The internet is an bizarre place, almost equally evil as it is magical. Where there is controversy, there are also miracles, and one of those miracles is a band called Death. For those who’ve yet to be acquainted with the group through the fantastic documentary that distills their history and importance in just over 90 minutes (which you can watch here), I’ll give you the abridged version of that distillation. Three brothers out of eight children born to a Baptist preacher formed the group in the middle of 1970’s Detroit, inspired by Alice Cooper and The Who. Bobby Hackney led the group as frontman as well as bassist, while Dannis and eldest brother David played drums and guitar, respectively. Their unique garagey, proto-punk sound nearly took off when Clive Davis funded their recording sessions at the request of the group changing their name. When trio declined, the group quietly faded away with only seven tracks of a planned twelve completed.
Fast-forward to 2006 when the demos from the band’s recording sessions began popping up online, and Bobby Hackney’s three sons unknowingly discovered their father’s band -which led to the beginning of their own punk band, Rough Francis. The increased interest in the band ultimately led to the aforementioned documentary and now to N.E.W., their first material in over 35 years. Unfortunately it comes without guitarist David Hackney, who passed away in 2000 from lung cancer, but his replacement Bobbie Duncan keeps his spirit alive in the music throughout their newer tracks as well as the various older songs that David co-wrote back in the 70’s.
The end result is an interesting blend of their 1970’s energy and spiritual sensibility with a modern production flair and a few decades of musical growth under their belts. They still manage to rip through each of the record’s ten tracks, showcasing their vocal grit, the importance for their incredible foundation of rhythm, and some of the purest guitar work to grace a genre that contains the word “punk”. They waste no time getting started either, opening track “Relief” chugs and pounds its way to its first pause for a spectacular guitar solo with a raw energy that is undeterred by the passing of four decades.
With that time jump, however, comes moments to glance at a lyrical capacity that was common during the band’s origins. The choruses here are rather simple, and lines such as “Detroit rocks!” and increasing to “The whole world rocks!” on the opening track are very basic in comparison to what makes up punk and its various sub-genres today. But as the record continues on, the use of vocals throughout isn’t meant to be as important as what it is now. The messages are straightforward in order to coincide the complex, brilliantly all over the place instrumentation. “Story of the World” creates a spectacular blend of these elements as it goes from an acoustic guitar opening with Bobby declaring “The world will never be free/the world will never have peace/the world will never be free/because we are not one” to a high-energy proto-punk barrage that uses the chorus as a chance to catch a breath.
The band makes a habit out of having fun as they bounce through tracks like the chug-filled lead single “Look At Your Life” and the short and summery “Playtime”, the latter feeling like an homage to the short period of warm weather that is typical in Detroit as well as their new home in Burlington, Vermont. One of the best songs of the bunch, “Who Am I?”, manages to create a blend of melodic tones across the board that range from the combination of guitar and drums at the beginning to the inclusion of Bobby’s vocals that start with the first chorus. As the song goes on he also experiments with tone shifts, and by the end you’ve experienced a track that feels like a precursor to the first Foo Fighters record.
Perhaps that’s what most magical about N.E.W., other than the fact it exists in 2015. It’s a collection of songs brought about by an unpredictable interest and appreciation for a band that was one of the forefathers for how we experience underground rock and punk today. Going through this record is like a history lesson, introducing aspects of raw rock and roll that have since become commonplace. The price of entry isn’t high either, in fact Death manages to make their older material work great outside of 1970’s Detroit. Yes, you might find yourself chuckling at the occasional simplistic and cheesy lyric, but it won’t keep you from enjoying a trip through time.