The re-release (with additions) of the long-lost Cirith Ungol rare tracks album "Servants of Chaos" is as much an anthropological study of heavy metal as it is a celebration of the band's accomplishments.
It is curious to see the strata of early metal and progressive rock laid so bare before the eye of the beholder, particularly through the lens of a band that helped popularize those genres without sharing in their lasting legacy.
Of particular historical note is that Cirith Ungol, the untold would-be champion of metal's early days, was based on the West Coast of the United States. The textbook history of the genre tells us that metal, whether mainstream or progressive, was exclusively borne across the Pond, with names like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, King Crimson, Uriah Heep, The Electric Light Orchestra, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Venom. Yet, here we are faced with uncovered recordings of a band doing those same exact things, with the same degree of both rhythm and experimentation, and doing it from a locale long thought as less important in the genre's formation.
Listening to the back end of disc one of this mammoth collection of cuts is like listening to a long jam session, where no one was quite sure what the final product would be. Rolling through the psychedelic instrumentals "Darkness Weaves," "Witchdance," "Feeding the Ants" and "Obsidian," the listener hears the very definition of experimental metal music in the early to mid eighties. Screaming guitars, strange cadences and stray notes bring alive a landscape of fantasy and wild unpredictability.
Overall, the "Servants of Chaos" re-release comes across as a deck of "Magic: The Gathering" cards come to life. With the exception of the obligatory-song-about-cars "100 MPH," every section of the album is perfect for raising a tankard of ale, slaying a troll, or chasing some wild-eyed warlord across a frost-blasted landscape. Given the band's ties to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, this all comes as little surprise to fans both old and new.
There is a wonderful feeling of nostalgia and nearly a sense of accomplishment for new listeners as each re-discovered gem is brushed off. Not all of these gems are diamonds, and you could go so far to say that most are only semi-precious stones, but each has value in its own right. Before the rise of thrash, and the segmentation of heavy metal into the early genres of doom and speed, Cirith Ungol played a style that characterized all forms of metal concurrently.
Executed in the idiom of metal's early days, Cirith Ungol's music fits cleanly in the pocket of those bands named earlier. What holds this collection back, and likely what held the band in their initial offerings, is that Cirith Ungol vacillates between either niche experimental progressive metal, or speed metal that is good, but not better than Priest or Maiden. To the modern fan introducing him or herself to Cirith Ungol for the first time it may sound like this style has been played better by someone else.
All that said, "Servants of Chaos" is an important entry into the timeline of metal's history, despite the fact that the band is mostly a footnote. For those studious enough to want to know the complete story of Cirith Ungol at a glance, and put a piece of lineage in their collection, "Servants of Chaos" is a capable addition. For those content with "Number of the Beast," "Demons and Wizards," and "British Steel," you won't gain much.