Jason Netherton – Extremity Retained

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Death Metal is often derided as being monolithic or identical-sounding, but in fact its twenty-five year-plus history has frequently been one of fluidity, experimentation and diversity. Setting a definitive account of this history into fewer than five hundred pages is no minor task, and involves some serious choices about how best to represent the genre as a whole. For Extremity Retained: Notes From The Death Metal Underground (Handshake Inc.), Jason Netherton – his own interest in the genre being more than just academic, having played in Misery Index since 2001 – has decided to forego a single author-directed narrative by letting the scene speak for itself.

The core body of the text consists of an enormous collection of interviews with band members, recording engineers, promoters, label bosses and artists involved with Death Metal music from the late 80’s to the current day. They are presented as unbroken first-person narratives, rather than interspersed with questions and observations from the interviewer, and Netherton’s voice only appears explicitly in short introductory sections at the beginning of each chapter. Which is not to say that the account in unstructured – Netherton has sorted the interviews into five sections (origins, local scenes, recording, touring and the future of Death Metal) and compiled them together in such a way that the story develops organically.

The main strength of this approach, of course, is that the people involved with Death Metal tell what they consider to be the important parts of their own story, and what is revealed is a wealth of personal reflections and reactions that are far richer than you may be expecting. A lot of the information will already be known to fans (though non-US interviews, especially the South American and Eastern European bands, certainly have some new things to offer) but the emotional responses of the people involved raise it to an entirely new level. This is a very human story, with some genuinely moving, shocking and funny accounts, and what comes through the loudest of all is just how organic and driven by genuine passion this genre was and still is. Even when the narrative reaches the lows of the 90’s label grabs and cookie-cutter repetition, the frustration and disappointment of the musicians and engineers comes from a very real and very human place.

Netherton is, of course, operating under some pretty hefty limitations – some self-imposed and others simply the nature of the project – and it would be remiss to not consider those weaknesses. He acknowledges in the introduction that some key voices are missing, and presumably worked hard to fill those gaps, but some omissions are genuinely glaring – for me, the lack of interviews with any British musicians is noticeable, especially given the sheer number of times that Carcass, Napalm Death and Earache Records crop up in others’ accounts. Repetition is another issue, though probably an unavoidable one – be prepared to read “we didn’t call it Death Metal then, it was just Thrash”, “everything changed when I heard Scream Bloody Gore” and “I miss tape-trading, the internet killed Metal” so often that you’ll develop a sort of personal mental short-hand for skipping through them.

Another slight disappointment for me was the total absence of the bands who’ve been pushing Death Metal in stranger and more abstract directions in the last few years – Portal, Ulcerate and Pyrrhon etc. aren’t mentioned, and though the oddness of GorgutsObscura is discussed, its belated effect on the genre isn’t. The last chapter is given over to “the future of Death Metal”, but this is largely spent discussing the relative merits of the internet versus tape-trading rather than the development of the music itself.

If this review seems to have focussed more on the negative than the positive, it’s only because it’s easier to highlight the few flies in the ointment than to detail what works about Extremity Retained, which is basically everything else. It is a rich, detailed and frequently compelling story with some genuine insights about not just Death Metal but “underground” music as a whole, absolutely essential to anyone interested in the people and decisions behind the music.

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9/10

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RICHIE H-R