[Cover art by Dan Seagrave]
For a band named after a movie villain that tended to wax poetically about destiny, there sure was a coincidental amount of serendipity surrounding their proper debut album. But before we get to that, we’ll step back a bit.
Vader was originally formed way back in 1983 by Piotr Paweł “Peter” Wiwczarek and a few other guys that would be part of large membership rotation during the band’s early days. It wasn’t until the late 80s that anything resembling a stable lineup would start to form, with Peter on vocals and guitars, the late Krzysztof “Doc” Raczkowski on drums, and Jacek “Jackie” Kalisz on bass. (Vader liked its nicknames then, and Vader likes its nicknames now.)
This trio would release the Necrolust demo 1989, which, when heard now, comes across as a 17-minute mission statement: unrelenting blasts, blazing speed picking of thrashy death metal riffs, almost sneaky bits of technicality, and Peter’s not-yet-fully-formed-but-already-vicious growl. Kind of like the blastiest version of Slayer imaginable. Necrolust put Vader on the international map ‒ and debuted a few early classics like “Decapitated Saints” ‒ but brought nowhere near the amount of attention as its follow-up. 1990’s Morbid Reich also debuted some now-classics like “Breath Of Centuries,” and it, too, showed a band with abilities and songwriting chops far beyond its years, but where it really surpassed its predecessor is its reach. Morbid Reich is famously one of the best selling demos in metal history, reportedly moving over 10,000 copies worldwide. There are countless metal bands that would love to move that many copies of a proper album, let alone a demo. To say that Vader was primed for a big time international breakout is an understatement.
Earache Records signed the band, which had big plans of its own. They went to Stockholm to record with Thomas Skogsberg at Sunlight Studios, hoping to benefit from the hottest death metal environment in Europe at the time, but issues arose. The first problem: Vader didn’t have studio-quality equipment to bring along, so they had to use what Skogsberg had in-house. The second problem: Sunlight was only equipped with a digital drum kit, which didn’t exactly fit Doc’s rather, um, generous volume of blast beats. They recorded but were never satisfied with the results, and eventually scrapped this early version of The Ultimate Incantation. (Peter still has the tapes.)
This was a blessing in disguise. That is not remotely a knock on Skogsberg or his “Sunlight Sound,” as some of the greatest albums in European death metal have that legendarily chewy tone, but it was wrong for Vader, particularly at that stage. The songs that make up The Ultimate Incantation are quite a bit more technical and punishingly blasting than most of what Dismember, Entombed, and their peers were releasing. A few songs from the Sunlight sessions found their way online, and while it’s hard to get a full picture from unmastered tracks, the guitars fill up too much of the overall space, and the drums sound, well, more than a little off.
Skogsberg was known more for fat, but The Ultimate Incantation needed clarity without sacrificing the violence. Vader got just that at Rhythm Studios in England with producer Paul Johnston, a man who at the time was not nearly as known as Skogsberg, but whose career credits include Benediction’s Transcend the Rubicon, a few Cathedral EPs, a couple of Solitude Aeturnus albums, and Napalm Death’s The World Keeps Turning EP. Most importantly, he crafted the ideal sound for young Vader; The Ultimate Incantation is positively crisp, with Doc’s blasts ringing out as true as all of Peter’s extremely busy riffing, which benefits from a somewhat restrained take on the Sunlight tone. (It should be noted that Peter and Doc account for all the performances, despite the in-album credits.) Most of all, Johnson’s approach allowed Vader’s clinical tightness to really come through, sharpening everything to a razor’s edge without sacrificing any brute force. It isn’t the thicker type of brutality they achieved later (particularly in the drum tones), but it was perfect for this moment. A blessing in disguise, indeed.
That was the serendipity. Now for the war.
The Ultimate Incantation is an almost preposterously kickass set of death metal tunes. Had it not been released in an era when seemingly every legendary death metal band was releasing an equally legendary death metal debut ‒ and not been a few years later than Florida, New York, and Sweden’s most notable contributions ‒ it would surely be considered a classic among classics. Well, it still should be considered a classic among classics. Does this paragraph say “legendary” or “classic” too much? Of course not; not when Vader managed to combine the blazing demonic power of Hell Awaits with the brutality of Scream Bloody Gore and Altars of Madness in such glorious fashion.
