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Music Review: Death – …For the Whole World to See

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Someone has definitely spiked the water in Detroit. The Midwestern town has been spouting caustic sonic thunderstorms non-stop for the past 40 years, including big and bad, don’t-take-the-piss-out-of-me cretins The Stooges and party animals-cum-garage blasters Dirtbombs. But sometimes amid the pandemonium of rock ‘n’ roll emanating from the Motor City, some incendiary acts are inevitably obfuscated and exiled from the musical canon. And yet, coming into light like Lazarus from the grave, rises the overlooked and uncompromising proto-punk-incendiary spatter from power trio Death with …For the Whole World to See (Drag City Records).

Not to be confused with the Florida extreme metalists with the identical moniker and branded the Detroit equivalent of Bad Brains, Death was formed in 1971 by Hackney brothers Bobby (bass, vocals), David (guitar) and Dannis (drums), originally starting out as an R&B group named Rock Fire Funk Express (terrible), but David urged the group towards a harder, pulsating and relentless brand of punishing riff-based punk after they got their mind blown witnessing shock-rocker ghoul and local favoriteyou guessed it Alice Cooper.

Though their eclectic mix of spitfire punk and hard rock might be viewed as visionary today, the band were just, according to Dannis Hackney, “three black brothers playing straight-up white rock” amongst puzzled listeners expecting something like Earth, Wind and Fire. The guys signed to Groovesville (home to funkadelic George Clinton and the Parliaments) with Brian Spears recording some miscellaneous cuts, but they didn’t make it big until Clive Davis of Columbia records (yeah, that guy who signed Iggy in 1972) phoned Spears saying they might have a hoity toity record deal if they’d just change their name. David, in a moment of utmost bad-assery, answered Spears: “Tell Clive Davis to go to hell.”

The band only saw the release of their single, “Politicians in My Eyes/ Keep On Knocking,” before disintegrating, but now Drag City has recuperated and put out the remains of their unfinished debut album (recorded in 1976) to do exactly what the band had intended to do: have the world see Death!

The first thing you hear when you pop the record is the grainy strum of David’s guitar summoning the unruly masses of destruction. Then it hits you: the anthemic, driving crunch of “Keep On Knocking,” with its soaring lead guitar and vocals served with a side of ‘tude. Perpetual and persisting, the song presages the long and inward journey towards the hard kernel of Death you gotta go in deeper, friends.

“Rock n’ Roll Victim” is a furious blitzkrieg of chugging guitar carried on by hi-hat-heavy drumming before squeezing into a screeching chorus that kicks the whole apparatus into seventh gear. A short-lived chorus, chock-filled with reverberating hand claps, finally drives the song to implode, giving space for the come-down track, “Let the World Turn,” a ditty that begins as a shimmering arpeggio with tender yet slightly haunting vocals. The band then picks it up and locks into a Funkadelic groove that breaks down into a frantic romp, featuring a prog interlude and a revving drum solo that cascade back into the smooth dealings of the beginning before once again returning to their rampage.

In the album’s most devastating cut, “You’re a Prisoner,” the Hackneys pull out all the stops with an ultra-tight backbeat, a boisterous bass line and some crushing mondo-distortion that punctuates your soft-addled grey matter and obliterates the sound waves with it’s angsty chorus. If that weren’t enough, the band shifts the whole structure, suddenly, into mathematical riffing for a moment, throwing your balance out the window and quickly reinstating aural annihilation.

Do not be confused: Though the boys have the punk pat down to a T, they also make room for the catchy. In their proto-Ramones track, “Freakin Out,” which is ultimately offset by pulsating screams “or am I freakin’ out?” opens with a pastiche of cacophonous ruckus before whipping out a gattling, gun-power-chord downstroke. The follow-up, pounding cut, “Where Do We Go From Here,” materializes with a dueling bass lick and soul-singing before it starts galloping with madman drumming into an epic-inspired chorus that breaks down into catchy yet surreal and playful guitar phrases.

The album’s closer is the band’s first single, “Politician’s In My Eyes,” a bass-thumping, muted scream against the bloodthirsty mitigators of dirty power relations that predates the punk drumming of ’80’s. All of this slips the mind, though, once its overtly dramatic chorus breaks into Thin Lizzy territory when Bobby’s howling croon fades into echoing psychedelia before getting lost in the mix of an all-out-riffing finale and feedbacking into oblivion.

Lyrics are frustrated and maniacal, from the hate-fest of the closing track “They could care less about you/ They could care less about me…Sending young men to die” to rather agnostic utterances in “You’re A Prisoner.” Every structure is torn down, first by pulling the tenets of rock ‘n’ roll to its most brutal extreme and then questioning its history and symbolism, yelling out to listeners, “Are these feelings really real?” Not only challenging structures with violence but their audience as well imploring listeners to “freak out” these refuseniks don’t take it easy at all.

The album’s production is definitely something of note. David’s guitar cuts through the mix with grit reminiscent of early punk groups such as Dead Boys, but the lead parts come off more like Sly and the Family Stone. The bass does its own harmonic numbers with sufficient punk and the demented drumming (including the resonating cymbals) are picked up with clarity. It goes without saying that the cornucopia of added guitar parts will leave the headiest of hard-rock fans happy (and how!). What’s fascinating is how instruments and vocals are given different levels of reverberation, adding depth or width at discretion and will but, at times, growing echoes lead to an inevitable realization: the void of death.

The band forces an insuperable reality unto listeners, battling the danger or hard rock with yet another challenge: even more danger. Songs spiral toward the vortex of existential nothingness, detonating its surroundings with swaths of sonic fuzz. While most bands delay an album’s conclusion with filler cuts, Death recognizes that such a fantasy screen is trash and that everyone must pass through the turmoil of destruction at some point. It is not that life is interrupted by death, but the opposite; life is an accident of death.

While the uncompleted album still leaves us audiophiles with a desire for conclusion and a lengthier cultural artifact the album barely clocks in at 27 minutes …For the Whole World To See is the missing evolutionary link between MC5 and CBGB punk rock with a fearless bit of Sabbath thrown into the mix. It is a extraordinary album, threatening, violent, challenging and, goddammit, it has that feel-good and relentless vibe that rock ‘n’ roll gives its devoted minions that makes ‘em break things. For lovers of punk and hard rock, Death is essential.

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About Enrique Olivares