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Tampa, Florida combo Hate Eternal burst onto the international death metal scene in 1997. Led by former Ripping Corpse and Morbid Angel guitarist Erik Rutan, it was one of the earlier American death metal acts to follow Krisiun’s and Suffocation’s lead in terms of speed, density and heaviness. Drawing most of its inspiration from Rutan’s former employer Morbid Angel “Conquering the Throne” is a mix of Florida and New York death metal. The band initially debuted with an independently released demo in 1997, aptly called “promo ‘97”, which also doubled as the “Engulfed In Grief” demo of Rutan’s symfo metal band Alas. Of the three tracks that featured on this tape, only ‘Messiah Of Rage’ wouldn’t be re-recorded. This was the only record of its kind in terms of membership, as both former Suffocation guitarist Doug Cerrito and drummer Tim Yeung were drafted as session musicians, with Erik Rutan (vocals, lead guitar) and Jared Anderson (bass guitar, backing vocals) forming the true heart of the unit. It is Hate Eternal’s most lively, spontaneous and diverse record – and for these reasons also its most divisive.

Hate Eternal is centered around vocalist, guitarist/producer Erik Rutan, formerly of New Jersey formative death metal outfit Ripping Corpse and Cinncinnati, Ohio transplant Jared Anderson on bass guitar and backing vocals. The band derives its name from the track ‘The Hate Eternal’ of the 1992 “Industry” demo, the swansong for Ripping Corpse as Rutan went to tour and record with Morbid Angel, while one member attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts and the others reformed as Dim Mak. The original Hate Eternal logo was created by Rutan’s significant other Jennifer Gideon, and it has remained unchanged thus far into the band’s existence. “Conquering the Throne” is one of two records not featuring artwork by Paul Romano, and it is one of a number of small stylistic diversions that differentiate it from later Hate Eternal output. Derivative in its architecture and unrelenting in its pace “Conquering the Throne” stands with one foot in the future, one foot in the past. It remains Hate Eternal’s most listenable album by far. Ultimately generic but surprisingly effective, and awe-inspiring in its intensity this record is the embodiment of a newer, faster and largely more brutal subset of death metal that has since become the standard, the norm. Although the South Americans of Krisiun predated them by several years, Hate Eternal did it first in the US.

Starting with a sampled nuclear explosion it is indeed the sound of the apocalypse that ‘Praise Of the Almighty’ brings. Although the record is similar in construction to Morbid Angel’s own “Formulas Fatal to the Flesh”, it is the central architecture that sets its apart from its more established counterpart. Where Morbid Angel sounded dazed, confused and directionless on its album, Hate Eternal knows its objective and how to reach it. At its core this is “Covenant” in more ways than one. The guitar tone is similar, the drum sound is similar and even Rutan’s beastly growls mimic those of the then still relevant David Vincent, death metal’s most celebrated frontman at this juncture. There are important differences on a number of facets that differentiate this new unit from its older counterpart. Hate Eternal cares not about subtlety, or about atmosphere of any kind. No, the band’s primary objective is to pummel the listener over the head and into submission by sheer force of power. Unrelenting in its riff assault and frightening in its percussive intensity “Conquering the Throne” is a display of instrumental mastery and razor-sharp precision at dizzying warp speeds. Just like the Nile debut that was released the year before Hate Eternal is all about extremity, even if at the price of replayability.

The presence of Doug Cerrito also brings in the earlier mentioned New York influence. The three tracks that he contributes to this album sound exactly like you imagine they would given where he was at this point in time. ‘Nailed to Obscurity’, ‘Dethroned’ and ‘Spiritual Holocaust’ are largely similar in construction to Suffocation’s swansong EP “Despise the Sun”. The only difference is the vocal presence of Erik Rutan instead of Frank Mullen. Anderson has no writing credits whatsoever on this record, but his style would define the follow-up to this album, the unanimously savage “King Of All Kings”. Making his recording debut as a studio musician is drummer Tim Yeung. Based upon his performance here Yeung would later do session work for Maryland death/black metal unit Aurora Borealis (2002) and for California-based act Decrepit Birth (2003) before venturing out on his own, along with former Fear Factory guitarist Dino Cazares, to form the melodic metalcore act Divine Heresy. Interesting to note is that Aurora Borealis in 1998 and 2000 worked with session/studio drummer Derek Roddy for recordings of two albums. The very same Derek Roddy who would replace Yeung in this act, and who would appear on two of its records. It is probably a coincidence, but it is worth noting.

