Erik Rutan’s death metal resume runs deep, as the leader of Hate Eternal, a member of Morbid Angel, and the producer of Cannibal Corpse, Agnostic Front, and other heavy bands. Photo by Alex Morgan
“Stay out of the kitchen; call Chicken Magician,” chimes Hate Eternal’s Erik Rutan. He’s in the green room of the White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, New Jersey, as he reminisces about that catchy slogan from his last day job. Given that the guitarist/vocalist/producer hails from the town of Red Bank, less than an hour from the venue, it’s not surprising that he got a little nostalgic.
“The funniest thing about it is that I had, like, 50 Chicken Magician T-shirts at one point, because the owner insisted that I always wear one. Of course, I came to work and I never wore it, I never wore the hat, I didn’t want anything to do with it,” Rutan recalls. “He’d be like, ‘Where’s your hat and shirt? You’re not representing the company.’ I’d say, ‘Oh, it’s laundry day.’ He’d be like, ‘Don’t worry, I got two more for you.’ So, at some point, I had a ton of them, but when I moved to Florida, I got rid of them. Now it’s a regret. If I only had one of those Chicken Magician shirts.”
While the loss of his fried chicken emporium T-shirts might be a small regret, the trade-off proved to be enormous. He moved to the Sunshine State to record and tour with Morbid Angel, and that move shifted his career into extreme overdrive. Shortly after that, Rutan formed Hate Eternal in 1997, handling guitar and vocals for the band. Along the way he’s managed to play on three more Morbid Angel albums. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. He is a seriously prolific dude!
Rutan, who studied production at N.Y.C.’s Institute of Audio Research, also made a huge splash in the production world after his work on Cannibal Corpse’s iconic 2006 album, Kill. Since then he’s become the producer of choice in the death metal world, shepherding three more Cannibal Corpse albums in addition to working on tons of recordings by genre leaders like Agnostic Front and Nile.
Hate Eternal’s latest, Upon Desolate Sands, is a perfect example of Rutan at his peak, as both producer and performer. The album features dynamics and classically inspired melodicism not often found in the death metal genre. Several songs are played way down from Rutan’s usual C# tuning (C#–F#–B–E–G#–C#) to drop G# (on 7-string), adding to the massive sound. In addition to the expected heaviness, Upon Desolate Sands features reflective pieces like “For Whom We Have Lost,” the instrumental that closes the album, which was written about two members of Rutan’s family who recently died.
Premier Guitar caught up with Rutan just hours before Hate Eternal hit the stage for a death metal mega-concert also featuring Cannibal Corpse and Harm’s Way. Amidst the chaotic backdrop of Cannibal Corpse’s soundcheck, Rutan discussed making Upon Desolate Sands, his classic metal influences, and his ability to shred with action so ridiculously high that it’s been dubbed “Mount Everest.”
Upon Desolate Sands is Hate Eternal’s seventh album. Has anything changed in your approach to writing for the band?
When I started Hate Eternal, I had this somewhat narrow-minded vision of creating this really extreme and aggressive sound. I’ve expanded that a bit, with more dynamics. That’s probably the only thing. I’ve always had a melodic side, as well. I grew up in a classical family. I was inspired by a lot of classical music.
Who played what?
My dad played cello, my sister and grandmother played classical piano, and I played violin as a child. I was so young that I didn’t take to it right away. As I got older, in my teens, I really grew to appreciate classical music: guys like Andrés Segovia and John Williams. When I first started playing guitar, it was guys like Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads, Yngwie, and, of course, I loved Slayer and Metallica. James Hetfield was a big influence—from metal to thrash to wanting to create something a little bit more aggressive, which ended up becoming death metal.
Were passages like the harmony-guitars/bass-sans-drums ending in “Vengeance Striketh” and the intro to “For Whom We Have Lost” inspired by your classical background?
I don’t read or write music. I have a really good ear, which obviously lends itself to what I do as a producer. I definitely attribute a lot of my harmonization and counterpoint to classical music: listening to Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and Vivaldi. Every weekend my dad would have me sit and listen to composition after composition. And also, like, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest—those two bands were the kings of harmony. Metallica, too. Those three bands, metal-wise, completely inspired me with harmonization-meets-classical—double tracking solos and quadruple tracking rhythms, or triple-tracking stuff, sometimes. A lot of that is from Randy Rhoads. I always heard he did that on Diary of a Madman and Blizzard of Ozz, which were some of my biggest guitar-influence records.
On the outro to “All Hope Destroyed,” you take a blistering solo over an interesting textural backdrop.
It’s funny, you know, sometimes things just happen spontaneously. I had this vision of one guitar ringing out more like setting a background, and then this other guitar is kind of going freestyle. I just had this idea of one guitar in the middle just going for it.
TIDBIT: Erik Rutan says he expanded the core sound of Hate Eternal on his trio’s new album by exploring more wide-ranging dynamics—something he learned to appreciate by listening to classical music.
How did you approach the mix to get that solo to stand out against the other parts that had a similar timbre and range?
Panning is always key. Throughout my career, my solo tone has always cut through, as well. I’ve always had a really nice solo tone. Part of it is just in the fingers, the hands, how I play. I like a cleaner tone. I like Marshalls.
You also have really high action on your guitars.
I do have high action.
How were you able to play so fast on things like the solo on the new album’s “All Hope Destroyed” with such high action?
I don’t know, man. It just started when I started learning guitar. I really focused on rhythm playing—consistency and being tight. It’s very rare to have high action and do a lot of soloing. It doesn’t really work. But for rhythm guitar, I play very percussively, and it sits well. For solos, I guess I just got used to high action. So many guitarists overlook the importance of rhythm, and James Hetfield was a big influence on me, because his rhythm hand was ridiculous. Like Master of Puppets. When I heard those records when I started playing guitar, all that tight rhythm playing inspired me. I focused on rhythm for a good year or two before I even started soloing, just so I could really get it tight. When it came to soloing, I worked on that, too, and I just got used to the higher action.
I do play extremely hard and my action is so high that techs call it “Mount Everest.” Even my luthier, Scooter Davis, of Granville Guitars, which resides in my studio—he sets up all my guitars, amps, and everything—is always amazed at how high my action is. It just feels comfortable and I love to get pure tone. I’ve lowered it a little bit over the years, because I was like, “This is ridiculous.”
It seems like your sound isn’t ultra high gain, but a lot of gain is later generated by the force of your attack.
It really is. That’s the thing with a lot of higher-gain amps that sometimes I miss. I have a studio, so I own 14 or 15 amps. I have 5150s and ENGLs. Right now, I use a Dual Rec with a JCM800 live, because I like that combination.