The best album of 2002 has no proper melodies to speak of, boasts drum tempos three times faster than the per-minute tally averaged by the human heart and will get you thrown out of the house if you're under eighteen -- guaranteed. It's a death-metal album by a band from Florida called Hate Eternal, whose leader, Erik Rutan, has done time in Morbid Angel, one of the genre's standard-bearers. It comes housed in a sleeve with a painting of a scary-looking ebony totem rising from a lake of fire on the cover. Nice. It clocks in at just under thirty-four minutes, and in that brief space it is exhausting, terrifying, overpowering and occasionally transcendent.
It's also completely vital. Every journalist who's written about the so-called return of rock during the past year or two has missed or willfully ignored one crucial point: If something lacks the potential to shock and offend the greater portion of the general public, its resemblance to the original spirit of rock & roll is cosmetic at best. Yet the bands at the forefront of rock's supposed return crave popular acceptance above all else and gleefully submit their singles for editing to be made more palatable for whichever Clear Channel affiliate has promised to play the record if and when an independent promoter has greased all the right palms. Place any such "new rock" band alongside something as primal, savage and downright unmarketable as Hate Eternal, and the proper context of the new rock becomes clear: right alongside Britney, J-Lo and whoever's next in line.
For metal to get any more extreme than Hate Eternal, on the other hand, it'd have to come packaged in an exploding sleeve. There is no showcasing of Rutan's more sensitive side here, there are no slow parts, there aren't any ballads. Instead, there is a concerted and entirely successful attempt to subdue, stun, pummel and terrify the listener. Only bits and pieces of the vocals, which consist entirely of deep-voiced screaming, can be discerned: phrases such as "I am the king of all kings" and "We are the obscure terror" come ripping through the maelstrom from time to time, messages from the heart of the void. Guitar solos erupt sporadically, high-treble heavy-echo affairs that'd make perfect soundtracks to a slide show of pictures from the Hubble telescope.
One doesn't hear these songs so much as submit to them as they charge through the speakers like something out of an unrated version of Jumanji. By the time you get to the seventh song, "Chants in Declaration," you must already have been converted, or you'd have long since run screaming from the house. The incomprehensible chants to which the song's title refers are so chilling that one feels certain Armageddon is near. The guitars wail like lost souls or growl like tank engines. If this doesn't sound like it's your thing, rest assured that it isn't. But if you're curious about what death metal is, this is the place to start. It is the cream rising to the surface. This is the state of the art.