Holing up at Greenhouse FX Studios in Tampa and self-produced by Rutan himself it is surprising that “Conquering the Throne” sounds as good as it does. Just two years later this very same facility would produce Diabolic’s second album “Subterraneal Magnitude”. That is an album that doesn’t sound nearly as vibrant, earthy and rich in tones as this Hate Eternal debut. This is surprising because it would be produced by the very same Wes Garren. Although this session would span several months, and Diabolic would use the facility for mere days in their recording session two years down the line. Similarly additional mastering was done by Juan ‘Punchy’ Gonzalez, who besides being the resident live sound engineer with Morbid Angel, would also run his own studio compound with Diet Of Worms. The very compound that would drag Morbid Angel into the darkest abyss of mediocrity for what was arguably its weakest offering, the universally despised (but retroactively loved) “Heretic”. Thankfully does the sheer amount of talent in its membership far outweigh the production qualms that strike against it. “Conquering the Throne” does live up to its name, conquering it does.

The Hans Memling painting (a small section from right-hand panel of the “Last Judgment” tryptich) that adorns its cover fits the package rather exquisitely. Just like the souls of the damned being dragged to Hell, so does this record drag the listener into the most savage interpretation of the genre. It are only the esoteric leads and solos by Erik Rutan and Doug Cerrito that offer some brief respite in this whirlwind of blastbeats and high velocity aural obliteration. What the band lacks in subtlety it makes up in intensity, and while these songs are hardly the thing of legend (or memorability) the sheer conviction with which the band deliver these tracks inspires respect. It are only the two songs in the middle of the album that stand out from the pack. ‘By His Own Decree’ and ‘The Creed Of Chaotic Divinity’ are far more diverse in terms of structure, and both rely on Yeung’s rolling drums to push it forward. It also beneficial that both are blessed with a catchy chorus which are something that is sorely absent in the remainder of the cuts. Boasting the amount of talent that it has it is not surprising that this record is more about showcasing the members individual - and collective skill at their instrument of choice. While this can hardly be held against the band, it was one of the turning points in the genre as a whole where skill suddenly became more important than songwriting.

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This album is the second of three albums by Tampa, Florida death metal titans Morbid Angel to feature Steve Tucker on vocals and bass guitar. It is the second album to feature Erik Rutan (Hate Eternal) on second guitars, who made his recording and writing debut on “Domination” from 1995. It is the last album to be recorded entirely in the hallowed halls of Morrisound Studios. “Gateways to Annihilation” is also the second album to feature artwork by Dan Seagrave, and it is Morbid Angel’s most doom-focused effort since their much lauded second album “Blessed Are the Sick” all the way back in 1991.

But let’s get into the context of this record first. This album was released in 2000, a mere two years after the raw, stripped down and utterly pummeling “Formulas Fatal to the Flesh” that introduced new frontman and bassist Steve Tucker. Two years had passed since the preceding album’s long-winded tirades about The Ancient Ones and entire passages written in tongue-twisting Sumerian. As a result “Gateways to Annihilation” is a slower, groovier and darker album than the preceding one. It is also a more personal, focused and concise effort. Tucker penned all lyrics to this album, outside of the Azagthoth penned ‘Secured Limitations’, which introduces him on backing vocals. The lyrics are simpler in construction and generally tend to focus on different aspects of the lecherous nature of organized religion, Christianity in particular, and the enslaving effects it has on the mind, the person and society as a whole. Yes, delusions of grandeur were still alive and well in the Morbid Angel camp anno domini 2000.

Behemoth put “Thelema.6” on the market, the Egyptian-tinged Nile released their breakout record “Black Seeds Of Vengeance”, Internal Suffering released the chaotic and uniformly vicious  “Supreme Knowledge Domain” and Krisiun aligned itself with the “Conquerors Of Armageddon” that same year. Yattering released “Murder’s Concept”, their most wildly technical and loosely conceptual offering to date. Cryptopsy released “…And Then You’ll Beg”, a hardcore variant of their unhinged death metal style. Closer to home Monstrosity had released “In Dark Purity”, Rebaelliun was poised to “Burn the Promised Land”, Centurian had invoked the “Choronzonic Chaos Gods” and Hate Eternal took the world by storm with their much loved debut “Conquering the Throne” just one year prior in 1999. This just to illustrate that bands, young and old, were finding news of improving on an old recipe due to increased levels of speed, texture, density or atmospherics. Was this the time for the most important North American death metal band to rest on its laurels and do this (admittedly, fun) little song and dance? No. “Gateways to Annihilation” is an amazing record, and one I return to regularly, but it wasn’t the statement you’d expect from a band of this magnitude and caliber at this point in their illustrious career and within the industry context described above.

