Extremity Retained: Notes from the Death Metal Underground

Extremity Retained: Notes from the Death Metal Underground (Handshake Inc)
By Jason Netherton

In 2013, Jon Wiederhorn and Katherine Turman released their ambitiously titled tome, Louder than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal. At over 700 pages, Louder than Hell featured a lengthy list of metal luminaries telling their tales but, in the main, those stories being told were familiar. Any metal fan worth their salt already knows about Tony losing his fingertips, or just how naughty those Norwegians really were. Metal geeks like me (and I’m guessing you too) really need books that feature the musings and memories of those on the margins.

That’s why books like Swedish Death Metal, Lords of Chaos, Metalion, Choosing Death, and Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult, are always going to make for more revelatory reading. Their specificity drills into the underground, unearthing tales we’ve not read before, and that’s just the kind of stuff we need to feed our geek addictions.

Well, best prepare yourself, because Jason Netherton’s Extremity Retained: Notes From the Death Metal Underground is, pretty much, an overdose of geek heaven (or hell, take your pick). The book is a hugely enjoyable account of death metal’s history, and Netherton knows a thing or two about that world himself, being a founding member of Misery Index, and instrumental in getting Dying Fetus off the ground too.

Netherton spent three years conducting over 100 interviews for Extremity Retained, and he’s compiled, edited and arranged a thoroughly exhaustive narrative. He’s done a phenomenal job of gathering a comprehensive collection of voices from the death metal underground, including the likes of Luc Lemay, Dan Swanö, Scott Hull, Alex Webster, and Mitch Harris, along with Ed Warby, Alan Averill, Paul Speckmann, Ryan Travis, Kam Lee, Ben Falgoust, and Matt Harvey… and I’ll throw in Tomas Lindberg, John McEntee, Anders Jacobson, Ola Lindgren, Terry Butler, Steve Asheim, Ross Dolan, and Moyses Kolesne too.

Really, that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as important and/or interesting figures goes. Netherton has drawn recollections from across the death metal spectrum, around the globe, and throughout death metal’s history. You want tales from the very earliest days of death metal? There’s plenty of ’em, along with all the sundry stories of tape-trading, recording, touring, zine-making, regional developments, and the rise of death metal in extreme metal circles from the 1980s to today.

All of that information is provided direct from the source, and aside from the understandable structural editing that’s occurred, it’s all first-hand anecdotes; unfiltered, undiluted, and as honest as you could hope for. However, not only do you get to read a plethora of different perspectives on death metal’s development as a musical medium, there’s also a supplementary narrative within that tracks the shifts and tides of death metal’s subculture.

What Extremity Retained really does best of all is not play favourites. Some bands obviously made it big, while others definitely didn’t, and Netherton has laid out a narrative that’s respectful to both. He gives time to high-profile bands, like Cannibal Corpse, Obituary, and Immolation (and many more), but less well-known bands, like Blood Duster, Demigod, Morgoth or Krisiun (and again, many more), get plenty of space too. That makes room to underscore what motivates different artists, and there’s a lot of different ideas expressed about what success entails or even means in the death metal sphere.

Obviously, as with any oral history, there’ll be gripes about who is or isn’t here. However, that’s something Netherton acknowledges straight away in the book’s introduction. He says he was out to capture a “wide variety of players” to showcase a wide variety of experiences, and he did just that.

You get to hear from artists Dan Seagrave and Drew Elliot, your expected musicians like Chris Barnes, George Fisher, and Donald Tardy, and Tampa’s favourite son, producer Jim Morris. But then there’s the other folks, like Andrés Padilla (Underground Never Dies!, Grinder Magazine, Violence zine), talking about death metal scene in Chile, and Alex Oquendo (Masacre) chatting about social conditions in Colombia, and how that plays into his nation’s death metal, Takaaki Ohkuma (Necrophile), unpacking early Japanese death metal, Eric Galy (Galy Records, Montreal Promoter) talking about the death metal in Quebec, and David Haley (Psycroptic, Pestilence) giving a Tasmanian-eye-view.

There’s a hell of a lot of information packed into Extremity Retained, with the ins and outs of the music industry, the creative process, and struggles galore thoroughly investigated. Any oral history covering a large chunk of experience like that runs the risk of confusing or overwhelming if it’s not structured in a reader-friendly way. However, Netherton has taken that into account as well, and broken Extremity Retained into easily digestible sections.

First up, you get the stories of death metal’s earliest years, then the next section tackles the spread of death metal around the globe. Following that, you get tales of live shows, recordings and time on the road, and the book ends by looking at death metal’s current status in a world transformed by technology. That all makes it easy to follow the narrative, but there’s nothing stopping you just picking Extremity Retained up and piling in anywhere. All the stories make for bite-size engaging tales in and of themselves.

Much like Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk, or Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk’, Extremity Retained features a cast of very colourful characters, and it really doesn’t matter if you’ve heard of every one of them or not. In fact, let’s hope you haven’t, because one of the best aspects of books like Extremity Retained is that you get to build yet another list of bands and albums to check out.

All up, Extremity Retained makes for an engaging and damn entertaining journey. It’s stacked with thundering opinions and roaring reflections, capturing death metal right at its birth, and highlighting the changes and challenges those intimately involved in the art form have experienced ever since. As Netherton states, with a nod to Spinal Tap, he set out to capture “the sights, the sounds… the smells” of the death metal underground. In that sense, Extremity Retained is a pungent and putrid pile of utter magnificence.

Dig in. Get your hands dirty. Immediately.

Craig Hayes

Internationally published writer, columnist, and radio producer.