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Vader: the unsung heroes who dragged death metal out from behind the Iron Curtain

(Image credit: Nuclear Blast)

Heavy metal arrived in Poland on August 9, 1984. That was the day Iron Maiden played their first ever Polish date at Warsaw’s Torwar Hall. The 18-year-old Piotr ‘Peter’ Wiwczarek was there.

Everybody was there,” says the frontman and founder of Polish death metal institution Vader. “Maiden were a huge band, they bought the whole show with them. I was deaf for the next three days.”

This wasn’t just any show. It was the first time a major Western metal band had played this staunchly communist Eastern European country. More than that, it was the first time a major Western metal band had played anywhere behind the Iron Curtain.

“It was an iconic show,” says Peter. “After it, more and more bands started to exist in Poland. Metal spread like a disease.”

His own band were part of this pandemic. Within a few years, Vader had become flag-bearers for their country’s emergent underground scene, a rallying poing for anyone wanting to kick against the drab, authoratation confines of Poland in the 80s. More than anything, they became unlikely international ambassadors for Polish metal, opening up the doors for a host of bands to follow.

Vader’s latest album, Solitude In Madness, is partly an homage to the sheer energy of bands that Peter grew up listening to – Judas Priest, Motörhead, Maiden, as well as the western thrash bands that came after them. “After two decades of trying to smuggle different vibes into our music, I just felt the same need for speed I had years ago. I’m still a fan of the music I used to listen to. I’ve recently had more time to enjoy the bands that I used to listen to.”

In some respects, Vader‘s story is no different to that of the metal bands who came of age on the opposite side of the Iron Curtain to them. But in others, it’s radically different – one marked by the kind of hardships and obstacles their western counterparts could barely imagine. Almost four decades after his band first snarled into life, he’s ready to look back on a career that flourished against the odds.

What was Poland like in the 70s and early 80s?

It’s hard for people today to understand the reality back then, especially people in the UK and America. It was grey and very poor. Imagine some black and white movie, with nothing in the stores. There was a lot of government propaganda and censorship. They didn’t let anyone know what was going on outside Poland, because maybe then they could see something that the government didn’t want them to see. It was impossible for most people to get a passport and travel, so it was easy for them to keep the citizens together and just push the message into their brains that we were living in the best system ever.

When I was a teenager and getting into metal, I knew nothing about the world. I was just an angry young man – the blood was starting to boil in my veins and I wanted to scream. Life wasn’t so good, and metal was this land I escaped into.

How did you discover music back then?

There were no record stores, no instrument stores, no gear, nothing. The only source of music was on the state radio. Some broadcasters would play whole albums. Cassette recorders were cheap and easy to use, and you could record and tape the radio and pass it around to your friends. For us, radio was like a flea market.

The first metal band I heard was Black Sabbath. I had a friend in primary school whose brother travelled to Hungary and smuggled back clothing and things like that. Hungary was part of the Eastern Bloc, but it was in a better situation economically. This guy’s brother kept bringing back albums – he was into Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath. We had listening sessions at his house. I loved Sabbath because they had something unique, especially the first album and Vol.4.

I did buy some records, but I had to work hard to buy them. I worked for three weeks to buy a Yugoslavian edition of Ace Of Spades by Motörhead – Yugoslavian because it half the price.

Life wasn’t so good in Poland, and metal was this land I escaped into

Piotr ‘Peter’ Wiwczarek

Was being a rock fan frowned upon by the authorities?

Long hair was absolutely forbidden in school. To have it meant you were a huge rebel. The jackets, the buttons... all of that. When Slayer came out, me and my friend got a little pin with the Slayer logo on it. I’d wear it for a few days then give it to my friend so he could wear it.

When did you start playing music?

I grew up with my grandparents My grandfather was a soldier and he was in a military orchestra. He loved violin, so I played violin in school for seven years. I gave it up because my teacher was bad – it was more important to him how I held it than how I played it.

The first hard rock show I went to was by a local band called Art Rock. They played AC/DC-style rock music. I was at the front of the stage and it was, like, ‘Wow.’ A few days after that I begged my grandmother to buy me a bass guitar. Everything started with that.

(Image credit: Piotr Wiwczarek)

How did Vader get together?

It was hard to find people in my local area who liked the same things as me - Saxon, Priest, Motörhead. One day I spotted a guy with a British Steel button on his jacket. That was enough to go over and talk to him. This was Vika (aka original Vader guitarist Zbigniew Wróblewski). He said that he was a guitarist, he had a place to jam in, and he was trying to start a band. So we started to jam together.

