It takes guts to give your band a name like that. Death? The most common thing in the world. Grave? Yeah, everybody has one. But naming your band after the Dark Lord of the Sith? That has legacy. It’s a name that has to live up to the idea that the power to destroy a planet is nothing compared to the forces that you wield.
And how has the Polish death metal group held up that legacy? Better than Darth Vader himself, ironically. Formed in 1983, they released their first demo in 1988, quickly revising their sound over two more demos before their first full-length, The Ultimate Incantation in 1992. Piotr “Peter” Wiwczarek (guitars and vocals) has changed the band from a two-piece to a trio to a quartet and back again several times, with drummer Krzysztof “Doc” Raczkowski being the only other consistent band member until his death in 2005. While Anakin was busy podracing, Peter and friends delivered Litany, one of the most thunderous death metal albums ever produced. And while many consider Litany a high point for the band, it stands alongside ten other (soon to be eleven) excellent albums, eight EPs, and five live albums, none of which would find any torment in the death of sandpeople.
Vader exemplifies the Polish sound. Without them, there would be no Hate, no Lost Soul, no Decapitated, no Behemoth. From the thrashy to the orchestral to the straight blasting, Vader has done it all with ferocity and sincerity. So have they earned the right to share the name of one of the most legendary antagonists of all time? Listen to these thirteen songs and you’ll agree with us. Absolutely.
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DARK AGE[The Ultimate Incantation, 1992]
The first track on the band’s first album, for those of us not plugged into the demo world back then, “Dark Age” was the first thing we’d heard of Vader. Although their sound was still coming together, the elements are all here – straightforward death metal riffing with hints of the band’s thrash metal roots, relentless pacing, and Peter’s semi-intelligible growl. (It also sports one of death metal’s greatest gong hits.) “Dark Age” shreds, thrashes, flirts with melody, and never lets up. Vader may have gotten better in the years after, but this was their first impression, and it’s a winner.
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ONLY HELL KNOWS[Welcome to the Morbid Reich, 2011]
Modern-day Vader is sometimes known for epic orchestral theatricality, but “Only Hell Knows” proves that they can and do still unleash torrents of blasting riffs that any era of death metal band would be proud of. Peter and Spider make strong use of twin-guitar harmonies in wrist-destroying 32nd note patterns while Paul’s drums stutter and snap so quickly it’s easy to miss all the frills he’s flawlessly executing. Somehow “Only Hell Knows” feels lighter than air in an album loaded with more complex, sometimes brooding material. And the song may only be two minutes long, but they still managed to shove two flailing guitar solos into it. Why can’t every song be this undeniably intense?
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REVELATION OF BLACK MOSES[Revelations, 2002]
In a catalog characterized almost exclusively by relentless brutality, the long, slow burn of “Revelation of Black Moses” is an anomaly. More bulldozer than blitzkrieg, “Black Moses” is probably the closest Vader has ever come to doom-death, and this near-seven minute juggernaut of a tune is an epic in every way. The lyrics tell a nigh-inscrutable story, but the imagery is gloriously fantastical, full of fiery demons, Angels, Egyptian Seraphim, and a tale that involves the burning of heaven, the slaughter of Jesus and his disciples, and, ultimately, the beheading of God himself. Though the track has a back-bone of burly, trudging riffs, it is the more atmospheric touches that shine brightest, not least of which are Peter’s vocals. Given a little more space to breathe due to the relaxed pacing, Peter’s signature growl has never been more expressive, and when he roars out the chorus, “BLACK MOSESS ISS MY NAME,” never more impactful. Finally, the melodic solos stand in stark contrast to the band’s typical Slayer-esque chaos, particularly the second, a rare contribution from Vader’s longest serving second guitarist, Mauser, which is so silky smooth, it makes it seem criminal that Peter didn’t give Mauser the solo spot more often.
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HELLELUYAH!!! (GOD IS DEAD)[Impressions in Blood, 2006]
Vader has long been known for many things – a blazing, hefty death/thrash attack, Peter’s gruff vocals, etc. – but subtlety is not one of them. Not in the least. They’ve always done their Evil Heavy Metal Band routine with all the subtlety with which Led Zeppelin wrote lyrics about sex. So zero subtlety. “Helleluyah!!! (God Is Dead),” from 2006’s Impressions in Blood, is the peak (valley?) of this “quality.” Actually, screw those smartass quotation marks. For Vader, this is a quality, as it only adds to the band’s goofy charm. This track briefly shows the band’s rare dramatic approach, using keyboards to create a theatrical atmosphere before the chorus features Peter yelling the tongue-in-cheek song title over a fine bed of blasts. A quick detour into pure thrash for the bridge is then again slowed by the usage of symphonic effects. Kinda perfect that Vader tosses a bit of a nod to Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir with such sections, those being a couple of other bands not exactly known for subtlety.
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THE WRATH[Sothis, 1994]
Although “The Wrath” made its way onto Vader’s second demo and first compilation, its sole recording outside of that absolutely makes the Sothis EP an mandatory purchase for fans looking to dig beneath the most conspicuous hits. Filled with incredibly clever time signatures, the brilliantly composed song’s pacing changes frequently as the riffs shovel their way into your eardrums just before the breakdown and solo leave their unholy mark upon the inside of your brain forever.
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THIS IS THE WAR
[The Art of War, 2005]
After the instrumental intro of “Parabellum,” “This Is The War” is the true opening salvo on Vader’s surgical strike of an EP, The Art Of War, and what a blast it is. Built on Daray’s appropriately machine-gun-esque drumming, “This Is The War” is a direct attack, head-on and merciless, with simple and sharp riffs from Peter and Mauser and a shout-along chorus tailor-made for fist-in-the-air front-row headbanging. It’s a veritable master lesson in succinct death metal power – hit quick, hit hard, scorch the earth, and then move along – so come on, join in the war, and scream with me aloud.
