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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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“Illud Divinum Insanus”, the first Morbid Angel effort in eight years and the follow-up to 2003’s critically savaged “Heretic”, rightly continues to be subject of widespread scorn and derision. Dubbed an “experimental” and “genre-defining” masterpiece by the sycophantic metal press, it is a desperate attempt from a band well past its prime grasping at straws to remain relevant. Subpar in its metallic aspect and painfully outdated in its so-called experimental electronics “Illud Divinum Insanus” falls spectacularly short of expectations as both a death – and industrial metal album. It is a shockingly, appallingly bad record from a band that should have known better.

The first thing to catch one’s attention is the badly translated Latin album title, which according to statements made by David Vincent at the time was intended to mean 'Those Insane Gods'. However in its current form it translates to 'That divine thing, an insane man'. It should have been translated as “Illa Divina Insana”. A second distinct feature is the cast of musicians assembled for the recordings. Replacing long-time skinsman Pedro ‘Pete’ Sandoval (who had bowed out prior due to a back surgery) on drums is notorious mercenary Tim Yeung along with Norwegian guitarist Thor Anders Myhren (going by the stagename Destructhor for the session) who made a name for himself with Myrkskog. Florian Magnus Maier of German black metal formation Dark Fortress was the runner-up, but did not make the cut for hitherto undisclosed reasons. The addition of both men represents an important shift in the band’s creative paradigm. All is not well in Tampa, Florida.

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It is not so much the addition of industrial and electronica that make “Illud Divinum Insanus” as rightly maligned as it is – but the utter lack of spirit and conviction that oozes out of the traditional death metal aspect. For a band that used to set standards in its prime despite its revisionist tendencies and enormous egoes this sounds remarkably out of touch with both popular taste and the death metal genre as a whole. “Illud Divinum Insanus” combines the worst of groove metal, glam and industrial with completely lifeless death metal is. Adding insult to injury is the supposed “experimental” industrial and techno songs. Not only does Morbid Angel fail miserably at aping a subgenre that flourished in the 1990s, they also go for the basest, most crowd pandering variation of it. As Mysticum and Sickening Horror have proven in the past, industrial elements can push underground metal to riveting extremes. “Illud Divinum Insanus” is a lot of things, but good it is not…

A glance over the writing credits at least gives an indication of who to blame for this particular debacle. The trio of ‘Omni Potens’, ‘I am Morbid’, and ‘Radikult’, were written by David Vincent exclusively. Myhren wrote ‘Blades For Baal’ and the groove metal abortion ’10 More Dead’. The remainder of the album was co-written by Azagthoth and Vincent. Interestingly the obligatory (and fairly inconsequential) instrumental interludes that indiscriminately littered the Steve Tucker era are completely abandoned on this record. It is truly one of the very few things that the record does manage to get right. That ‘Blades For Baal’, arguably the best of the conventional tracks, was written by an outsider speaks volumes of just how far Azagthoth has fallen. A sense of self-awareness/referentiality pervades from the album while the delusions of grandeur that already crippled the band in the Tucker-era remain firmly in place. Profundis – Mea Culpa’ (the Latin equivalent to “it’s my big mistake”) even has Vincent penning lyrics that clearly reflect his awareness of the stylistic transgressions that Morbid Angel was committing, and reveling in them.

A protracted, troubled recording session at no less than four different studios (The Blue Room, Mana Recording Studios, Red Room Recorders, and D.O.W. Studio Productions) in the Los Angeles and Tampa region and no less than four credited producers can't save the record from coming apart at the seams. The production is a hot mess of conflicting sounds and ideas seemingly meshed together without rhyme or reason. For most part it downplays the traditional components in favor of the vocals and badly integrated industrial – and electronic elements. Each of the aspects sounds functional in itself but the lack of an overseeing head of production resulted in the record sounding artificial, unhinged and downright schizophrenic in its combination of disparate elements. A more urgent question is: why wasn't “Illud Divinum Insanus” produced by Flood, Moby, Trent Reznor or Till Lindeman?

Better than any other band in the field Morbid Angel understood the importance of imagery and visuals. The Nizin R. Lopez artwork that adorned the divisive “Formulas Fatal to the Flesh” fitted the Lovecraftian lyrical themes, and the Dan Seagrave canvas for “Gateways to Annihilation” perfectly embodied that record’s unearthly doom and gloom aura. “Heretic”, that came sporting a Marc Sasso artwork, was where the band first faltered. “Illud Divinum Insanus” comes with artwork by Brazilian artist Gustavo Sazes and its color schemes are a complete break with the past stylistically. In an attempt to modernize Morbid Angel retroactively ends up dating itself. The album is the product of a creative axis that hasn’t pushed its limits in well over a decade.

“Illud Divinum Insanus” is a bloated, bloviating, self-important record that can’t decide what it wants to be, or what it hopes to convey. It’s a mess of an album that is in need of a thorough editing process, and that would have been passable as an EP. The most damning of all is that KFDM, Laibach, Ministry, Marilyn Manson and White Zombie perfected this genre two decades prior. Morbid Angel isn’t only lagging behind with the times, but they can’t even imitate a workable template set by the real pioneers. Sandoval, who became a born-against Christian in the interim, has since vehemently disowned the album for its profound stylistic break with the past. He remains active with his own version of grindcore act Terrorizer, whereas in Los Angeles former frontman Oscar Garcia mans arguably the true incarnation of said formative act.

“Illud Divinum Insanus” has all the hallmarks of a deservedly failed Azagthoth/Vincent side-project written all over it. The death metal portion of the record sounds as tired and obligatory filler as you’d expect of a band well past its prime. The badly composed industrial and electro "experimentation" feels completely out of place, and nowhere is any attention paid to pacing and coherent flow from one song to the next. They could have called this band Radikult and released half of “Illud Divinum Insanus” as an EP, the same could’ve been done with the four traditional death metal tracks. That way the Morbid Angel brandname and its legacy would have remained intact, and both men could have scratched their collective industrial/electro itch. There’s a reason why “Point Blank” was released as Nailbomb and not as Sepultura, despite the stylistic overlaps. The record reeks with a sense of desperation reserved for burnt-out artists in the grips of the pangs of irrelevance. The Morbid Angel of yesteryear is dead, and we buried it.