Graveland is probably the most well-known Polish band that operates within the black metal circles there. Although Gravlend once was a full band, it is as of now a one-man band helmed by Robert Fudali, better known by his stage name Darken. As with most Polish black metal bands (and, indeed, most Slavic black metal bands), Graveland professes a somewhat National Socialist worldview. Or perhaps more appropriately, Graveland professed a somewhat National Socialist worldview. If you're a black metal fan (or perhaps just a casual observer), the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the term "National Socialist Black Metal band" is "oh god, not another one." But Graveland was one of the charter members of what many people are starting to see as nothing more than a trend at best or a stupid marketing gimmick at worst. At the time of Graveland's inception, however, it was anything but a trend.
Founded in 1991 (or 1990, depending upon who you ask) in Wroclaw, Graveland's first members were Robert "Darken" Fudali (vocals, guitar, and keyboard), Grzegorz "Karcharoth" Jurgielewicz (bass), and Capricornus (real name unknown to me; drums). Their earliest recordings were a set of brutal, primitive demos in the vein of the early Norwegian second-wave black metal bands such as Emperor and Darkthrone, although it's kind of hard to tell that by listening to them. As notoriously bad as the sound quality of the recordings from Norway is, this is even worse. Much of it sounds as though it were recorded in a bathroom with the shower running. The music itself is not much more inspired, and I can say this with a straight face even though I now consider Graveland to be the best currently active band in black metal.
The main reasons I would cite for this early lack of quality can be boiled down to two issues: aesthetic indecisiveness/inconsistency and poor technical proficiency. The first is Darken's fault and the second is Capricornus's: on the one hand, Darken is and has always been a great song-writer, but it took him several tries to really figure out which direction he thought his band (and make no mistake, it is his band) should go and the early material suffers from this internal struggle between minimalism, brutality, pomposity, and everything in-between; on the other hand, Capricornus was the drummer for this band, but it's really hard to figure out why since he seems to be genetically incapable of keeping time; not to mention the fact that his rolls and fills make no sense at all, given the music that they are supposed to be accompanying. Karcharoth gets something of a pass since he apparently never wrote any material and the basslines to early Graveland almost always simply mimic the root notes played on the guitar. So while Karcharoth wasn't exactly a heavy creative contributor, he wasn't screwing anything up...yet.
In 1993, Graveland released the In The Glare Of Burning Churches demo (subsequently reissued by their label, No Colours Records, in 1996 and 1999). This marks the beginning of Graveland's early artistic consistency as well as Darken's first comprehension of the idea that there is this thing called "structure" and that musicians like to use it from time to time. Graveland continued in the Emperor/Darkthrone style but with their own twist on the idea. Whereas Bathory had pretty much invented modern black metal and then pioneered viking metal, the boys in Graveland were looking for a similar musical innovation. In 1995, Graveland released Thousand Swords, which was for Graveland what Blood Fire Death was for Bathory: the fruitful meeting point of two distinct phases of a band's career and the pinnacle of the band's material (to date). Thousand Swords features Graveland's first foray into what is called pagan black metal, which is essentially Eastern Europe's answer to viking metal. Pagan black metal is as much of a musical movement as it is an ideological one, with bands who play it taking cues from old Slavonic folk music and from the heathen ideals that predominated Eastern Europe before the arrival of Christianity. With songs like Blood Of Christians On My Sword, Darken et al let you know how they feel about that development. Most people don't really consider "pagan black metal" a subgenre in the same way that viking metal is, but it's a helpful distinction nonetheless.
I ought to mention here that in addition to playing in Graveland, Karcharoth had his own musical project that he worked on - Infernum. The early Infernum demos are pretty rudimentary, basic recordings with fucking awful sound quality. In 1994 and 1995, however, Karcharoth enlisted the aid of Darken and Capricornus to help him record Infernum's debut Taur-Nu-Fuin. Basically, then, the lineup of Infernum at this time is just Graveland with a few roles changed around. Karcharoth handled vocals, guitars, and bass while Darken did synth/keyboards only. Three guesses as to what Capricornus did. As you might expect, Taur-Nu-Fuin sounded a hell of a lot like Thousand Swords, although songs like Meine Ehre Heißt Treue and Weltmacht Oder Niedergang made Infernum quite blatantly fascistic in outlook. Graveland's political inclinations were, for the most part, contained to extra-musical statements made by Darken and Capricornus or subtle lyrical allegories.
