This Means War: Erik Rutan Looks Back on Morbid Angel’s “Domination”

The following interview was conducted for our new Decibel Yearbook: 1995 issue, but was edited for space as we went to print. Enjoy this Decibel “bonus track” and order the 1995 issue here for more on one of the most important years in extreme metal history! 

“For Domination we were practicing as a band, like, eight hours a day,” recalls former Morbid Angel guitarist, current Hate Eternal general, and producer extraordinaire, Erik Rutan, “and then I would go to Trey’s [Azagthoth] house and work all night and repeat the next day, sometimes staying up two days straight without sleep.”

This grueling, sleep-deprived work schedule led to Morbid Angel’s 1995 LP, Domination, the follow-up to the mainstream-crashing Covenant album (1993). With a young Rutan in its ranks, replacing guitarist Richard Brunelle, Morbid Angel drew heavily on new-blood creativity, as the Ripping Corpse shredder formed an immediate songwriting connection with guitarist Azagthoth, who was, up to then, death metal’s prodigal son. Rutan and Azagthoth—backed by orator/bassist David Vincent and drum-commando Pete Sandoval—pushed each other in dynamic ways on Domination: the evil grooves introduced in 1993 were amplified, the songwriting became more direct, and the keyboard-led invocations of the beloved Ancient Ones here elicited a forbidden aura of malevolence.

Overall, though, 1995 was an interesting year for death metal. The unforeseen commercial peak had come to pass, with Morbid Angel at the crest of the putrid wave following high sales for Covenant and successful tours, and homogeneity had for the most part started to replace the exciting creative bounty experienced only a few years earlier. It was also the year that Roadrunner Records, the bastion of death metal alongside Earache, stopped signing new death metal acts, focusing more on the burgeoning alternative metal scene that would run roughshod over the metal landscape, for better or (mostly) worse, for the rest of the decade.

But amongst the increasingly bland artifacts and outside of Morbid Angel’s fourth full-length masterwork, Chuck Schuldiner’s keen eye for progressive musicality further warped death metal on the precise Symbolic, Deicide were hammering another nail through the forehead of Christianity on Once Upon the Cross, and Suffocation’s Pierced from Within showcased a mind-boggling increase in the New York band’s already-impervious technical skills and ability to bludgeon accordingly. Meanwhile, in Sweden during 1995’s twilight, melodic death metal spiked artistically; although it would be a few years before the seismic impact of At the Gates’ Slaughter of the Soul or Dark Tranquillity’s The Gallery would be truly felt on the scene, not to mention the consequences of the further blurring of the then-defined lines between black and death metal on Dissection’s Storm of the Light’s Bane.

Rutan, looking back fondly, wasn’t intently bingeing death metal in 1994 or most of 1995, given how obsessive his focus was on finalising his Morbid Angel debut. “I was not listening to much else at that time of writing Domination, except maybe Zero Kama and some classical music to break up some of the intensity of writing,” he remembers. “Mostly I was just listening to all of the songs we were working on and learning and the demos we were making. But I can say that the one album that came out in 1995 that was actually being recorded at Morrisound during some of the time that we were recording Domination that made a mark [on me], was Suffocation’s Pierced from Within. Still to this day, a death metal masterpiece in my opinion and one of the best death metal albums ever made!”

We at Decibel wholeheartedly agree with Rutan’s assessment of Suffocation’s tech-death brain-scrambler. But it’s also the kind of lofty praise that we happily bestow upon Domination. To celebrate the album’s 25th anniversary, Rutan was gracious enough to travel back in time, to recount his joining of the legendary Morbid Angel and the creation of one of the high points in his impressive career as a death metal lifer.

Decibel: How did you end up joining Morbid Angel in the first place? I assume you were a big fan of the band while you were tearing it up in Ripping Corpse?
Erik Rutan:
I had been listening to Morbid Angel since ’87 or so. Scott Ruth, our singer in Ripping Corpse, did a lot of tape trading back then and had come across live recordings, then Abominations of Desolation, then the Thy Kingdom Come demo and onward through the albums. Ripping Corpse wanted to do shows with Morbid Angel, so our manager Gunter Ford reached out to them. We ended up opening five shows for them in 1990 and then five more in ’91/’92. Gunter then started managing Morbid Angel. In early ‘93 Gunter mentioned Morbid Angel needed a guitarist to do the first U.S. and European tours for the then-unreleased Covenant album. Ripping Corpse were not doing any shows at that time, for we were searching for a new record deal after our label, Kraze, folded. I thought it would be a great experience and opportunity to play with Morbid Angel and help get our Ripping Corpse demo out there, and who knows, maybe help us secure a record deal.

