Wacław “Vogg” Kiełtyka has been through a lot. In 1996, when he was 15 and his brother Witold, aka “Vitek,” was 12, they formed the death metal band Decapitated in their native Poland. Their first demos were released in 1997 and 1998; by 2000, they were signed to the Earache Records sub-label Wicked World, and put out their debut album, Winds of Creation. Their early material was strongly indebted to bands like Morbid Angel and Suffocation, owing little to Polish bands like Vader or Lost Soul. They played ridiculously fast, but Vitek had a crisp looseness to his drumming that recalled Slayer‘s Dave Lombardo; no surprise, then, that Winds ended with a cover of that band’s “Mandatory Suicide.” The album was impressive, but not pathbreaking.

The follow-up, 2002’s Nihility, was another matter. They’d evolved into an almost posthuman technical death metal machine. The brothers (and their bandmates, bassist Marcin Rygiel and vocalist Wojciech “Sauron” Wąsowicz) had transformed their relatively traditional riff-and-blast style into something much more rhythmically complex. When the guitar and drums locked in, the music chugged along like a tractor running on treads. But when the two launched, virtually without warning—these songs were structurally unpredictable—into zones where they seemed to be working at cross purposes, it was even more exciting. Vitek’s drumming employed a blend of crispness and spaciousness that really allowed the hits to breathe, even injecting a little bit of something that almost felt like swing. Decapitated‘s music was tech-death with a fractured, Terminator-striding-through-a-ruined-city groove; it was the kind of thing that inspires obsession.

Over the course of two more albums, 2004’s The Negation and 2006’s Organic Hallucinosis, they continued to develop the style they’d debuted on Nihility. They seemed determined to deny the catharsis death metal bands traditionally delivered through blast beat explosions and screaming, whammy bar-driven solos; both Kiełtyka brothers seemed almost ascetic in their compulsion to strip their music down, to make it as skeletal and inhuman as possible, without losing any of its power. They changed vocalists after The Negation; Sauron left and was replaced by Adrian “Covan” Kowanek, but you could hardly tell the difference between one guttural drill-instructor bark and another. And between the release of Organic Hallucinosis and the subsequent tour, Rygiel too departed; Richard Gulczynski took his place.

Then came the accident. On October 29, 2007, while traveling to a show in Gomel, Belarus, the band’s tour bus collided with a truck. Vitek died three days later; Covan suffered massive brain damage from which he still has not recovered. Naturally, the band went on hiatus, and few people expected them to return. And for four years, they didn’t, though Vogg spent 2008-2010 as a touring member of Vader. But in 2011, a new version of Decapitated, with Vogg, vocalist Rafał Piotrowski, bassist Filip “Heinrich” Hałucha, and drummer Kerim “Krimh” Lechner, signed to Nuclear Blast and released the startling Carnival is Forever. The new music sounded almost nothing like the technical death metal with which the band had first made its name. The title track was easily the longest thing they’d ever recorded, nearly nine minutes of progressive metal almost worthy of Opeth. The bone-crunching rhythmic intricacy Vitek had supplied was replaced by more traditional blast beats, and even the sound of Krimh‘s kit was more organic. Piotrowski’s vocals combined George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher‘s hoarse but powerful screams with Max Cavalera‘s ESL barking. Bassist Hałucha was Vogg‘s shadow, except on the more progressive, groove-metal songs, when he played with a surprising fluidity. The final track, “Silence,” was a bluesy instrumental, quite obviously a tribute from the guitarist to his late brother.

Three years later, Decapitated are back, transformed once again. On Blood Mantra, out this week, the band consists of Kiełtyka, Piotrowski, bassist Paweł Pasek, and drummer Michał “Młody” Łysejko. And the music they’re making has undergone another shift. The experimentalism of Carnival is Forever, driven by uncertainty, is gone. Decapitated are a pure groove/death metal band now. Piotrowski’s vocals have even changed with the new sound—there’s still plenty of Max Cavalera in his roars, but there are strong elements of early ’90s Phil Anselmo, and even Gojira‘s Joe Duplantier, too. Indeed, several songs here are indebted to the French avant-metal act to a shocking degree; the title track even kicks off with a couple of Gojira‘s trademark pick slides.

Blood Mantra is easily Decapitated‘s most listener-friendly, conventional album. It’s still extreme metal, but it’s so far from where they were at their compositional peak, on The Negation and Organic Hallucinosis, that it winds up bringing the creative partnership between the Kiełtyka brothers into that much sharper relief. It’s almost impossible to imagine the 2006 version of the band growing up to make this album, and it feels like Vogg is purposefully distancing himself from previous work as a kind of emotional response to his personal tragedy. There aren’t even any drum breaks like the ones that used to punctuate their tech-death songs; Młody‘s job is to dish out blast beats and the occasional stuttering tribal pattern, not to tear apart the songs’ very structure the way Vitek used to. Blood Mantra is a very good album, but it feels like the work of a musician in retreat.

Phil Freeman

Stream Blood Mantra on Spotify:

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