Like any established genre of music, giving an objective answer to the question of who started playing Death Metal first is pretty much impossible, but anyone who knows what they’re talking about would put Paul Speckmann right at the top of any list. Death Metal fans have acknowledged Speckmann’s work with Master and Deathstrike – amongst many others – as being absolutely crucial to the development of the genre, and yet he has largely remained a background figure, his opinion never sought as widely as those of his peers and the musicians who followed him.
Consider what Speckmann has to say about the state of modern Death Metal! Think of the wealth of stories he has to share about the 80’s and 90’s Metal Underground! Imagine the light he can shed on the mindset of young musicians desperate to take Thrash Metal even further into extremity!
Now keep imagining, because sadly this book isn’t going to provide any of that. As the sub-heading suggests, Underground Survivor is primarily a book of pictures, both original photographs and photoshopped “concept” pieces, interspersed with occasional written comments by Speckmann in both German and English.
Dealing with the writing first, the main criticism is that there is so little of it. Clearly that isn’t the point – this is a pictorial study of Speckmann’s life and career, not a book of interviews, but it seems like a wasted opportunity to hear what he has to say, especially when the quality of what is written is so low. The English text is blighted by sloppy punctuation, poor grammar and some unfortunate typos (my own favourite being a full-page call to rational atheism which asks “what kind of God could we put our thrust in?” and misspelling the name of Speckmann’s own Krabathor), but the actual content of the text is little better. Simple descriptions of Speckmann’s activities in the scene – mostly of the “I met Dave from Rectal Blasphemer and then we got drunk” variety are offered without context or appraisal, with no attempt to draw any meaning or value. The few moments of insight he offers, such as his experiences of extreme poverty touring LEDC’s, are allowed to pass without comment. He clearly has interesting things to say, and a good editor could have drawn them out with skilfully questions, but that’s not the point here. THIS IS ABOUT THE PICTURES.
There are – let’s be fair here – a lot of them. Ignoring the photo-manipulations and concept pieces, which is the best thing to do with them, this is an exhaustive visual record of Speckmann’s life from early childhood to the modern day, showing us his family life, hobbies and musical career. Some of the personal photographs are genuinely charming – and the keen spotter of 80’s and 90’s Thrash and Death Metal luminaries will see Speckmann standing alongside pretty much everyone of note in those scenes – but by presenting them without context or development they never really have the chance to mean anything.
Ultimately, how much you value Underground Survivor will depend on your tolerance for pictures of hairy men standing around in black t-shirts looking awkward, interspersed with shallow descriptions of gigs and bands. As a visual account of the development of Death Metal, and a tribute to one of the most important of the genre’s founders, it’s not without its charm – but it’s hard to see it as anything other than a wasted opportunity.