Heavy Pressure

Hate Eternal's Erik Rutan turned his darkest days into a potent, emotional death-metal album

There are easier things to do than keep a death-metal band together. Like, almost anything. Take the long-running Florida band Hate Eternal. In a little more than a decade, only founding guitarist and vocalist Erik Rutan has appeared on all four Hate Eternal records. Rutan has gone through nine supporting members for recording and even more to play live shows. And that track record got even more turbulent in the months leading up to this year's Fury and Flames.

"Fury and Flames was a totally chaotic record," Rutan says, taking time off from rehearsals and mixing the new Cannibal Corpse album Evisceration Plague, which he produced and is set for release in February. "It started with [drummer] Derek Roddy quitting, bailing before a couple of big tours. We parted ways and that left me a free agent. Then I signed a deal with Metal Blade, but I can't play all the instruments. So I started talking to Jared about coming back."

Bassist Jared Anderson was part of Hate Eternal back in 1997, when Rutan first started the band as a side project while he and Anderson were still playing with the revered band Morbid Angel. Anderson left both bands around 2002 as his drug use spiralled out of control, about the same time Rutan split from Morbid Angel to focus on Hate Eternal. Anderson had just returned to music in 2006 when he and Rutan started discussing Fury and Flames. Then, in October of that year, Anderson died in his sleep at his home in Kentucky at the age of 30. The cause of death has never been reported.

"For a couple of months I didn't know what I wanted to do with the band," Rutan says. "If I was a weaker person, I easily could have let things fall apart. I had another career, obviously, in producing and in the studio. But Jared's family was supportive, and they said continuing would have been what Jared wanted.... During that period I was writing a lot of music and producing a ton of records and didn't have time to deal with what was going on at the moment. That's how I ended up writing Fury and Flames—all these huge things were going on."

After Anderson's death, Rutan wrote all the material for the new album and then started recruiting a whole new band. The lineup for recording—Rutan produced the record himself, as he had for the three previous Hate Eternal discs—included drummer Jade Simonetto, guitarist Shaune Kelley, and Cannibal Corpse bassist Alex Webster. (J.J. Hrubovcak replaces Webster on tour.)

Death metal's not known for its sensitivity. There's a reason that "brutal" is the most frequently applied adjective for the genre, which uses downtuned guitars, technically advanced and dissonant leads, machine-gun drum beats, and guttural Cookie Monster vocals. But Rutan tapped into his grief and confusion on parts of Fury and Flames to craft passages of genuine emotional resonance, particularly on the song "Tombeau (Le Tombeau de la Fureur et des Flames": "Your presence echoes forever/May your memory never fade/In your passing may you seek eternal rest." The lyrics are largely indistinct, but the song's solemn, mid-tempo pace and Rutan's melodic guitar solo in the closing reveal the powerful emotional impact Anderson's death had on him.

"I felt like I was having a breakdown," Rutan says. "My whole life was this record. Now I can breathe a sigh of relief. I don't think I'll ever feel the same pressure as I did for Fury and Flames. Now we have a solid lineup—we've done 90 shows together, and an album. If anything, for the next album, I'm looking forward to being a little more free-minded, not so weighted down with emotion and pressure."

When death metal roared onto the scene in the late 1980s and early '90s, no one expected it to last as long as it has. Even its fans were too caught up in seeing bands like Morbid Angel and Carcass signed to major labels and Cannibal Corpse selling hundreds of thousands of albums to wonder if they'd still listen to this music 15 or 20 years later. But it has, even as the first generation of death-metal musicians is now over 40. Rutan's in his mid-30s and has discovered that the physical demands of the kind of music he plays require him to take care of himself. "I quit smoking and stretch my hands and wrists and fingers, because I could easily get carpal tunnel or tendinitis," he says. But he shows no signs of stopping.

"I still feel like I'm 19," he says. "Forty's still a bunch of years away, and I have a feeling I'll be metal until I'm 50."

Erik Rutan was hospitalized last week for a kidney stone and Hate Eternal has dropped from the tour. The band won't appear with Job for a Cowboy.