Decapitated unearth a death metal crossroads with 'The First Damned' Demos
Decapitated are one of the 21st century's most vital and influential death metal bands, having endured so much while evolving across a catalogue of classic records that offer something for any fan of extreme music, but two decades ago they were a group of Polish teenagers just on the cusp of revitalising an entire genre. At a time when death metal was just beginning to rear its head again, Decapitated's early albums proved vital alongside the works of Nile and Dying Fetus in giving it a shot in the arm, but those roots go back even further into the mid 1990s on a pair of demo tapes recorded when the band were just thirteen to sixteen years old - not that you'd know it by hearing it, given their dizzying technicality and unbroken brutality. New release "The First Damned" compiles and celebrates this period, and so we spoke to guitarist and primary composer Vogg on its release day to talk about the magic and the hurdles of this fascinating point on death metal's timeline.
It was a day of joy for fans a few months ago when all of your early albums suddenly appeared on streaming services after years of not being available. Was that part of the same rights issues being solved that encouraged you to reissue the old demos?
I was so glad our old catalogue came back online. I don’t really have an idea why Earache Records did that, but "Winds of Creation", "Nihility", "The Negation" and "Organic Hallucinosis" are really important parts of our history and for a lot of fans the most important things that we ever did. That was not part of the same deal, Earache still have those album rights, but it probably was part of the reason that we decided to go ahead with "The First Damned" release when we got that material back. People didn’t have those old songs available, and newer younger fans who only listen on streaming only had our last three albums on there. "The First Damned" compilation has almost all of the songs from "Winds of Creation" so it was a good reason to release those, so at least people could have those songs back. Earache have come back with those old albums too, I saw that last week they released a new LP of "Nihility" again, but they can do whatever they want with those and I’m okay with that situation. It is how it is and I’m just glad that everyone can stream all of our old music again and our new fans can hear our first steps. Together with "The First Damned", it’s like a complete discography right now, which is amazing.
You've made a point of not remixing or fiddling with the sound of these demos in any way and just putting them out as they were back then, but compared to the famous rehearsal or demo tapes from some older death metal bands like early Entombed or Darkthrone, these recordings don’t sonically sound too bad. Do you think they’ve held up quite well?
They do sound pretty clear and pretty pro. If you think about them as the first steps of the band without experience and we were all 12-15 years old, we didn’t have any idea how to record, but you mentioned some of the first steps of those older bands and we need to remember that some of those bands back in the late 80s or early 90s probably weren’t recording their first demos in a studio. They’d be using just two mics in a rehearsal room or in a basement or wherever. A band like Darkthrone for example were never looking for the best sound anyway, and that was completely different to Decapitated where we were always wanted to be really prepared for the sessions. We didn’t have equipment and experience but we knew that we had to be well prepared to go into the studio, and an important thing here is that before we started the band we already played on some different instruments because we were being trained in music school. All of the members of the first Decapitated line-up had been in music school since we were seven, and we became friends that way. We had that music education so I think it was really important in our sound becoming that good at a really young age. I was also impressed because I hadn’t listened to those demo tapes for many years before we started to think about releasing them. I was afraid to hear what they would sound like but then I started listening to "The Eye of Horus" and holy shit, it sounds really good. When I hear how crazy the riffs are that we deliver and with so many tempo changes when we were really young, it did make a big impression on me again. There’s a lot of things to talk about regarding "The First Damned" release, how it sounds, the age that we were, and the great history to tell that we can spread to worldwide fans because it’s out on Nuclear Blast Records. We did release the two demos as a compilation before twenty-one years ago on Metal Mind Productions which is a local label here in Poland, but now every Decapitated fan can hear it and see the new layout with the new cover and so many pictures inside, reviews from underground magazines, and an amazing story written by Dom Lawson about the band’s beginnings. It’s an amazing thing happening today.
One of the really striking things about this era of Decapitated with these demos going into the first album is that the songs are five or six minutes long and fit in so many riffs and time changes per song. Your songs now are not structured in the same way, so what was it about your writing style at that age that led to these complex multi-sectioned songs?
That’s true, the old songs are like a never-ending flow of ideas that never stop. You have another riff that came from the riff before, and another musical idea from that, and it will only be there once and never repeat. The structure of the song would be so complex and it was a more improvisational way of making the song. Right now we will have structures that have a verse, chorus, some kind of bridge, some kind of solo, and that’s it, and it’s more logical where back then I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t understand how compositions were supposed to be, I’d just put all of these riffs together and eventually figure out that I’d have to finish it. It’s more like a classical composition technique compared to rock or pop forms. It was crazy and I don’t know how I did that. It was a pretty high level of making music with so many changes, where one song’s worth of ideas could fill a whole other album if you picked each riff as a base idea for another song. It was more following intuition.
Most fans will be familiar with "Winds of Creation", so when listening to the demo versions of those same songs and how they differ, they’re not quite as down-tuned and sonically heavy with more of a thrash tone, and there are more of the keyboards in the style of the "Dance Macabre" interlude track on songs like "Way to Salvation". How much were you discovering your identity through the means of playing with your guitar sounded and experimenting with these different influences to see what would stick in the Decapitated sound?