True opener “Dark Age” follows an evil-stage-setting intro and immediately lays out the foundations of what makes the Vader war machine march. Peter’s speed picking, even at this stage, had an almost floating quality, lithe but maniacal. When done in a full tremolo fashion (sometimes with harmonies) over Doc’s grind-level blasting, the core of Vader’s faster side was already fully in place. “Dark Age” provided contrast to these controlled chaos passages with thrashier verses, tempo changes during the bridge, and some demented soloing that is clearly indebted to Slayer’s dying-cat best. Over it all is Peter’s roar, and while he doesn’t quite have the charismatic presence he gained soon after, he never sounded as possessed and demonic as he does here. Another little quirk that was perfect for this moment in time.
“Dark Age” also sets the stage for an album of songs that each (mostly) cover multiple tempos, riff approaches, and ‒ well, not exactly changes in mood ‒ different approaches for coming in for the kill. Chief among these multifaceted songs is “Final Massacre,” which is without a doubt one of the most wicked tunes Vader ever put to tape. After a slower, foreboding beginning, the track kicks into gear with a sassy, trill-fueled riff pattern that is positively irresistible. Passages of blasting, a particularly spry verse, more Slayer-on-steroids action, some self-dueling Peter solos, a return to the mean slow material, and even a false finish add up to a lot of ground being covered in under five minutes.
Most of the album’s tunes cover a fair bit of territory, but a few really emphasize one approach. “Reign Carrion” is as close to moody as the record gets, using a ton of mid-tempo chunk riffs and rhythmic rumbles to add extra menace. Sure, it also gets pretty blasty at times, but more often than not it resembles something like Arise-era Sepultura (all the single-note pick play), and at nearly seven minutes long, it sees Vader spreading their wings more than on a good 99 percent of their material. (That length also explains why the song was cut from early LP and cassette releases, but considering it’s from the same sessions and has been on just about every CD release and LP reissue, it belongs.) At the other end of the spectrum is the mindbogglingly vicious “Decapitated Saints.” At not even two and a half minutes, it’s the shortest proper song on the album, and while it doesn’t offer much in the way of tempo or riff variation, its few slight adjustments to a brutal, light-speed core result in death metal magic. Peter’s rapid-fire vocal delivery would have made a contemporaneous Glen Benton proud, and the song’s overall level of murderous attack is the type that the victim doesn’t realize has occurred until the assailant has long since left the premises. This is the kind of song that causes us to use the word “violence” as a metaphor.
Elsewhere and everywhere is pure, beastly devastation: The slower bridge of “One Step to Salvation” that obviously means you harm; “I MUST BE IMMORTAL!” in “Vicious Circle”; Doc’s halftime patterns under blazing riffs in “Testimony” resulting in a bit of space and a ton of swagger; a bounty of whammy-fueled, shredding soloing in “Chaos”; “The Crucified Ones” using Vader’s signature THUDs as a kind of brutal hook; a bunch of great hammer-on/pull-off riffing (also in “Chaos”), and the slightest touches of theatricality in key moments and how much a touch of solo reverb can expand the space and so on and so forth until every skull is crushed. Sound awesome, play awesome, write awesome; that’s how, at nearly 50 minutes (in all but those “Reign Carrion”-less versions), this record never manages to never get old for a second despite being so unforgiving and somewhat single minded in its violent approach.
In many ways, Vader has been trying to live up to The Ultimate Incantation in all the years since. Some of their best records ‒ Litany and Welcome to the Morbid Reich, for example ‒ include re-recorded versions of these songs. They even released a fully re-recorded version of the album as Dark Age in 2017. But no matter how much that Welcome to the Morbid Reich version of “Decapitated Saints” destroys (and hooboy, it does), there’s simply no substitute for hearing these songs all together in their original setting. Vader made heavier albums (Litany) and more dramatic and theatrical albums (Impressions in Blood, Tibi et Igni), but they never again amassed such a great collection of songs in one place.
Put simply: The Ultimate Incantation is the defining moment by Poland’s greatest and oldest heavy metal export. Vader had to overcome adversity for it to even see release, but that adversity likely resulted in a better than originally planned record. Happy 30th to a death metal classic among classics, and an undeniably essential entry in any extreme metal collection.
I love this classic album (you didnt say “classic” enough), what an onslaught. Vader apparently had their core thrashy death metal sound pretty well established by this first album.