“When I see kids that are 12 and 15 now, I can’t believe it… it’s hard to imagine that we were that young and trying to play death metal!”
Where would we be without teenage dreams? When Poland’s death metal masters Decapitated began their now two-decade journey, founder members Wacław ‘Vogg’ Kiełtyka and his brother Witold (a.k.a. Vitek) were only 15 and 12 years of age, respectively. However, anyone that heard the band’s debut demo, Cemeteral Gardens, back in the mid-90s, would have found it hard to believe that the supremely confident and complex music that the brothers were making had been created, in truth, by children.
“The budget for the first demo was €100!” Vogg chuckles today. “That was a lot of money for us, and we had to sell a lot of cassettes from our collections, just to pay for the train tickets and the studio. It was crazy. We knew a little bit about how to play. We had a big passion for music, we were big metalheads, but we were very, very young.”
Formed in 1996 in the small south-westerly Polish town of Krosno, Decapitated started as most young bands do, playing covers and revelling in the newfound art of making a brutal racket. But there was always something special about this band, something born from the chemistry between guitarist Vogg and his insanely gifted drummer sibling, and nurtured via an intensely musical environment.
“Some of my family members were connected with music, so we had music going on around us at home,” Vogg recalls. “Also, we all went to the same music school in Krosno, so we learned about music every day, and we all played other instruments, like piano and accordion. But the biggest impact for Vitek and me was our cousin. He was 19 and a metalhead. He showed us what metal was and he showed us bands like Autopsy, Sepultura, Slayer, all the old-school stuff, so we had been prepared for it from a really young age.”
Overshadowed by the more visually striking and controversial black metal scene for the most of the 90s, death metal was in need of a kick up the arse by the time Decapitated released their debut album, Winds Of Creation, in the spring of 2000. Signed to Earache after a considerable flurry of offers from European metal labels, Vogg, Vitek and bandmates Marcin ‘Martin’ Rygiel [bass] and Wojciech ‘Sauron’ Wa,sowicz [vocals] were fresh-faced and naïve, but their music exuded class and power from day one. And it didn’t take long for the UK to catch on. Within a year of the first album’s release, Decapitated had established themselves as firm favourites on these shores, with regular appearances at the Underworld in London, in particular, ensuring that these teenage ingénues were heading onwards and upwards at speed – studies permitting, of course.
“We played in the UK every year and it was like our second home. We played more shows in the UK than in Poland!” Vogg laughs. “It was really cool. We had a really good start. We didn’t do summer festivals because we were still studying at school and we didn’t do much promotion, so maybe we didn’t take the chance 100%. On the other hand, we were all really concentrated on finishing school, and that was important, too, so it was a complicated time.”
Despite educational commitments, Decapitated were gaining ferocious momentum. Both 2002’s Nihility album and its 2004 follow-up, The Negation, earned ecstatic reviews across the board. But it was the album they made after their first significant line-up change that would change everything for Vogg and his brother. The first, and only, Decapitated album to feature Adrian ‘Covan’ Kowanek on vocals, Organic Hallucinosis emerged early in 2006 and showcased a band armed with a wholesale re-imagining of death metal’s core values. Although still firmly in deathly territory, Vogg and Vitek’s mastery of intricate grooves and Covan’s less orthodox vocal style combined to create an unprecedented new strain of extreme metal, with subtle shades of Meshuggah and Pantera bolstering the band’s otherwise merciless assault. A minority of fans were not impressed by this deviation from the death metal blueprint, of course, but the majority were simply blown away.
“It was a big change for us,” Vogg nods. “It was the first time that I’d had any hate from anyone! I had a few emails from people saying, ‘I’m not your fan anymore!’ and stuff like that. We changed the sound, but I believe it’s still the best-selling Decapitated album. For lots of people, it’s our best record. I hear things from bands like Meshuggah and the guys from Lamb Of God, these really cool musicians, and they’re really big fans of that album and hold it in great respect. Later on, we had the chance to play on huge tours with those guys, because they were big fans of Organic…”
From bright-eyed enthusiasts to game-changing pioneers, Decapitated were poised to become one of the breakthrough metal acts of the 00s. But then disaster struck. While travelling to the final show on their tour of Russia in autumn 2007, the band’s tour bus was involved in a horrific collision with a truck as they neared the border with Belarus. Both Vitek and Covan sustained life-threatening injuries: the drummer passed away a few days later in a Russian hospital, while Covan slipped into a coma and, a decade on, is still undergoing rehabilitation and is unlikely to ever fully recover. For Vogg, the loss of his brother eclipsed any concerns about his musical career and, for a while, the future of Decapitated was in doubt.
“You never expect something like that,” he sighs. “In one day, your whole life changes and you’re spun round 360˚. I lost my brother, but Vitek was also my best friend. Everyone knows what a cool guy he was, what a great person he was. No one could say anything bad about him, and that’s very different from me, ha ha ha! But of course it was devastating. Decapitated was me and my brother before anything else.”
Nearly two years passed before Vogg felt able to resurrect his band and start a new chapter in their story. During that quiet period, he guested with fellow Poles Vader and worked as a guitar tech, but the lure of making music inevitably proved too great. In spite of the obvious emotional turmoil involved in performing as Decapitated without his beloved sibling, Vogg eventually decided that the best way to honour his brother’s legacy was to get back out there and keep that teenage dream alive.
