Welcome to The Lazarus Pit, a biweekly look at should-be classic metal records that don’t get nearly enough love, stuff that’s essential listening for students of extreme metal that you may not have ever heard of. Stuff that we’re too lazy to track down the band members to do a Hall Of Fame for. First off, we have one of my all-time favorites: Cirith Ungol’s King of the Dead.
I was introduced to this band a decade ago by a guy I used to role-play online with. He sent me the MP3 of “Master of the Pit,” saying it was the heaviest thing ever. He wasn’t wrong. And he should know — he was an Alan Moore look-alike who claimed he lived in a commune somewhere in Washington (and may be a Wolves in the Throne Room roadie at this point, who knows).
Cirith Ungol were a Ventura, California-based group that started off in the early 70s doing psychedelic rock, but by the time they actually got around to recording albums they were full-on heavy metal. Their first proper full-length, Frost and Fire (released on their own label, Liquid Flame, in 1980), featured an intriguing blend of first-two-albums Iron Maiden with fuzz-laden 60s-70s rockers like UFO, Grand Funk Railroad, and Iron Butterfly. And it’s a great record, don’t get me wrong, but it only hinted at what was to come. Frost and Fire was still a little too derivative for them to truly carve out a name for themselves. No, they didn’t craft their all-time classic until their next record: 1984’s King of the Dead (Enigma).
I don’t know what happened in the preceding four years (other than the departure of second guitarist Greg Lindstrom), but the resulting album is one of the flat-out heaviest unsung classics of the 80s. And a big part of its charm lies in its lack thereof: this noise ain’t pretty to look at. Tim Baker shrieks so raw it’ll skin your ears, and that’s the only instrument not giving off feedback. I’m pretty sure they used a table saw as the guitar amp, the bass pops into your face like a snapped rubber band, and my best guess is that the drum kit was made out of actual human skulls. Unlike contemporaries like Hellhammer, though, Cirith Ungol weren’t primitivists — they went for Baroque, crafting melodic and complex compositions (even tackling Bach’s “Toccata in D. Minor”). The group brought their psychedelic origins fully to bear on the New Wave of Brutish Heavy Metal, then slammed it between the hammer and the Anvil.
The first sound you hear is rumbling, the last sound their theme song, but the rumble might as well be the theme song. The words were inspired by Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, Robert E. Howard. “Atom Smasher” and “Black Machine” roar towards oblivion, “Finger of Scorn” is the same one Iron Maiden’s Wicker Man points at you, and I wouldn’t want to encounter the “King of the Dead” in his crumbling underground dominion. They built their true monument, though, with “Master of the Pit,” a seven-minute stunner that flows seamlessly between steel anthem and some of the most soul-destroying jamming ever recorded.
You can hear the legacy of King of the Dead today, in groups like The Gates of Slumber, Hammers of Misfortune, and even Boris (although I can’t think of anyone who screeches quite like Baker). And while Cirith Ungol never found the success they deserved (or even replicated the quality of this record), King of the Dead remains a perfect little diamond in the rough, waiting to be discovered. BY YOU.