Although I don't believe Infernum's album had anything to do with it, it was also around this time that Karcharoth got in trouble with the law. As anyone who's familiar with black metal knows, the Norwegian scene in the early 1990s was, to put it mildly, volatile. Varg Vikernes(who was coincidentally politically radicalized in the same way that Graveland was) of Burzum and Samoth from Emperor were responsible for burning several churches in Norway and the former is currently incarcerated for church arson and first degree murder. Apparently there were a few church burnings in Poland in the mid 1990s that the authorities believed were perpetrated by the circle of people that Graveland/Infernum ran with. Karcharoth's name came up and in a move to avoid prosecution, he became a secret informant for the police. To this day, nobody will say what exactly Karcharoth was "informing" them about, but the point of the story is that it had disastrous consequences for Graveland once Darken and Capricornus found out. Karcharoth was fired from the band and it was two years before another Graveland album was released.
1997 saw a real progression in Graveland's music, with the band severing most of the ties that bound them to the Darkthrone-style minimalism they had formerly embraced. Following The Voice Of Blood was Graveland's Hammerheart: a full exploration of a new style of music and a complete centralization of creative control on the part of the main song-writer. Capricornus appears here as a session musician only and Darken dominates the album with really epic keyboard passages and 9-minute long songs. This album features lyrics written by Hendrik Möbus of Absurd, another prominent jailed figure in the neo-Nazi black metal milieu. The next release, an EP entitled Immortal Pride, was an experiment in neoclassical metal that is, in my opinion, one of the best of its kind ever released. Here, there is more of an emphasis on the keyboard as an instrument designed to guide and create melody rather than to provide a nice background for the guitar (which is the role it usually plays in black metal). Emperor had had a similar view of the keyboard, but Graveland managed to do it without having the keyboards dominate the music and drown out everything else. It was also around this time that Darken started his own folk/neoclassical side project called Lord Wind and also when Capricornus started his own band called Thor's Hammer.
The style of Graveland since that time has been pretty reliably consistent: a combination of the epic and the occasionally ambient, Graveland is definitely Poland's leading band and one of the strongest metal acts still going. Although it's sort of a stretch to call Graveland "black metal" now, there are still vestiges of it to be heard. Regarded by many as Bathory's natural successor, Graveland's most recent album Fire Chariot Of Destruction features some of Darken's best work. A couple of the albums he had released between Immortal Pride and his latest were not so great; Memory And Destiny and Creed Of Iron were incredibly boring and overly long with little to differentiate one song from the next. Graveland seems to be back on track now though...for the most part.
Where Are They Now?
Although a lot of people say Graveland is NSBM, Darken has recently backed away from a lot of the fiery rhetoric that typifies the genre, preferring instead to concentrate on Slavic history and tradition rather than to whine about the perceived shortcomings of other ethnic groups. Capricornus, on the other hand, is the complete opposite and his political ideas intrusively pervade his music (which isn't as good as Graveland's to begin with). Karcharoth had himself committed to a mental institution for a short while after suffering a nervous breakdown and, upon his release, reformed Infernum with a new lineup. In 2004, however, he committed suicide. The reformed version of Infernum decided to complete the album they had started before their leader's death. The following year, Darken and Capricornus decided to release their own Infernum album with material taken from an old demo tape that was to have formed the basis for the follow-up to Taur-Nu-Fuin. Darken recorded synths over everything and Capricornus lent his drums and (evidently) his vocals to the album that was titled Farewell. Capricornus has said that Karcharoth's suicide and the subsequent release of Farewell have cleared the bad air surrounding Infernum. Unfortunately, there are now two bands running around purporting to be Infernum, so I'm not sure that the air is really that cleared. Darken has worked with nearly every band of significance in the Polish black metal scene, whether as a session member or as a producer or whatever. Capricornus disbanded Thor's Hammer and works in an eponymous project that releases average thrash-derived black metal.