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Few are going to doubt Erik Rutan’s dedication to the cause of death metal. He got his start in formative New Jersey death/thrash metal combo Ripping Corpse, joined Morbid Angel for the “Covenant” world tour and recorded “Domination” and later “Gateways to Annihilation” with them. More recently he helmed the second Warfather record “The Grey Eminence” in 2016 and Morbid Angel’s surprisingly solid “Kingdoms Disdained” a year after that in his Mana Recording Studios in St. Petersburg, Florida - the new haven for underground metal, foreign and domestic - in very much the same way Morrisound Recording was in the nineties. Rutan lives and breathes death metal and he has never written a lesser record with his Hate Eternal. While age hasn’t dulled Rutan or his band in the slightest, his writing has become infinitely more nuanced, especially in recent years. “Upon Desolate Sands” is everything that “Infernus” was but with far greater nuance.

“Fury & Flames” is a well-documented black page in the band’s history and it was marred by more than a peculiar and hostile reverb-laden production. As far as we’re concerned “I, Monarch” is the penultimate Hate Eternal recording followed closely by “Conquering the Throne”. “Upon Desolate Sands” is the sort of record that we’d usually like on principle alone. Yet, as much as we hate eternally to admit it, our reaction to it was lukewarm at best and completely indifferent at worst. Which is strange because Hate Eternal has a resumé that pretty much speaks for itself at this point. It wouldn’t be a Hate Eternal record if there weren’t the obligatory line-up shuffles. Apparently it’s impossible for Rutan to hold on to any drummer for any length of time. Chason Westmoreland didn’t last beyond the “Infernus” album and he was replaced by former Necrophagist and Obscura skinsman Hannes Grossmann, who’s also currently serving in German death metal outfit Alkaloid and Swiss death-doom combo Tryptikon. “Upon Desolate Sands” is very much a collaborative effort with J.J. Hrubovcak contributing as much as Rutan himself.

Hannes Grossman (left), Erik Rutan (middle) and J.J. Hrubovcak (right)

“Upon Desolate Sands”, the first of the third trilogy, sounds very different from any of this band’s prior records. ‘The Violent Fury’ delivers just that but what quickly becomes apparent is that Hate Eternal sounds far more controlled and stealthily melodic than any prior records. The overall pace is far lower too, something which tracks as ‘Nothingness Of Being’ and ‘Dark Age Of Ruin’ probably evince better than any other. ‘Portal Of Myriad’ on the other hand is vintage Hate Eternal with increased dissonance. The title track is bookended by hypnotizing wordless chants from one Małgorzata Gwózdz and is reminiscent of ‘Coronach’ from “Fury & Flames” for exactly that reason. In keeping with recent traditions “Upon Desolate Sands” is concluded by an instrumental. More than any record before is Rutan’s latest offering rife with classic Morbid Angel influence and the blinding velocity that once was his calling card is used far more sparingly this time around. In a sense “Upon Desolate Sands” leans closer towards “I, Monarch” than it does to “King Of All Kings”. Since “Infernus” Rutan’s vocals aren’t as guttural as they once were and the soloing has become far more melodic and extensive than it was on any of the earlier records. Hrubovcak now has served longer than Jared Anderson and Randy Piro, individually and has been Rutan’s trusted songwriting partner as long as both of his predecessors combined. The drum position remains as volatile as ever whereas the Rutan-Hrubovcak axis proves ever fruitful.

Those hoping for a return to the low-end heaviness of “I, Monarch” will find the production on “Upon Desolate Sands” fittingly matter-of-fact, arid, and, well, dry. The clarity and texture from “Infernus” remain intact while it does not nearly have the low-end weight that served the productions on Warfather’s “The Grey Eminence” and Morbid Angel’s “Kingdoms Disdained” so well. Rutan was never kind to the bass guitar and its rubbery tone possesses all the clarity and definition you could possibly want but is entirely without heft or body otherwise. Over the years the drum production has underwent a few staggering transformations yet “Upon Desolate Sands” for the most part carries over the warm tones from “Infernus”. Build from the same template as its predecessor “Upon Desolate Sands” is more of a continuation instead of a progression from what “Infernus” did before it. Erik Rutan stays loyal to the slightly modernized sound that Hate Eternal adopted in recent years and like any other entry in his discography there are no real complaints to be leveled at it as such. Rutan is a respected and widely decorated death metal warrior for a good reason and “Upon Desolate Sands” caters to fans of his work in exactly the ways they want. While offering no shocking innovations it solidifies Hate Eternal’s well-deserved place among the death metal elite.

