as legends in the scene. This is where Posterity, the old hag, rears her ugly head again. They are locked in time now, the band who recorded “Frost and Fire” and “King of the Dead”, and nothing they do will ever change it.
There’s a reason for that. The work still stands. It isn’t superior instrumental chops, incisive songwriting, or dazzling visual presentation that wins over listeners for UNGOL. It’s vocalist Tim Baker, yes, but the audible love they have for writing and playing their music still burns on “Frost and Fire” all these years later.
You can hear it in the title song’s frantic gallop. The band’s take on sword and sorcery lyrics doesn’t wallow in self-indulgence; it’s plain-spoken and relatable rather than high-flown. It’s one of UNGOL’s strengths. It’s music that builds an immediate connection with listeners rather than maintaining the usual distance between artist and audience. Baker’s vocals are an aural buzzsaw still capable of grabbing your attention and the wide-eyed unhinged quality of his voice fits the words.
“I’m Alive” opens with a short guitar fanfare before the band blazes away. It’s a breathless take no prisoners shot of hard rock with teeth and UNGOL’s guitar attack leaves little standing. The masterstroke comes when they slow the track down and veer into a Grand Guignol theatrical ride with Baker sounding like a sandpaper voiced Jeremiah. The bruising “A Little Fire” rides its guitar and jackhammer drums without ever moving too far from the band’s core sound. This is UNGOL jettisoning any semblance of pretense and battering listeners with hard-hitting rock.
“What Does It Take” is a hidden gem, some sort of wild bastard child of BLUE OYSTER CULT and NAZARETH, and my favorite track on “Frost and Fire”. The synth riff has a hypnotic effect, and the guitars are as strong as ever, but it’s the vocals that hold my attention each time. Baker’s phrasing is straight BLUE OYSTER CULT, circa 197-, and the aforementioned synth accentuates the song’s slightly off-kilter character.
Incendiary instrumental breaks highlight “Edge of a Knife” and strength one of the album’s most chaotic tracks. It doesn’t leave as much of a mark on me as “Frost and Fire”’s other tracks but it’s a thoroughly solid entry late in the album. “Better Off Dead” bets on its rhythm section to win listeners over and they spark with energy from the outset. Many modern listeners will pine for fuller, better production for these songs. Today’s remastering is more often a sales gimmick than a genuine improvement over previously released material and “updating” UNGOL’s “Frost and Fire” has produced negligible improvements.
The songs still come through. Even the closing instrumental “Maybe That’s Why” brims with the same musical enthusiasm. It deals with the same less than fully realized production weighing down the earlier tracks, but the melodic simplicity of its guitars overcomes such drawbacks. The ending, however, is a missed opportunity. “Frost and Fire”, as a whole, closes with the live track
“Cirith Ungol” and it’s a better representation of the band’s sonic identity than any of the studio cuts. . Ending with an extended performance puts an emphatic exclamation point on this flawed classic. If you’ve only heard about CIRITH UNGOL and you haven’t actually made the plunge into their music, “Frost and Fire” is an excellent place to begin your journey with this band.