[Morbid Angel] flew me down for a week, I learned seven songs, practiced with the band and they accepted me to do the tours. I did the two tours and went back to Jersey to go back to Ripping Corpse and back to the studio I was working at after graduating IAR in N.Y. When I got back from the tour the studio had gone out of business; a few months later Ripping Corpse broke up. It was some hard times for sure. Richard [Brunelle] (R.I.P.) had come back to do the Black Sabbath/Motörhead/Morbid Angel tour at that time, but it didn’t work out. Then in February of ’94 I got a phone call from David asking if I would like to do the April ‘94 European tour with Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse. I said absolutely, and then decided to pack up my car and move to Florida. Even though it was only a two-week tour, I thought to myself if I moved down there I would do everything possible to prove to them I should be a permanent member, and that is exactly what happened. The rest is history!

Morbid Angel were coming off the back of Covenant, which was one of death metal’s premier mainstream albums, and it led to some big tours and sales. Were you intimidated in any way joining a band with plenty of eyes on them?
My first tours with Morbid Angel was in ’93, right when Covenant came out, with Kreator and Paradise Lost, then in Europe with Dismember and Grave. I was 21 years old when I first started playing with them, so I was young and out of my mind insane… but not completely green per say. I had been recording and doing shows since I was a teenager. But I had never done anything like this. They were massive tours in the U.S. and Europe and it blew my mind! It was absolutely the next level. I had done shows with Ripping Corpse that were pretty huge, like at the old Lamours in Brooklyn and so on, but this was my first time going on full scale tours. It was fantastic! I was certainly anxious as fuck but I wouldn’t say intimidated. I had experienced much hardship and tragedy in my life up to that point and I always felt like nothing could bring me down or restrain me. I always felt I was meant to do this, since I was 15 years old. This was one of my dreams and nothing was going to stop me from achieving it. But there was no doubt deep inside I was shitting my pants knowing that I was playing with Morbid Angel on such a massive album and subsequent tours, ha ha ha!

Can you remember much about the songwriting for Domination, or any discussions you and guys had around the sound you wanted to go for?
I don’t recall any conversations about it, really. We had done a ton of touring for Covenant. Then we came back from the final tour and just went on a three-month writing/practicing spree and then recorded the album in November/December 1994. I know that we wanted to interject more of the seven-string [guitar] material to the album. That type of tuning just lends itself to writing dark and sludgy material as well as just creating new paths of dynamics. For me, it was the first time writing with a seven-string, so it was exciting. But there was no conscious effort to do anything but write some great unique and dynamic songs. I think it was just the natural order and progression of things at that time. I know they wanted my contributions and style to be a part of the record, which still to this day I feel very fortunate I was able to contribute so much to the album. As a guitar team, Trey [Azagthoth] and I created a really dynamic duo, I believe, rhythm-and-solo-wise. It was some really inspiring and creative times!

You have quite a few songwriting credits on the album. Was it difficult to establish yourself as a songwriter and guitarist in a band with big personalities like Trey and David? How did you gain so much ground as a creative force in the band at that time, and did you meet any challenges?
I had to work my ass off for sure. Trey and David had very distinct and specific qualities they were looking for in my riffs and material and would only accept the best that I had to offer. Everything I wrote had to be approved, so I wrote as much material as I could to present to them. Some got turned down, but in the end I was able to write and contribute five songs for Domination. It was so rewarding and just a huge accomplishment for me.

“Hatework”started with me writing the orchestration first with tympanis and cellos and whatnot as a potential interlude, but as I was writing it I felt if I added guitars and vocals to it that it would become a very unique song, like the Apocalypse, the freaking end of the world! “Eyes to See, Ears to Hear” has some really neat melodies and is unique as well in a different way. “Nothing But Fear” and “This Means War” were more traditional death metal songs, and then the interlude “Melting,” I really tried to write songs that felt and sounded like Morbid Angel but with my feel and vision. It was a big challenge for sure, but I was up to the task. I think Trey, David and Pete saw something in me creatively and wanted to capture that. I was truly fortunate and grateful that they did. I learned so much during that whole album process.

