Spiritual • Mental • Physical
(Drag City, 2011)
When Drag City rolled out the first batch of Death material, it was a revelation. Out of nowhere, the masters for an obscure pre-punk collector’s gem found their way into the venerable label’s capable embrace, and so they did their best to right the wrong committed by Columbia Records in the early 1970s. Columbia refused to release the record when Death refused to change what the suits considered an unmarketable band name, and so what would’ve been a rock music game-changer (ironically titled For the Whole World to See) faded into obscurity. So powerfully ahead of its time, so energized and catchy, it’s amazing that a mere pigheaded label could spell the end, but so it did, and so did it cheat Death out of opportunities then present and future. Thirty-plus years overdue, the release of that album and the following critical amazement inspired the surviving members of Death to perform and record once again, although that comeback has only just barely gotten started. In the meantime, rather than wait for their proper stab at a follow-up, Death and Drag City decided to keep our enthusiasm fluffed with Spiritual • Mental • Physical, a modest platter of the dusty shelved demos that might have been nurtured into songs for a follow-up thirty years ago.
As it turns out, “demo” is a somewhat generous term for a number of the tracks collected here. Some were made in a proper studio, some on a two-track reel-to-reel stereo recorder, and none apparently demonstrate a full song ready to be rerecorded in earnest. A few are instrumental, including 90 seconds of lone bass riffing called “Bobby Bassing It”, and a separate, isolated two-plus minute drum take labeled “Dannis on the Motor City Drums”, both of which beg the question, was it really necessary to release this? The answer is a resounding no, especially given that Death’s story is now poised to enter a chapter in which such false starts will hopefully be rendered irrelevant. The fact that it was even necessary to pad a basket of rough sketches with filler to stretch it into the half-hour range of running time makes it hard to justify this release as a standalone product. Had these recordings been discovered before the LP For the Whole World to See, it still wouldn’t have made much sense to release them on their own, although they would have made for a fascinating Disc 2/“extras” package.
That said, for a pile of thoroughly nonessential snippets, Spiritual • Mental • Physical does nevertheless succeed in indicating that Whole World was no fluke, and that Death could’ve been a contender; they could’ve been somebody (and hopefully still will). If you’ve already turned For the Whole World to See completely inside out and cannot wait another second for further exploration of this brilliant, portentous hard rock anomaly, you may be thrilled by “The View”, which presages the Red Hot Chili Peppers by about a decade. “The Masks” then centers itself on the rippin’est punk riff of the bunch, although it does also alternate into verses that are either homage, tribute, or flagrant rip-off of the verse to the Beatles‘ “Got to Get You Into My Life”, and then cuts off altogether when the singer either fumbles the lyrics or simply runs out of them. Vis a vis Whole World‘s “Let the World Turn”, SMP‘s “The Change” and “David’s Dream” both balance mellow psych vibes with the R&B/jazz Death at first imagined themselves making before Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop showed them the light, and both then wash suddenly out on tides of noise that suggest an unfulfilled experimental bent. These are fascinating moments. Inspiring, even. But to release these in such close proximity to the reunited band’s actual effort at a follow-up is a disservice that seems almost to bet that there’s no way they can improve upon the magic of the old days. That may turn out to be true, but we could have at least waited to find out.
Listen: Various tracks at Myspace"