By now, most people who are interested know the story of Death. Inspired be The Who and Alice Cooper, three brothers from Detroit cranked out some visionary, supercharged garage rock from 1971-1977. Bobby (bass/vocals), David (guitar), and Dannis Hackney (drums) made some good quality recordings, and even put out a 7 inch in 1975. Death had some major label interest, but refused to compromise their sound or change their name. The band eventually called it quits, moved away from Detroit, and faded into nearly complete obscurity.
Thirty or so odd years later, Bobby’s children discovered the old recordings and created a renewed interest in Death. The band’s sound was ahead of its time, a sort of proto-punk missing link between MC5/The Stooges and 80’s hardcore. The fact that they were African-American only added to the intrigue. In 2009 Drag City released an album of the band’s best sounding session, …For the Whole World to See. Death would also reform in 2009, replacing David, who passed away from lung cancer in 2000. Two more albums of archival material would follow. The 2012 documentary A Band Called Death introduced the Hackney brothers to an even wider audience.
2015 brings us a fresh Death album, simply titled N.E.W.. Some of its ten tracks are supposed to have origins in the 70’s, and it’s interesting to speculate which ones. Opener “Relief” definitely has a 70’s vibe. It’s both tacky and endearing. It’s not easy to pull off the lyrics “Detroit rocks/The east coast rocks/The west coast rocks/Everybody rocks”. These guys are extremely competent musicians, and the whah soaked lead guitar is sometimes reminiscent of the late, great Jimi Hendrix. “Look At Your Life” has some cool, heavy, thrashy parts, but stops and starts so many times that it comes off as novelty. You won’t believe that it’s actually over until you hear the opening acoustic strums of “Story of the World”, which starts out as a Bob Marley type ballad before kicking into gear.
The general sound here would best be described as soulful 70’s rock. Think a slightly more aggressive Thin Lizzy or Grand Funk Railroad. “At the Station” is one of the album’s strongest tracks. It starts of dramatically, with its train as a metaphor for life theme. Unfortunately, toward the end it gets derailed by some over the top, Spinal Tap style musical theatrics. “Who Am I?” is the catchiest song on N.E.W.. It’s memorable and really showcases Bobby’s rich, soulful voice. “Resurrection” and “Change”, the last two songs on the LP, relate to the band but also have spiritual overtones. This makes sense, as the brothers also have roots in gospel music.
In 2015, Death is not breaking any new musical ground. Their music would be more at home on classic rock radio than in the moshpit. You’d have to listen pretty closely to hear anything you would consider proto-punk. Death’s new sound is more mature but less inspiring than the music of their youth. This record is not bad at all, but it never really approaches greatness. It was probably unrealistic to expect the band (2/3 of it actually) to catch lightening in a bottle twice, especially forty years apart. N.E.W. just doesn’t have the magic of their O.L.D. stuff.