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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…

Since forming in Attica, Greece in 2002 Cerebrum has proven to be one of the more resilient and interesting technical death metal bands to come from the Hellenic underground. That isn’t to say that things have been particularly easy for them. Their on-and-off collaboration with high-profile (session) drummer George Kollias has been as much of a boon as it has been a bane. Thus far they have released three albums, one and all stellar examples within their specific niche, on as many different label imprints. “Spectral Extravagance” was released through Czech Republic’s Lacerated Enemy Records in 2009 with “Cosmic Enigma” following in 2013 on Japanese imprint Amputated Vein Records. “Iridium”, their third and most recent offering, is distributed and marketed through Transcending Obscurity Records based out of Mumbai, India. In an ideal world “Iridium” (stylized as "IrIdIum") is Cerebrum’s overdue passage to the big leagues.

As the opposite of the more stereotypically American sounding Inveracity (whose bass guitarist now resides in his constellation) Cerebrum has by and far probably been the most interesting Greek death metal band this side of Sickening Horror. Jim Touras (vocals, guitars) and his men have always prided themselves on being of a progressive and forward-thinking disposition. Like the two records before it “Iridium” combines the typical rugged Greek death metal with technical workouts redolent of Atheist (“Piece Of Time” and “Unquestionable Presence”) and mid-to-late period Death (“Human” and “Individual Thought Patterns”) with the density and percussiveness of early Suffocation (“Effigy Of the Forgotten”, “Breeding the Spawn”). There has always been a slight undercurrent of thrash to many of the riffs and chord progressions that Cerebrum uses but it underscores that these men grew up on all the right records and thankfully keep their music free from any contemporary influences. Touras and Michalis Papadopoulos (guitar) remain from “Spectral Extravagance” and “Cosmic Enigma”. George Skalkos (bass guitar) debuted on “Cosmic Enigma” and “Iridium” inducts Defkalion Dimos (drums) into the fold.

Whereas a band as Sickening Horror has drifted towards a direction that is as much symfo as it is industrial while retaining their death metal essence; Cerebrum hasn’t shed its skin quite as drastically as the former has. In the years since “Cosmic Enigma” Cerebrum has forsaken the more conventional and rigid structures for something that is altogether more adventurous and wilder in terms of rhythms. “Iridium” is stylistically closer to “Nespithe” from Demilich and “Spheres” from Pestilence (minus the guitar-synths and studio effects) than it is to more brutish and pugilistic examples of the form as “The Hidden Lore” from Iniquity or ambitious cerebral exercises as “The Armageddon Theories” from Theory In Practice. No, the Chuck Schuldiner styled solos stay very much intact but “Iridium” has a far greater propensity towards a near-constant, sputtering start-stop sections and bouncing, almost elastic rhythms. In that sense it bears more of a resemblance to Fear Factory’s “Soul Of A New Machine” strictly in how it operates on a rhythmic level. Cerebrum's newfound penchant for the mechanical works wonderfully well.

That doesn’t mean that Cerebrum hasn’t retained at least a fraction of what made their previous two records what they were. The soloing is very much what it always has been and ‘A Face Unknown’ even throws in an acoustic Greek guitar solo which is something that just begs further exploration. The bass licks are uniformly funky and will very much appeal to Obscura and Monstrosity fans as such. The drumming is no longer as flashy and extravagant as it once was now that Kollias has bade his farewell. ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ is the prerequisite instrumental but it, thankfully, is better composed than the two barely developed brainfarts on “Cosmic Enigma”. Although brief as always it’s closer to ‘The Prologue of Completion’ from “Spectral Extravagance” than anything after. ‘Absorbed in Greed’ and ‘Escape to Bliss’ are by far our favorite tracks of the album as a whole. “Iridium” is by far the most cohesive effort these men have yet penned. The instrumentals still add no extra dimension in the way the band probably intended but at least now they are (once again) just a single diversion towards the end. ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ is little over a minute long and could just as easily been integrated into ‘Astral Oblivion’. Unlike “Spectral Extravagance” and “Cosmic Enigma” before it this is more of a slow burn with not much in the way of hooks. “Iridium” is a record meant to be experienced as a whole, and not as a few scattered tracks here and there.

Those hoping to see an Adam Burke, César Eidrian, George Prasinis, Piotr Szafraniec, or Dan Seagrave canvas on “Iridium” will have to settle for a rather standard-looking (and, frankly, uninteresting) Costin Chioreanu drawing. Since working with the likes of Demonical, Grave, Mayhem, Primordial, and Sigh and (in a later stage) with Arch Enemy, At the Gates, and Einherjer; Chioreanu has become the new go-to artist for bands either in the metal mainstream or ones attempting to break into it. A couple of years ago Costin Chioreanu was what Eliran Kantor has become in more recent times. The “Iridium” artwork is by no means disappointing but from Cerebrum one has come to expect something different, something innovative even. They commissioned artwork from Michał "Xaay" Loranc before the big fish took notice of him. The crunchy guitar tone from the previous two albums is sorely absent. In its stead is a thin, buzzy fuzz straight out of a mid-to-late ‘90s demo cassette. Not something you’d expect from a respected professional label with international distribution. Granted, it leaves plenty of place for the funky bass guitar licks and the frequent solos but far more damning is that it lacks the weight, heft and body it possessed on “Spectral Extravagance” and “Cosmic Enigma”. “Iridium” would’ve sounded far more threatening with a properly dialed-in or a more refined, full-bodied guitar tone. That the record was mastered by Colin Marston at his The Thousand Caves facility in Queens, New York will probably account for something to some people, but it’s not something we particularly care for. It doesn’t fix the fantastically impotent guitar tone, for one.

We like to sometimes delude ourselves into thinking that our old Nile review for that certain South Asian publication (hi, Kunal!) was at least a contributing factor in helping the men in Cerebrum score a recording contract with its current label home. However we’re realistic enough to realize that such acknowledgements will probably not be forthcoming and expecting them on our part is entirely futile, to put it mildly. For one thing it’s good to see that talented bands in the underground are still given opportunities to break to a wider audience. A band like Cerebrum is a welcome breath of fresh air in the neverending morass of mediocrity that the majors keep forcing upon the masses who still consume it without question. There’s a point to be made that the metal scene is responsible for the self-perpetuating stream of easily marketable dross that clogs up playlists and mailorders. Thankfully label imprints as Transcending Obscurity Records continue to support and develop talent in what must be a nearly extinct tradition. If there’s any justice in the world either Cerebrum further develops under the wings of Transcending Obscurity or use it as steppingstone into the upper echelon of the genre. Either way, despite a productional hiccup, “Iridium” is their most accomplished record so far.