The album starts off with the tranquil ‘Kawazu’, a chorus of swamp frogs, that gives way to the thundering, rolling and ominous sounding ‘Summoning Redemption’. Where his vocals were forced, and often intelligible, due to the haphazard lyric construction on “Formulas…” here Tucker gets to pen his own words. A lot of times he has left multiple open spaces, or just uses succinct descriptions for the intended point. This in turn leads to concentrated, malevolently barked and growled patterns that complement the riffing and savage drumming. Tucker has eased into his role as Morbid Angel frontman, and due to this increased level of confidence, he owns on this record. And doom metal is mainly what this album is renowned, or lambasted for. ‘Ageless, Still I Am’ starts out in usual thrashing Morbid Angel manner, but after the frantic opening it returns to midpace with Azagthoth’s crawly, eerily twisting riffing and Sandoval’s alternating salvos behind the drum kit. After an extended solo section the track explodes into a maelstrom of blasts before returning to its mid-paced foundation for another round of leads/solos. ‘He Who Sleeps’ goes into doom territory even further than the preceding track as the cut starts out slow and stays slow for the majority of its duration.

‘To the Victor the Spoils’ is another fast track, written in a similar scope as ‘Ageless, Still I Am’. ‘At One With Nothing’ shares the same basic architecture with ‘He Who Sleeps’. While this is not necessarily bad, as both cuts are worthy of the lavish praise they get, it makes the fact rather clear that Morbid Angel weren’t necessarily pushing the genre’s envelope as much as they once were. Content with their place and niche, experiments all out of their system on the preceding record, they could sit back and let the metal flow out naturally. This is both this record’s strength as its biggest weakness. This is the most natural flowing record since “Blessed Are the Sick” and “Covenant” – but it is also rather content with itself to not shake up the established status-quo, or the band’s formula.

Outside of the earlier mentioned ‘Kawazu’ intro, there’s only one sole instrumental piece to be found on this record. ‘Awakening’ is a solid piece pretty much in line with the two instrumental songs found on “Domination”. In fact it carries a heavy ‘Melting’ vibe, to be exact. The song is short, unobtrusive and works wonderfully well with the songs that come before and after it. Given that this band usually doesn’t know when to rein it in, “Gateways…” never meanders, or plods on aimlessly. Everything has its purpose, and serves an objective. It might not be the band’s most inspired work, but it is coherent, and has a vision - a clear purpose. This is pretty much the last album of its kind for this band.

Another thing that you’ll instantly notice is how massive and commanding this record sounds. Produced at Morrisound Studios in Tampa by the band and Jim Morris, this is the best sounding album in the band’s catalogue outside of “Domination”. This is mainly due to the organic and crispy sounding production treatment this album received. The drums sound too digital for my taste, but the kickdrums, cymbals and snares sound natural despite their processed nature. The guitar tone is pretty much replicated in its entirely from “Domination”, although its tone is decidedly warmer here. The throbbing bass guitar is relegated to the background, which isn’t very unfortunate since the playing isn’t very distinctive or captivating at any point.

Why is this familiarity bad then? Well, things aren’t always as binary as people want you to believe. Morbid Angel had nothing to prove anymore at this point in its career, with their reputation established and consolidated; they had industrialized their songwriting at this juncture. This translates itself into a serviceable album just two years after their last. This burst of creativity and productivity would be their last. A follow-up would arrive three years down the road. The band never pushes itself here, and while the scene around them was rapidly changing, they were slowly but surely falling behind the curve.

“Gateways to Annihilation” is, for all intents and purposes, the last truly good Morbid Angel album. It certainly isn’t their best, or its most innovative work by a long shot. It can’t hold a candle to the ABC and even D records, but at least what it does, it does convincingly and without a moment’s hesitation. This is not an album you’d recommend to anybody new to this band’s music. The band would churn out another record three years later with the widely scorned and derided “Heretic”; after which they fiddled out in an 8-year period of stasis and stagnation. Noted only because of the unceremonious dismissal of vocalist Steve Tucker and brief moments of songwriting that almost-decade the band busied itself at a leisurely pace with extensive international touring based upon the sole announcement of one David Vincent’s return in the vocals/bass guitar slot.

Let us just agree to not talk about that horrible record they’d eventually record…