I think we were maybe even more open during that demo phase. We didn’t have a record deal and we didn’t have any fans that we could disappoint, we were just trying to check every possibility of which way we could possibly go with our music. That keyboard on that track, what the hell is that? It’s true that we were influenced by thrash metal bands and death metal bands but also at that time in 97-98, it was Emperor, Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir that were overshadowing the death metal scene. In the song "Nine Steps" there is some Emperor influence too with the use of guitar melody, which there is more of the first album than on any album after. I don’t want to say that we have ever been trapped in needing to focus on one style of metal to make the record label and the fans happy in making a death metal record, but we were being young and brave in trying these things. With the tunings, it is more wiry and thrashy than the low end "Winds of Creation" sound, it was still standard E tuning because we did not have any idea about tuning the guitars down. That happened later probably learning from someone in the studio during the "Winds of Creation" sessions where someone would have brought in a guitar with D standard tuning. "The First Damned" represents these songs that mostly are on "Winds of Creation", but with the original different sound that is more like a prototype of the band, but is very essential and very honest. When I listen to it it feels so fast and spontaneous, and that pure young energy being put into the riffs, and it didn’t make any sense to try and cover mistakes now that we did then.
You mentioned that when you were starting, death metal as a genre was not as strong and prominent as it had been a few years earlier when it had its big commercial boom, and that some of the black metal bands were much more popular. When that Norwegian black metal scene started earlier in the decade, a lot of those artists have said that they were reacting to death metal becoming more commercial, so do you feel that by the time you guys came around that that dynamic had almost flipped?
In some ways maybe it’s true that with "Winds of Creation", we brought some of the new fresh air into the death metal scene. Probably that’s why Earache Records and the other labels were interested in releasing our band, especially with Earache where at that time, the sales of bands like Carcass and Napalm Death were probably going down with the black metal wave covering the extreme metal scene, and then suddenly there’s a young band from the south of Poland. When we were young we didn’t really know or care about whether death metal was going up or going down. Our world was our hometown with 50,000 people in it, our rehearsal room, and the tapes that we had of Morbid Angel, Sepultura and Cannibal Corpse. We didn’t know about the selling numbers, we could see that black metal was going very strong at the time, but not enough to concern us with what we wanted to do. It was a little bit weird for me seeing all those pictures with corpse-painted faces and swords. We never considered wearing the suits of armour for Decapitated. Our singer liked black metal and our bass player liked black metal, I liked little bits like Emperor who were really something special but was a bit of a step out of that, though I respect all of those bands for doing something fresh. With "Winds of Creation" though, we were taking inspiration from Vader, from Cannibal Corpse, from Death, but we put something that was ours and an energy of young guys who wanted to be more technical and fast than their heroes, and when people from labels heard these demos they felt that energy and saw that maybe we were a band who could further death metal and refresh it.
As a band who were not existing in the metal mainstream at this point in time, how important was this demo tape scene to building your profile, and is that why it felt right to reissue them on the same cassette tape format again and pay homage to that?
Oh yeah, definitely. Especially on tape, it’s bringing a bit of the 90s again. I can see that many bands are releasing tapes again right now which is kind of weird. LPs have been back for a few years now and people love those, buying more than CDs these days, but tapes have their own specific sound and bring the memories of that tape scene. It was our goal to release these on the tape format so it would be exactly the same, just like with the no remixing and remastering. It’s the first steps of Decapitated in the same form it was twenty-something years ago.
Do you feel like you having taken the process of looking over all this old material might at all influence you going forward, either in writing with some of that old inspiration or in picking out some obscure setlist choices?
We’re already asking that question for the setlists. My favourite song from this time is "Nine Steps", and we used to play this song live every show back then. It’s a killer song live with a great riff structure, with lots of breaks on the drums and more melodic guitars, and the other songs we could pick because we just didn’t play these songs live forever. Maybe it would be a great idea to add some of these really old songs to our newer setlists. I’ve been thinking about how back in the day we’d copy them in the tape recorder from tape to tape, copy the layout in xerocopy places, put it all together and go to the post office to send to these underground magazines, to other bands that we knew. We’ve been collecting all these pictures from family and friend collections, collecting old reviews and old footage from small shows which there isn’t much of but we got a few clips, and it just brings all those old times back. It was a long time ago, twenty-four or five years ago, it’s a different life, but it’s brought a lot of great memories back and perhaps gives another fresh motivation for keeping going and furthering that. Our new album is already finished and ready to mix, to be released in the beginning of next year, and in some way this album does turn back to these old death metal sounds with the melodies, the blast beats, the atmosphere which we started with. In some way we could treat the release today as making a kind of path for the new Decapitated album.
When your music has changed a lot over the years and the people in the band around you have changed, when you look back at these first demos and how you did things back then, do you still identify with the person you were back then who wrote these songs?
In some ways, yeah. Of course I have changed, our bodies change, we are not fifteen years old forever and maybe I am not that fast in my left and right hand, but I have to say I have the same enthusiasm. I am almost fourty and sometimes I think I’m crazy for still standing with the guitar in front of the mirror, checking my stage clothes and practising playing my songs but with Spotify these days, not the tape. I have long hair, I’m wearing black, I have my guitars and I’m still just addicted to playing metal. It’s a different life right now but because of the band, because of the music, we can still keep in touch with ourselves and it keeps us all together.
The First Damned from Decapitated is currently available via Nuclear Blast Records - HERE