“It was a tough decision,” he notes. “We were brothers and we created a brothers’ sound, like Vinnie and Dime in Pantera or Joe and Mario in Gojira. It always creates something special. But my wife and my family all said that I should continue with the band and that there were still a lot of things to do with Decapitated.”
The Decapitated reunion burst into life in 2010. Now fronted by Rafal ‘Rasta’ Piotrowski, the new line-up hit the road with a vengeance. What Vogg hadn’t expected, however, was the unbridled hysteria that met them at every venue on that tour. Fans were chanting Vitek’s name even before the band hit the stage every night, and it was clear that their fanbase had grown exponentially during their absence. For Rasta, in particular, what had initially seemed a daunting task swiftly evolved into a triumphant, celebratory rebirth.
“At first I felt it was hard to become the new vocalist,” Rasta tells Hammer. “Everyone was nervous. There was a big question mark over us. It was judgement day for Decapitated. At the beginning it was hard; someone asked me to sign CDs I didn’t sing on, and I felt guilty! But the more we travelled, the more I saw the enthusiasm and how much people care about this band. It drives you on and makes you want to do it even more.”
In 2017, Decapitated are now routinely acknowledged as one of the most influential metal bands of the 21st century. You can hear echoes of their genre-twisting creativity and breath- taking precision in all manner of current bands, from mainstream metalcore acts through to the entire tech/djent scene and countless more left-field extremists. 2011’s comeback album Carnival Is Forever and 2014’s Blood Mantra have restored the band to the position they enjoyed before 2007’s tragedies, and forthcoming seventh album Anticult seems certain to propel the band ever further up the metal pecking order. An irresistible blend of death metal fury and groundbreaking ingenuity, it’s exactly the kind of forward-thinking but ardently obdurate metal record that today’s overpopulated scene needs. Once again, Decapitated are giving heavy music a kick up the arse, and as Vogg celebrates the start of his band’s third decade, he sounds very much like a man pursuing the same mission that consumed his teenage heart all those years ago.
“Twenty years? What the hell? I don’t know how it’s possible to be in a band for that long, but it’s really cool,” he grins. “I’m 35 now and feel that this is still only the beginning. I have so much passion for creating riffs and playing the guitar. I love touring, I love playing music. Twenty years on, nothing has changed.”
ANTICULT LANDS JULY 7 VIA NUCLEAR BLAST. DECAPITATED PLAY BLOODSTOCK’S MAIN STAGE ON AUGUST 11
Your essential beginner’s guide to Decapitated
Way To Salvation - (Winds Of Creation, 2000)
The only track from Decapitated’s first demo to make it through to their debut album, Way To Salvation confirmed that Vogg and Vitek were extraordinary musicians at a startlingly young age. A churning storm of state-of-the-art death metal, it ticked all the old school boxes while hinting at the game-changing brilliance to come.
Spheres Of Madness - (Nihility, 2002)
Effectively Decapitated’s greatest hit (“It’s our Smoke On The Water!” declares Rasta), Spheres… begins with a riff so simple, effective and groovy that you’d have to genuinely, actively despise heavy metal to resist its charms. If you’ve ever been in the pit at a Decap show when this one kicks off, you’ll have bruises to prove it.
The Negation - (The Negation, 2004)
Early evidence of the genre-smashing intuition that has since turned them into underground legends, The Negation is one of Decapitated’s heaviest and slowest tracks, with a churning, pitch-black riff that sounds like the grind of tectonic plates and some wildly psychedelic soloing from Vogg. 21st-century death metal redefined.
Day 69 - (Organic Hallucinosis, 2006)
Second only to Spheres Of Madness in Decapitated’s hit list, Day 69 marked a great leap forward for the Poles’ sound. Vitek’s drumming is truly mindblowing throughout, not least during his brief mid-song solo, and Vogg’s riffs are an object lesson in how to make extreme metal swing like a mammoth’s ballbag. A modern metal masterpiece.
The Knife - (Carnival Is Forever, 2011)
Could Decapitated survive with a new line-up, with the shadow of Vitek’s death looming? The answer, as this first track from comeback album Carnival Is Forever proves, was a resounding yes. Exploding into life in a flurry of juddering riffs and Rasta’s gargled roar, The Knife showed that Decapitated had plenty left to offer. They couldn’t have paid their fallen brother a better tribute.
Blindness - (Blood Mantra, 2014)
A world away from the death metal purity of their early works, this mesmerising epic from 2014’s Blood Mantra album hammers home how far Decapitated have come. As likely to lure in fans of Gojira and Meshuggah as it would underground diehards, it’s a densely atmospheric downward spiral into oblivion that once again confirms what a clever, talented bastard Vogg is.
Never - (Anticult, 2017)
Kindly showing that Decapitated fully intend to continue their sensible habit of being one of the best bands in metal today, Never is an absolute shredfest. Managing to squeeze some deceptively catchy melodies into a six-minute explosion of fret-searing intensity and drum-popping percussion, the lead track from Anticult highlights why the Poles are as at home at Brixton Academy as they once were slogging away in toilet venues across Europe. Welcome back, boys.