If there were any justice in the world of rock n’ roll, the entire city of Detroit would have been given a Purple Heart decades ago for their massively influential fight-or-die mentality. Bands like MC5, the Stooges, and the recently rediscovered Death have been saving us from the soothing sounds of Perry Como since garages started having electrical outlets. Death was sending out vital pre-punk transmissions like the seminal “Politicians in My Eyes” years before Americans could buy an import of the Clash’s first record in 1977, but until the long overdue release of their first full-length album, 2009’s …For the Whole World To See, the trio had been unfairly wiped from rock’s collective consciousness.
Brothers Bobby and Dannis Hackney are now dusting off a batch of unreleased demos and session outtakes from immediately before and after the recording of their long-fermenting album. The band has undeniable horsepower, driven mostly by Dannis’s fantastic drumming, and that strength shows itself in a few key moments here, but the collection is unfortunately padded with half an album’s worth of inconsequential rehearsal extracts. It starts out well enough with “Views,” introducing a charmingly rugged garage-production value that pervades throughout the whole album. Persistent tape hiss and badly placed microphones are a constant, but they complement the vital physicality of the trio’s musicianship. The brothers aren’t purveyors of abstract or intricate musicianship, but their zeal and passion in executing robust, direct sonic assaults solidifies them as a band worth their recently earned place in proto-punk history.
Even though Iggy Pop is obviously Death’s creative shaman, the selections on Spiritual Mental Physical abandon his theme of frustrated isolation. In its place is a sheepish positive faith that hides under the band’s aggressive sound, a desire for people to be more understanding, more engaged, and more rational. That’s dangerously close to hippie-dom for a band that’s supposed to have helped invent punk rock, but the afros and smiles on the record’s cover are telling of the group’s disregard for labels. When people fail to be sensible, Death finds it as cause to be pissed off, which we hear in the quick scream of “People Look Away” and the bittersweet “The Masks,” Death’s answer to the breakup of the Beatles.
Predating the wave of punk-pop that swept over ‘90s suburbia by 20 years, “The Masks” is a standout both because it gleefully rips off “Got to Get You Into My Life” and because it’s the best example of Death successfully playing around with polyrhythmic tension. In one second we’re marching in step with McCartney’s iconic military rhythm and the next we’re tossed into a chaotic Detroit freak-out. It’s glorious. Death is at their best when they’re tossing back and forth between tight stop-start synchronization and balls-out noise, and “The Masks” is all about that volleying. Another gem is “Can You Give Me A Thrill???,” an expansive five-minute ode to groupie sex that finds Death subscribing to MC5 and the Stooges’s practice of creating rock songs that are longer than two minutes without losing any venom.
Besides those few highlights, though, Spiritual Mental Physical is stocked with a lot of stale and unfinished product. “The Change” is a lagging studio experiment that displays the psychedelic residue in Death’s sound, and the collection’s last four tracks are all throwaway snippets of incidental noodling. If you sift through all the rubble, you’ll find a few diamonds, but the rampant filler here makes for a record that will probably end up collecting its fair share of dust on your shelf. It’s a shame, too, because “Can You Give Me a Thrill???” and “The Mask” could have made for a killer 7” in its time.