How was the recording process for the album?
Well, first of all, I remember when Trey and I were recording guitars we were going into the studio at 5p.m. and recording all night till 5a.m. or so. By the time I would get home from Morrisound the sun was rising! It was amazing to be able to record like that. When the world was asleep Trey and I were just completely ripping it up in the studio! Also, Bill Kennedy (R.I.P.), who produced the album with us, had rented and brought in a ton of gear to an already-stocked Morrisound. The amount of mics and outboard gear on everything from the drums to the guitars was such an incredible learning experience for me as someone who knew that one day I would own a studio. I want to say it was, like, an eight-to-ten-week album, and there was so much work put into it from everyone. It was a very special moment in my life and career for sure. Being 23 at the time and just having such a monumental moment in my career was life-changing for me.

Upon release, despite plenty of praise, some of the more curmudgeonly Morbid Angel fans were a bit disappointed by the stylistic direction you guys took, leaning hard on blunt-force grooves, more immovable tempos and otherworldly atmospherics. To me, it sounded like a natural evolution from Covenant. What do you remember about the reception of the album after it came out?
I remember a tremendous response to the album. It really was just the natural evolution of the band at that time. It felt like the right step and direction for the band. If you think about it: Altars… to Blessed…, Covenant to Domination, Formulas… to Gateways…From a more raw approach to a more expanded, dynamic approach, I guess you could say. I also remember many people accepted me right away into the band and I felt very honored and fortunate. I knew I was joining an established band and replacing a legend in Richard Brunelle and those were big shoes to fill. I was so humbled by the response to my involvement with the band. I never tried to be anyone but myself as a person and as a musician. I knew I just needed to deliver my best as to who I am and make my mark. I gave everything I had to that album, as I do with everything in my life. The distinct and diverse differences Trey and I had as guitar players really formulated a great force. Working with Pete, David and Trey are experiences I will never forget. It was an honor to jam and play with them in Morbid Angel.

Death metal’s spike in mainstream popularity was starting to fall in 1995. What do you contribute to first its rise in the first place, but also how the trend, from a mainstream perspective, fell from grace?
Death metal is like no other style of music. The intensity, proficiency, and technicality as well. It is just pure and true music from the heart and soul. For me, it comes from a tremendous depth of anger and rage, pain and despair, yet power and strength at the same time. I was honestly surprised and amazed that death metal rose so high at that time. I never really ever thought that this style of music would garner such attention in a mainstream major market way like it did.

For me, it always felt like it was not sustainable, to be honest. I always thought death metal would be a more underground form of music, so to be a part of the rise of death metal to that extent was phenomenal and a bonus for me. I never thought I would ever be on a major label like Giant or be in a huge band in a commercially viable way or anything like that. It was never really something I put much thought into. It was more about creating unique music, making albums and touring the world and creating a legacy in death metal.

Domination might also be the most ripped off Morbid Angel album in the band’s catalogue! I hear those “Slime”-riffs all the time, with Gojira being one major band who has utilized what you guys created here to a great degree of success. How does it feel to have influenced the next generation of metal bands with this album alone, not to mention your near-peerless work with Hate Eternal?
I guess I do not ever truly realize the influence I/we have had on people nor really think of that type of stuff. It is very hard for me to realize how people see me/us from an outside perspective. I am so grateful and appreciative of all the people that have followed my career and all we have done, and to think that maybe something I/we have done musically has inspired other people, lifts me up to great heights; truly inspirational and an honor that I do not take lightly. I always feel I have something to prove and I always want to deliver the best I can. That has never changed over my 30-plus-year career, and never will.

Domination has gone on to become revered as much as the first three Morbid Angel albums. What’s your opinion of the album 25 years on? Are you proud of what you achieved on this classic record?
“I am super proud of Domination and all we achieved with that album. It was one of my proudest and most amazing moments and experiences in my life and career, and I have had many, I am pleased to say. I was 23 years old when we recorded it and it was such a tremendous accomplishment at that time for us. I felt so honored to not only be a part of Morbid Angel and play with Pete, Trey and David, but to also compose five songs on the album, which to this day I am very proud of. It was a great collaboration between all of us. It was a huge part of my life and career that I will never forget.