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HEXENKESSEL[Tibi et Igni, 2014]
When Tibi et Igni was released, pretty much every fan was declaring Vader to be one of the most consistent no-nonsense death metal bands of all time. “Hexenkessel” is, for lack of a better word, the most obvious track on the album. It introduces a classically composed riff that is the wind beneath the listeners’ wings as they descend the hellfire-built stairways of fire and brimstone as their heads are simultaneously bashed in by James Stewart’s repeated drum blasts. Although the rest of the album was filled with plenty of bullshit-free tracks, “Hexenkessel” is the one that will make listeners kick over their seats and air guitar like mad people.
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CARNAL[Black to the Blind, 1997]
You could make a case that Vader was merely emulating Slayer in the early going (well, with the accelerator pressed more firmly to the floor), Here’s something sort of funny, though. Vader seems to make a mistake with “Carnal” on Black To The Blind, released in 1997, only for Slayer to make the same mistake on Diabolus In Musica, released in 1998. I’m talking about, of course, the emo/ whining/ sniveling shit vocals, a mistake that Slayer seemed to repeat a year later with “Stain Of Mind.” However, listen to “Carnal” a little bit more closely. Unlike any Slayer song on Diabolus In Musica, “Carnal” is fast as fuck, almost to the point where it’s a blurry grindcore song. Also, listen to Peter’s controversial vocal delivery a little bit more closely; his segue from emo/ whining/ sniveling shit to a full throated roar has to be heard to be believed. In short, it works; at least, it does on Black To The Blind. The re-recording on XXV cleans it up a bit, robbing the song of a bit of its emphasis. Regardless of how you may feel about “Carnal,” it’s nothing if not memorable, especially on an album that’s probably the turkey of Vader’s discography. Not to mention that “Carnal” shits all over “Stain Of Mind” (not saying much, I know).
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BLOOD OF KINGU[De Profundis, 1995]
With its Necronomicon-inspired lyrics ‘Blood of Kingu” finds Vader in the fine company of Morbid Angel, Nile and umpteen other bands. The Babylonian Mythology related in the Necronomicon is, much like most ancient Mythology, concerned primarily with horrific violence, and, fittingly, “Blood Kingu” of is a veritable vortex of musical violence. The intro drops the listener right into the circle put and pummels him/her mercilessly for nearly a full minute, with only the briefest respite coming with the verses. The rest of the track continues the circular riffing theme, varying like speeds on the blender, until the listener is left liquefied.
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SOTHIS[Sothis, 1994; De Profundis, 1995]
Appearing first on the 1994 EP that bears its name and later on 1995’s classic De Profundis, “Sothis” is, to put it simply, typical Vader. By typical I mean razor-sharp, straight to the point, unflinchingly brutal. “Sothis” is bookended by variations on a crunchy, mid-paced theme, but in between it’s blast beat city. Doc leads the charge through a break-neck sequence of spt-fire verses hurtling tremeolo riffs and frenetic solos. Like I said, typical Vader, but here’s the thing about typical Vader: it is a combination of tempestuous human passion and merciless mechanical precision so potent as to be, within its own realm, a form of perfection.
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It’s often the nature of death metal to tear down. Whether railing against society or the gods, or praising monsters of every species, the lyrical content often matches the physical pummeling, even in Vader songs. So it’s the lyrical content that sets “Xeper” apart. Pronounced “Khefer,” “Xeper” is a magical word that means, roughly, “to bring one’s self into being.” A mid-tempo groove gives punch to the verses, and the chorus is a screaming guitar harmonic underneath the whispered phrase “I have come into being.” The fact that Doc’s overwhelming kick drum is the right speed for almost anybody to bang a desk or steering wheel along with it just makes the song ever more irresistible.
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DECAPITATED SAINTS[The Ultimate Incantation, 1992; Return to the Morbid Reich, 2011]
Vader has made one helluva career out of the ability to be monumentally intense in their death/thrash attack while also being a complete blast to hear. Few songs exemplify this trait better than the classic “Decapitated Saints.” In the process of about 40 seconds, the track manages to find a new level of intensity no fewer than about five times. It is just blasts and blasts and blinding death riffage and Peter’s early growl thrown together with as much speed and density as is possible, and it absolutely positively just rocks to no end. A glorious little black/thrash-styled hook during the middle of the song’s 2:20 total run time seals the song’s undeniable fun factor.
The band re-recorded the track for 2011’s Welcome to the Morbid Reich, applying years of production expertise (The Vader Punch), Peter’s far more signature vocal style (and 300 mph articulation), and an extra emphasis on the thrash factor. Whether or not you find the new version an improvement (I do, fight me) is probably dependent on when you first heard The Ultimate Incantation. But one thing can’t be denied: Both the original and Morbid Reich versions show Vader at their absolute peak of intensity, which puts them pretty high on the all-time list in that regard. Get eviscerated.
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De Profundis is a great album, but, for me, Vader really hit its stride with Litany. Just about any song from Litany could have made this list, and the album opener, “Wings,” sets the stage with a blistering assault. Both flawless musicianship and production anchor Litany, and the variation in songwriting on “Wings” immediately labels the song as a standout. The pummeling percussion to open the song neatly segues into an exceedingly tight blastbeat from legendary drummer Krzysztof “Doc” Raczkowski (R.I.P.), and the downshift in tempo that occurs around 1:55 ratchets up the brutality. Basically, “Wings” is a perfect death metal song. The re-recording on XXV is worth a listen, too.
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