Few bands have done more for death metal in the twenty-first century than Polish titans, Decapitated. Guitarist, Wacław “Vogg” Kiełtyka, is one of the most emulated players in the scene and now moonlights as the live six-stringer for the mighty Machine Head. Only a fool would discount the group’s influence on modern metal. ‘Spheres of Madness’ is the iconic death metal song of the last twenty years and just as influential as Meshuggah’s ‘Blood’ or Gojira’s ‘Toxic Garbage Island’ on the heavy landscape. Without Decapitated, modern death metal would be a whole lot different.
Even to this day, the technical prowess and rhythmic precision of Decapitated’s early music is mind-blowing. On The First Damned, Nuclear Blast give us the band’s legendary demos from 1997 (Cemeteral Gardens) and 1998 (The Eye of Horus) on one consolidated LP without the need for an expensive remastering or digital makeover. This is a living and breathing piece of history from the annals of death metal and still sounds as labyrinthine and as heavy as it did in the late 1990s when almost every youthful band in the west were embracing the abomination of nu metal or wrestling with the decline of grunge.
It’s telling that all six full-length compositions from the 1998 demo (tracks 1-7 on this release) made it onto Decapitated’s debut album in 2000. The five minutes and twenty-nine seconds of ‘The Eye of Horus’ are pure perfection. Vogg’s guitar tone is like a crunchier version of Morbid Angel, while the vocals of Wojciech “Sauron” Wąsowicz reside somewhere between Chris Barnes (Cannibal Corpse) and Glen Benton (Deicide). How they managed to execute such a full-bodied mix on cassette in 1998 is bewildering. Make no mistake, the production here could pass for a modern album. How does Vogg find such groove among his scything guitar rhythms on ‘Blessed’ and ‘The First Damned’? You can listen to this brutal shred riffing all day and still demand more once the audio blitzkrieg ends.
Of course, you can’t review a historic Decapitated record without mentioning the age of the personnel at the time. Drummer, Witold “Vitek” Kiełtyka, was only thirteen years of age when the group recorded their 1997 demo, Cemeteral Gardens. Vogg was sixteen, Sauron seventeen and bassist, Marcin “Martin” Rygiel, still only thirteen. Fanzines and record labels listening to this in 1997 would assume they had an experienced band in their mid-20s in their hands when putting the cassette into the tape deck. Vitek, who sadly died in 2007 at twenty-three, is the star of the show on ‘Destiny’, marshalling his calf muscles to full efficacy on the double-kick drums like Pete Sandoval (Morbid Angel/Terrorizer). ‘Way to Salvation’ would later become a lynchpin of 2000’s Winds of Creation debut, and it still sounds as strange in demo format. The surprise chamber keyboards give it a Lord Belial sound, yet the end groove could be straight from Megadeth’s Countdown to Extinction. Unfortunately, the vocals underwhelm. Sauron seldom wanders from his narrow baritone gutturals and does little to divert your attention away from the colossal guitar and drum interplay. Indeed, you’ll find yourself ignoring the dry throat menace of Sauron on ‘Ereshkigal’ and ‘Cemeteral Gardens’, concentrating instead on the awesome bite of the distorted guitars and maze of riffs. You might even compare Vogg’s virtuosity with Tommy Vetterli of Coroner.
Much talk in 1997-98 focussed on ‘true’ and ‘false’ metal due to the creeping tide of rap vocals and industrial beats making their way into heavier forms of music, and there’s no doubt Decapitated hoisted the flag for the former camp when they exploded onto the underground scene. We look back now and wonder how four teenagers from central Europe could produce such awe-inspiring death metal while in high school. This would still sound modern now if a band released music of this quality in 2021.
Diehards and casuals alike will find much to admire here. Decapitated owned the last two decades of death metal, and this is where it all began. Why wouldn’t you want this in your collection?
Release Date: 04/06/20219
Record Label: Nuclear Blast
Standout tracks: The Eye of Horus, Nine Steps, Way to Salvation
Suggested Further Listening: Morbid Angel – Abominations of Desolation (1991), Vader – De Profundis (1996), Godzilla – Saturate (1999)