New Album Barely Revives Death
The compelling story of Death continues with N.E.W., their first recorded material in 40 years. At a time when disco and Motown soul was taking over Detroit, a trio of black brothers formed a band when they were teens in the 1970s. They called themselves Death, playing Alice Cooper-inspired, fast-paced garage rock — a prototype of punk before the movement took off. During their five-year lifespan, the Hackney brothers pressed a few demo tracks but the record labels denied them for their morbid name. Decades later, the lost recordings surfaced to new ears thanks to a few Drag City reissues and the 2013 documentary, A Band Called Death. But without David Hackney, the trio’s core songwriter who died in 2000, Death produce a 10-track album that barely revives their primitive punk sound.
A small, cherry-picked selection of moments offers the same raw ferocity and urgency of the band’s earlier work. Pinpointed and precise riffs, start-stop synchronization, and passionate yowls match the intensity of the original recordings. But the band fruitlessly tries to make important statements with tracks like “Look At Your Life,” “The Story of the World” and the track title pairing of “Who Am I?” followed by “You Are What You Think.” Not helping their cause, lyrics like “Playtime, lose control / Get out in the sun, have a little fun / Play a little rock and roll” come off as vapid. But when they engage in serious-mode, vocalist Bobby Hackney gets too theatrical, namely on the dramatic last bit of “At The Station” as he describes natural landscapes that sounds more like a parody.
In 2015, Death is not a veteran band informed by a generation’s worth of new strains and crossover elements in punk. N.E.W. is the product of long-time musicians dusting off their hard rock chops and taking a break from the R&B and reggae that has kept them busy these last few decades. Even if they are past their prime, Death is celebrating their fresh, newly-formed fanbase, and this becomes evident with the enthusiasm of gang-shouted lyrics like, “The whole world rocks!”
Unfortunately the album serves as a mediocre attempt at keeping the name alive, bogged down by quasi-profound topics, goofy lyrics and songs that take themselves too seriously. While Death never earned an audience during their original incarnation, this new record is their one shot at proving that we should have been listening all along. Without N.E.W., Death would have lived on as the unlikely legend of three black brothers who molded punk before the Ramones. A shame that N.E.W. is a limp entry in this band’s storied history rather than a triumphant return.