In 2009, Detroit pre-punk band Death released its unfinished 1976 album For The Whole World To See—a short collection of songs that were written too early for their time. It was an eye-opening look at a power trio that had lost 30 years and a guitarist by the time anyone started paying attention to its music. Death, it quickly became clear, predicted a strain of loud and fast rock music that took over within a decade. Now, a new release titled Spiritual-Mental-Physical attempts to flesh out Death’s legacy through a series of demo tapes.
Ultimately, the half hour-long demo compilation resists canonization, mostly because it is the sketchbook of three brothers named Hackney playing music outside of their time but for their own amusement. Sometimes it is hard to say whether the songs are anything more than a few fun riffs that the Hackneys played for a couple of minutes. Spiritual-Mental-Physical is occasionally slight, and there are fewer developed ideas than a real album release; for every punk etching on the wall, there is an aimless jam that was undoubtedly more fun to play than listen to. The album ends in a three-track series that probably should not have been released, featuring each brother playing solos on their respective instruments.
But there are some interesting parts. Death existed outside the usual punk evolution, meaning that it also took cues from blues-rock and heavy metal—notice the riffy barebones shuffle of “Can You Give Me a Thrill???” and the feedbacked power chords in the short instrumental “People Look Away.” There are twinges of gorgeousness too, interlocking and repeating lines of guitar and bass improvising over the other in short wisps of tracks interspersed between the garage punk bangers. Intriguingly, sonic effects are sprinkled throughout—little tape whistles, guitar bends, low-end rumbles. Evidently, in addition to predicting garage punk, Death also brushed against the surface of much of the experimental guitar-based music of the next two decades or so.
Death was a tragedy—in a landscape of R&B, arena rock, and little in the middle, Death played the music that made sense to its members. Spiritual-Mental-Physical is not a vital or revelatory collection of songs, but it sheds light on what could have been. There are the seeds of potential here, in a band that accidentally coughed up punk rock in between jam sessions.