Before punk became cool, Detroit trio Death was busy building a steady collection of proto-punk songs. Few knew about the band when they were still around, but once a rare copy of their self-financed 45 surfaced, the internet worked its magic. Collectors began grabbing at copies, the documentary A Band Called Death was released in 2013, and everyone from Henry Rollins to Elijah Wood was filmed talking about the band’s importance. Despite forming in the 1970s, it wasn’t until 2009 that a proper collection of Death’s music was made available, with Drag City releasing the archival …For the Whole World to See (soon followed by Spiritual-Mental-Physical and Death III). Over 35 years later, Death are sharing their first new material on N.E.W., and it sounds anything but stale.
The trio began under the tutelage of the eldest Hackney brother, David, who passed away from lung cancer in 2000, leaving a massive gap in the band. David was responsible for Death’s core enthusiasm, motivation, and stubbornness in refusing to change that name, ultimately costing them label support. But this reformed version — bassist Bobby Hackney and drummer Dannis Hackney, plus new guitarist Bobbie Duncan — does the name justice, in part because David co-wrote a handful of the songs that appear here.
Death’s music bleeds with bona fide righteousness, a certain sense of unity; the drums are placed centrally in the mix, along with the vocals. Except for highlighted solos, every guitar part is relatively hidden, perhaps out of respect for David. Even on the album’s highlight, “Relief”, the guitar gets bumped to the back row while staying rough, making way for their slightly cheesy lyrics and rapid-fire bass lines. But despite the grit on N.E.W., all three musicians boast a bonhomie similar to a local band’s open friendliness, making for one of the most approachable punk albums in recent memory.
Death tend to sound like a metal version of The English Beat, a band they originally predated by a handful of years. That rhythm section elevated over rock guitar gives them their innovative twist. The backing vocals on “Playtime” make it sound like a saxophone-less version of the Beat’s “Tears of a Clown” cover or a less verbose take on their “Twist & Crawl”. Following in that order, “Change” is Death’s own version of “Save It for Later”, blanketing a catchy chorus with scale-climbing guitar lines and chipper bass.
Death never tried to make complicated music. They were busy being in the minority of the minority, laying down the groundwork for punk as African Americans in a time when Motown ruled their city. They created the type of gritty, punchy, positive proto-punk that gets you heated for all the right reasons, and it’s as fitting today as it was in the 1970s.
Essential Tracks: “Relief”, “Look at Your Life”, and “Change”