The third Hate Eternal trilogy puts the focus on ancient antiquity and historical subjects and it’s incredible how far Rutan’s writing has come since the releasing of the now-legendary “promo ’97 / Engulfed In Grief” split demo tape in 1997. On “Conquering the Throne” Hate Eternal sounded like the band Diabolic always wished it was, “King Of All Kings” is a death metal classic for a reason but it wouldn’t be until “I, Monarch” that Rutan’s writing showed some mention worthy individuality. “Fury & Flames” saw the band in a state of flux and temporary disarray after the untimely loss of Jared Anderson. We skipped over “Phoenix Amongst the Ashes” entirely and it wouldn’t be until 2015’s “Infernus” that we started paying to Rutan’s band once more. The only notable change is Eliran Kantor replacing Paul Romano on “Infernus’” as Hate Eternal’s resident cover artist but established bands on major labels are hardly the place to look for innovation in terms of visuals. Hate Eternal is the last band to accuse of fatigue of any kind but like the most recent Malevolent Creation album the formula is starting to show its rather evident limitations. “Upon Desolate Sands” is slower overall but Hate Eternal has lost none of its searing intensity. Things are looking up for Hate Eternal and this new trilogy might just be their most memorable. Time wil tell…

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The second and only widely available Divine Rapture album is the record Morbid Angel should have released when “Heretic” hit the market in 2003. While imitating Morbid Angel had been a practice dating as far back as the 90s, in the early 2000s it came to a peak with bands as Lost Soul, Myrkskog and Divine Rapture all releasing albums that were, musically and spiritually, inspired by the once relevant Tampa, Florida masters. One of the more poignant examples of this was “The Burning Passion” by Pennsylvanian combo Divine Rapture, who combined “Blessed Are the Sick” writing with “Domination” like production values. The student had become the master, it is unfortunate that the band would dissolve and its members scatter to various other and different bands.

The album starts off with the guitar noodling of the intro ‘The Kindling’, before giving way to the uniformly ungentle ‘Your Time Has Come’. The track forms the template of the material present on the album. The obvious influence is Morbid Angel, but the “Blessed Are the Sick” and “Covenant” riffs are far more mechanical and structurally denser compared to the original thing, they also are played at “Black Force Domain” era Krisiun speed, as is the album. A direct comparison can be made to UK death metal duo Mithras, which is quite similar in writing – and playing style, but are lyrically much different than this Pennsylvania outfit. The commonalities are hard to deny, however. The lyrics are far more personal, introspective and based in the internal world than Morbid Angel’s tirades about the Sumerian pantheon, The Ancient Ones and the Roman Empire. Only ‘Affliction Of Faith’ and ‘No Future, No Past’ both share superficial similarities with Morbid Angel’s usual anti-religious lyrics, although Divine Rapture clearly approaches them from a more personal – and direct perspective.

Half of the material present was re-recorded from the band’s independently released 2001 promo along with a cut from the band’s self-titled album from 1999. The renditions here are superior in every way. Notable is that the intro ‘The Kindling’, the interlude ‘The Deifying, The Sorrow, The Awakening’ and the outro ‘The Smothering’ are closer related to symfo – and more keyboard oriented variations of pagan – and Viking metal than the Florida death metal of Morbid Angel. Their inclusion isn’t really puzzling, as Morbid Angel is prone to including numerous instrumental interludes on its albums, but their stylistic deviation from the main portion of the album is bewildering and sometimes distracting. The new tracks ‘Your Time Has Come’, ‘Severed’, ‘Funeral Mist’ and ‘No Future, No Past’ are compositionally more ambitious, faster and more technical than the re-recorded early material, although all tracks are far from original as they conform to all the tropes and genre conventions associated with this type of mammoth death metal.

Recorded by Ron Vento (Aurora Borealis) at Nightsky Studios in Waldorf, Maryland Divine Rapture is graced with a thick but clear guitar tone that retains enough crunch without sacrificing anything of its concrete heaviness. The drums sound powerful enough, and while the kickdrums could have been more meatier, they are not clicky and of the “typewriter” variety as many bands of the modern era. The bass guitar isn’t really heard much, although the production overall is thick and heavy, so at least its present. A good deal of attention was given to the esoteric solos and the synthesizers. Overall, it is just below “Domination” in terms of production work. Everything is balanced expertly. The digitally rendered artwork by Daniel Allanic fits with the band’s overall theme, and the photograpy is a bit goofy with the band standing in flames, everyone looking mean and grumpy.

A glance at the line-up reveals all that needs to be said. The band consists of several mid to high-profile figures. Mike Hrubovcak would go to front both Monstrosity and Vile while being an acclaimed digital artist on the side. J.J. Hrubovcak would go to join Hate Eternal, Babak Davodian is Cannibal Corpse’s resident live sound engineer. Ryan Moll fronts the thrash metal band Rumpelstiltskin Grinder. Considering the pedigree of these members (and their various other commitments) it was perhaps for the best that Divine Rapture only released this sole album. Quality, after all, is far more important than quantity, which is something that few bands seem to understand in this day and age.

“The Burning Passion” was released in 2003, the same year that Morbid Angel released the uniformly disappointing, if not outright terrible, “Heretic” through Earache Records. Everything that that album should have been is present here in spades and without the excess fat that usually litters Morbid Angel albums. In Poland Lost Soul was steadily making its rise out of the underground and Behemoth was an established entity at this point, Mithras released “Worlds Beyond the Veil” the same year. Nile had released “In Their Darkened Shrines” the year before. Just to illustrate that bands across the US and Europe were releasing numerous albums that were plainly better than the band everybody supposedly looked up to in reverence and respect. Divine Rapture was one of these bands, and it serves as a curious reminder never to take the established brands or what releases they put out for granted, or without critical thought and examination.