Death - N.E.W. - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Death - N.E.W.

by Rich Morris Rating:7 Release Date:2015-04-20

Of all the bands to benefit from the advent of the internet, 70s Detroit proto-punks Death are perhaps the greatest success story. Languishing in marginalised obscurity until the dawn of the 21st century, the band formed by the Hackney brothers in 1971 are now feted by punk rock linchpins like Henry Rollins and hailed as harbingers of the punk movement. Following Drag City’s reissuing of their back-catalogue, Death (minus founder David Hackney who sadly passed away in 2000) are finally ready to release new material.

Opening track ‘Relief’ gets the album off to a frantic and triumphant start. An irresistible slice of head-bangin’ hard rock, it sounds like Sly Stone fronting Judas Priest covering Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’, while its refrain of “Relief, relief, relief/ Rock ‘n’ roll!” is as gloriously dumb yet articulate as anything The Ramones committed to record.

Unfortunately, second track ‘Look at Your Life’ rather squanders the momentum by building itself around a simple, endlessly repeated riff and dragging it out for over four minutes. On initial listening, I actually thought the song was on a loop thanks to several false endings and the fact the tune barely changes at any point. Maybe this was a positive choice to reflect the images of stagnation in the lyrics, but it just makes for a dull and annoying song.

The sound switches to folk-rock for the intro of ‘Story of the World’ before tumbling drums and thrashed guitars unleash the aural equivalent of a barroom brawl. Then comes another abrupt switch, this time to the kind of smooth cool-cat rock ‘n’ roll Lou Reed used to specialise in. Changes in tempo and style typified classic Death tracks such as ‘Politicians in My Eyes’. Unfortunately, ‘Story of the World’ doesn’t really tie together, but at least it’s lively and keeps you on your toes.

‘The Times’ and ‘Playtime’ rock efficiently and grittily, the former sounding like California punks X and the latter, one of the album’s highlights, unexpectedly like early Aerosmith. ‘At the Station’ sounds like New York Dolls doing their best version of The Rolling Stones appropriating Robert Johnson, before suddenly turning into operatic metal at the end. Given the fact that the members of Death are African Americans, perhaps this counts as black guys taking back the music white men stole, but then maybe I’m overthinking it.  

‘Who Am I?’ is perhaps the most modern-sounding track here, in that its downbeat garage rock recalls The Strokes, The Radio Dept. or TV on the Radio. Similarly, ‘Resurrection’ canters forward on minor-key but melodic pop-rock, while the band’s vocals on the chorus are pleasingly soulful. However, ‘You Are What You Think’ is possibly the album’s low point: unnecessarily fiddly metal coupled to hectoring self-help lyrics.

Like fellow proto-punkers Electric Eels, Death sound rough and ready, like a bar band on the edge of spiralling out of control. The production on N.E.W. is a no-frills rock blast, helping to make this record sound convincingly like the real deal, rather than some old rockers enjoying a long-delayed but well-deserved lap of honour.

Final track ‘Change’ seems to sum this album up nicely: “Change/ but stay the same.” N.E.W. sounds like classic Death. Seeing as the band were ignored and forgotten for so many years, that in itself is enough of an achievement. David Hackney co-wrote songs on this album, and it’s a fitting tribute to him. N.E.W. is definitely patchy but for fans and recent converts, what matters is that this unbowed and defiant band is still rocking as hard as ever. 

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