What were your ambitions back then?

We just wanted to enjoy ourselves, to do something and have fun. And also to do something that was not accepted by our parents and grandparents.

Was there a big rock and metal scene in Poland at the time?

There were some bands. There was a band called TSA – they were one of the first heavy metal bands in Poland in the early 80s. They basically started everything. They were heroes for many years.

There was another band called Kat, who are still legendary today. They were heavier and faster. They brought the devil out onstage with them. That was when the underground started to exist in Poland. But the biggest thing to happen was the first Maiden show.

“After the Iron Maiden show, metal spread like a disease in Poland.”

How big a deal was that Iron Maiden tour?

It was huge. The band Budgie [Welsh classic rock trio later covered by Metallica] were one of the first Western bands to visit Poland, when we were very far from being a European country. They were very popular – probably bigger in Poland than in the UK.

But Iron Maiden were huge all over the world, and they brought the whole show with them. It was spectacular. It wasn’t just a show that happened to be played in Poland. It was way more than that. It was an iconic show. We had just started Vader, so it was a huge boost for us.

What were early Vader shows like?

We started playing our first shows in 1985. They were crazy. It was something new for people in the area. They first shows were in student clubs, 100 capacity or something. I painted posters for the shows, pentagrams with a skull inside, and put them around the city. That was enough to make the shows crowded.

Poland is a Catholic country. Did skulls and pentagrams land you in trouble with anyone

The church wasn’t as powerful then. The Communists tolerated it but didn’t support it.

What about the authorities? Did they have a problem with you?

They didn’t really touch us, because metal was about devils and hell. They didn’t seem to have a problem with that. After we started to compose the lyrics in English, they left us alone.

The biggest problem was the lack of equipment. We could find a place to jam, but we couldn’t find any gear. Instruments were too expensive for guys like us – we had no money to buy Gibson guitars or amplifiers. They were available, but they were crazy prices. All the equipment we had – the guitars, the amplifiers, everything – was handmade. We had friends who had a passion to construct things. My guitar was made by a guy who owned a guitar shop. I still had it on our first proper tour years later.

You started around the same time as Metallica and Slayer, but it sounds like you had it much tougher than they did.

It was tough, but we didn’t feel like it was, because life was much tougher in Poland back then anyway. Metal was something that was ours, something that made us special.

We had dreams, of course. I had a huge poster of Judas Priest’s Unleashed In The East, and I would stare at it and think, ‘Maybe one day I could stand on that same kind of stage, with the lights, the fog.’ Of course, nobody expected we would exist for more than five years. In those days, we all though that we’d die when we turned 30 because it was so old.

(Image credit: Piotr Wiwczarek)

When did you play your first gig outside of Poland?

That was in 1990. It was in Moscow – still behind the Iron Curtain, but Poland was like the West to them. We played three shows over two years there – we were huge. Maybe not Iron Maiden huge, but still big. The first show was to 4000 people. The last one, we played Gorky Park to 10,000 people. It was the week before Madonna played there. We used the same PA system. Russia back then was crazy. Nobody was asking for money. Vodka was the only thing you got paid in. We just came to play and feel that insanity.

“We didn’t want to start a revolution. We just wanted to play music.”

Vader’s debut album, The Ultimate Incantation, was released by British extreme metal label Earache in 1992 – the first international album by a Polish metal band. How did that come about?

We had to wait nearly ten years to make that. Our second demo tape [1990’s Morbid Reich] we made absolutely independently. It had a full colour cover, everything. Things were starting to change in Poland. Private businesses started to exist, which meant we could do something like that.

Earache got the demo tape, and they gave us a chance. In Poland, we were becoming popular even though we played non-popular music. I remember when the video for the song Dark Age was premiered on MTV. It was like a national holiday. We were invited onto national Polish TV just because it was getting played on MTV.

That album – it was not new, it was not anything revolutionary. But we didn’t want to start a revolution. We just wanted to play music.

Poland has a thriving scene today. How do you feel about being the godfathers of Polish metal?

Vader wasn’t the only band who started the extreme metal scene in Poland, but we were one of the bands that survived and did not give up. We showed everyone behind the Iron Curtain that there is hope, that you can go out and do something globally. We opened not just the door. We opened people’s eyes.

Vader’s latest album, Solitude In Madness, is out now