(Tryangle Records / Drag City Records, cassette, CD, digital download, vinyl)
There's a revealing song couplet toward the end of Death's new record, N.E.W., the band's first album of new material since the 1970s. Almost buried on the album's B-side — if you're listening to the vinyl version, that is — it begins with "Who Am I?" Over stinging guitar licks and a driving backbeat, vocalist Bobby Hackney Sr. wonders aloud, "Who am I? Where am I? How did I get here?" Later, he admits disillusionment: "Somehow I've lost direction. / I can't make no connection. / I'm living in a movie. / Nothing seems real to me."
For most people, saying you're living in a movie is a euphemism. Not Hackney. He and his family were catapulted to fame by the 2012 indie documentary A Band Called Death, which chronicled the rediscovery and subsequent rebirth of his 1970s protopunk band, Death. His life, and that of his brothers/Death cofounders Dannis and David Hackney (as well as his sons, who formed the Burlington band Rough Francis in honor of Death), were projected on the big screen for the whole world to see, like the title of the long-lost Death record that raised the curtain on their unlikely story in 2009.
But fame comes with a price. For all the adulation Death received, there was also skepticism. Critics picked apart later archival releases, Spiritual-Mental-Physical (2011) and Death III (2014). The notion that Death were truly "punk before punk was punk," as asserted by the New York Times in 2009, was debated and questioned. It's been reported that the late David Hackney, Death's visionary, always knew the world would come looking for his music. And he was right. But how could he have known the circus would come, too?
In 2015, Death stand at a crossroad. You can only revel in the past for so long before the rest of the world moves on. Are Death just a feel-good story in sparkly jackets, or something more? Who are they? Where are they? How did they get here?
The answer might come from the track following "Who Am I?," "You Are What You Think." Centered on a spastic guitar riff and agitated vocals that recall their signature song, "Politicians in My Eyes," "You Are What You Think" is the most Death-ly of the album's 10 cuts. But that's not solely because the song evokes the style of its earliest recordings. It also captures the band's seminal fire. Perhaps not coincidentally, "You Are" is followed by another statement track, "Resurrection."
Whether or not you think Death were punk progenitors, they were certainly a revelation. Three black kids in a working-class Detroit neighborhood playing music that black kids in Motown in the 1970s weren't supposed to play is pretty damn punk. It gave the Hackneys a chip on their shoulders that was evident in their music. It would be unfair to expect Death to possess that same ferocity some 40 years later. But, especially when they set their focus on the present rather than reliving the past, which they do frequently on N.E.W., it's clear that Death's righteous fire still burns.