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First Listen: Death, 'Death III'

Death will release the archival collection <em>Death III</em> on April 22.<em> </em>
Tammy Hackney
Courtesy of the artist
Death will release the archival collection Death III on April 22.

The Detroit band Death spent a chunk of the '70s making vital music that went almost entirely unheard for decades. Inspired in part by Alice Cooper, brothers Bobby, David and Dannis Hackney made furious, hooky proto-punk music that existed alongside bands like the MC5, yet never reached an audience. When it finally saw national release back in 2009, Death's music seemed to emerge from an alternate-universe canon.

Five years ago, ...For the Whole World to See surfaced as a frequently masterful lost album from the mid-'70s, and the years since have spawned a second collection of recordings (Spiritual, Mental, Physical) in 2011, a documentary (A Band Called Death) in 2012, and now a decades-spanning compilation titled Death III. Taken together, they paint a picture of a group that deserves its new-found place in rock history.

Given that its nine songs span nearly two decades — these recordings were made in 1975, 1976, 1980 and 1992 — Death III can't help but project an odds-and-ends vibe. Two tracks, "Introduction by David" and "First Snowfall in Detroit," are instrumental, while others convey the raw feel of home demos. But the recordings still capture the creativity of the minds that made them: From 1980, the skittishly paranoid "North Street" chronicles the perils that await the have-nots in Detroit, while "We Are Only People" spends nearly nine minutes transforming from a trippy, meandering seether to a boldly rocking epic.

Until recently, Death's story was one of obscurity and disappointment: an aborted major-label record deal, ill-fated attempts to regroup as The 4th Movement in the late '70s and, most sadly, the death of guitarist David Hackney from lung cancer in 2000. It took bassist Bobby Hackney's sons stumbling across some tapes in the family attic for Death's story to even begin to be told, but now there's a true archive to complement its amazing resurrection. As anyone who's seen the reconstituted Death on the live stage can tell you, it may well be time for some new recordings — welcome additions to an unlikely story that almost went untold.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)
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