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How to Write the History of Underground Death Metal While on Tour

Misery Index rocker, Jason Netherton talks about his love for Death Metal and documenting it for his new book, 'Extremely Retained'

Since its emergence in the mid to late 80s, death metal has always been about the negotiation of noise: hyper-distorted guitar tones, breakneck bass drumming, and growly, nearly indecipherable vocals. But the pioneers of the genre were noisy in another sense too—their records and performance aesthetic were intended as pure disturbances to the bourgeois social fabric. Whatever was thought to be acceptable or decent, bands like Obituary, Human Remains, and Immolation were going to piss all over it and probably praise Satan in the process.

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The extremity and outrageous offensiveness of death metal can be glimpsed in one of the early music videos, Napalm Death’s “Suffer the Children.” Strobe-like visuals pulse along to the song’s violent rhythms in a way that is almost painful while Christian imagery is juxtaposed with the band and their fans. “Global lunacy,” screams Mark Greenway, “Death threats for supposed blasphemy / No room for free thought / All non believers pushed to the floor.” Keep in mind that “Suffer the Children” was released in 1990 so, if you think things couldn’t have gotten any more intense or blasphemous, take a listen to Deicide’s “Fuck Your God.” Indeed, if your goal is to offend and the US Army starts using your song as its number-one audio torture tool, which became the fate of this 2004 release, then you’re at least approaching success.But one person’s noise is another’s hymn. While death metal can seem shocking or abusive to outsiders, it has constituted a tight and meaningful musical community for thousands, if not now millions, of fans. All of which is explored in Jason Netherton’s new oral history of the scene, Extremity Retained: Notes from the Death Metal Underground. A participant himself (he plays in the band Misery Index), Netherton has interviewed key players and minor ones alike, presenting us with stories about the early days of tape trading, the expansion of grassroots scenes around the globe and the frequent use of corpse imagery in death metal. Currently, working on his PhD at the University of Western Ontario, Netherton made time to talk to us about his favourite genre and how he went about documenting it.

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Noisey: What kind of music were you into before you encountered death metal?
Jason Netherton: When I was a kid during the 1980s, hard rock and hair metal were the mainstream, and thrash metal bands like Metallica and Anthrax were the known, heavier alternatives. However, for those who wanted their metal even heavier, there was always this urgency to find ever more brutal stuff on metal’s fringes and margins. So, I had friends who eventually got a hold of these underground fanzines, and learned about these DIY record labels and demo trading networks by getting a hold of random fliers, trade lists and addresses. Once that window was opened, I discovered that there was an entire world of much more extreme music going on, that was thriving in this obscure, virtual network of global tape traders, who were tapping into the death, black and grindcore demo and fanzine circuits by the late 1980s. So once I got a hold of a few fanzines, the pen was then put to paper everyday, and I was writing letters to pen pals all over the world, trading/buying demos and looking for more extreme and transgressive metal.

There seems to be a sense of evolution within the genre—that it’s got to get bigger or more brutal. Did people in the scene agree as to what would constitute a more “brutal” or “transgressive” sound?
The underground scene exploded around 1990, and expanded until it imploded from over-signing andover-saturation around 1994 or so when bigger bands like Carcass, Morbid Angel and Cannibal Corpse were selling in the hundreds of thousands. So from 1988 to about 1994 there was a steady elevation in extremity, from both the human aspect as drummers adjusted their technique to perform faster and with more precision and from the studio, where guitar sounds/distortions were made thicker and more aurally “heavy.” Also, studio engineers were still learning how to properly record the music, which took a few years of trial and error to accommodate the new techniques that were being developed in the genre. Fromt that point there was a lot experimentation and crossover taking place, so it was an exciting time. In that way, that “transgressive” urgency fueled it all, because it was new and being invented as it went along, so it was all very spontaneous. There was no rulebook and there were no boundaries, which is why even today there are still so many thriving sub genres in extreme metal.

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Where were you based during this time? What was the scene like there?
I grew up in the Washington DC area, in Maryland, so while the DC area was more my “hometown” scene with places like Wilmer’s Park, the 930 Club, the Bayou and the Safari club. The scene was small and tight, like an extended family. When death metal sort of evolved into its own thing and separated itself from thrash metal, the death metal bands looked to each other for support and trading shows, because a lot of the scene rejected the new and more aggressive sounds as amateur or sloppy. And in particular the use of “blast beats” (the hyperfast machine-gun drum beat developed by Napalm Death) and the growling,screaming vocals that were heavily criticized by more traditional metal-heads. So, the scenes in Virginia,DC,and Maryland revolved around bands like Deceased and Exmortis, as well as a handful of others that were pushing boundaries and trying to create their own identity.

When did it occur to you to document the stories behind the emergence of death metal?
My band [Misery Index] was touring pretty heavily around 2010 and 2011, and as any touring musician knows, the twenty-three hours of the day you are not on stage is filled with all kinds of mostly prosaic and tedious activities. So between the truck stops, the airports and the hotels, it dawned on me that the scene I was in, and felt such an affinity for, had very little documentation of its origins aside from a few very good texts written a few years earlier in Albert Mudrian’s Choosing Death. So, I felt like there could be a contribution of sorts in the oral tradition, where the notables as well as the marginal voices who lived through and created the genre could share their personal stories, much like certain books have done for punk like Please Kill Me and hardcore in Burning Fight. So, while on tour, I bought a digital recorder and went to work, having informal chats with all the band members I could, whether it was backstage, at some European festival, or tracking them down online. After about two years, I had over 100 interviews completed. The book then built itself up from those conversations, more or less.

The Road has been mythologized to be a hedonistic, party-filled place. What was it like to be working on an oral history while on the road yourself?
I think the road is indeed mythologized, but as the stories in my book can reveal, a lot of it is problem solving, downtime on the road or in airports, odd situations, cultural misunderstandings, money issues with agents and promoters, finding a place to sleep, dealing with sound and equipment problems, etc., no matter what genre of music you play. But, that does not mean it is not fun. I have been touring on and off since 1996 and I must say that the first few tours are always the best beforeyour innocence gets shattered, and money becomes a more central concern. Once you learn how all the money gets sucked up along the way, it starts to get more serious pretty quickly.

That said, when I tour with my band now, it’s pretty streamlined and we are more concerned with being rested and giving a good performance than anything else. So, with the backstage downtime, it was easy to seek out locals or corner a person playing in another band for a brief sit-down and chat session. Most were happy to talk, so it worked out great. I am happy with the book, and although I could have went on and on, talking to everyone, I stopped when I felt like I had a good representation of the scene.