I've been an obsessed hard rock/heavy metal fan and collector since the early 1980s. If it's got a good guitar riff and attitude, I'm in.
"Black Death" (1984)
Original release: Auburn Records, 1984
Reissue: Hell's Headbangers Records, 2017
In the first "Wayne's World" film, there's a very funny scene where Wayne and Garth ask the doorman at their local rock club what bands are playing that night, and he responds, "The Jolly Green Giants and the Sh*tty Beatles."
Wayne asks, "The Sh*tty Beatles? Are they any good?" The doorman says, "Nah, they suck."
Wayne then says, "Oh, so it's not just a clever name?"
This bit was actually quite similar to how I found out about Cleveland's early '80s cult heavy metal band, Black Death.
True Black Metal!
Many years ago, the Friday-night heavy metal program on my local rock radio station played "Night of the Living Death," by a new band I'd never heard before called Black Death. It sounded like a grimy, garage-band version of Judas Priest, and the singer's high pitched screams and yowls caught my ear instantly when he demanded that listeners "Lock your doors and kick your parents out" and "Turn your box up louder! LOUDER! AAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!" I used to record highlights from this show onto a cassette each Friday, so I listened to that track over and over again for the next several weeks, headbanging to the crunchy riffage and trying (unsuccessfully) to imitate those shrieking, over-the-top vocals.
After a few months, I'd almost forgotten about the song, until I found an article about Black Death in a metal magazine and saw their photo for the first time. As it turned out, Black Death was very appropriately named, because the band was comprised of four African-American musicians— vocalist/guitarist Siki Spacek, bassist Darrell Harris, guitarist Greg Hicks, and drummer Phil Bullard. This certainly made them unique in the mostly lily-white heavy metal scene of the day. (With a history dating back to 1977, Black Death also laid claim to the the title of first-ever all-black heavy metal band, beating out L.A.'s Sound Barrier by about three years.)
Black Death's notoriety in the metal underground proved to be brief. Their self-titled debut album, released in 1984 on the Cleveland-based, tiny-but-true Auburn Records label, was a minor cult sensation but never made much of a splash outside of their home area. Their album went out of print and Black Death's name soon became little more than the answer to a trivia question for die-hard metal heads with long memories.
Thanks to the internet and YouTube, Black Death's music began casting a new spell on lovers of obscure heaviness at the dawn of the 21st-century. Several unofficial CD "reissues" of their lone album appeared during the 2000s, but they were cheap bootlegs not sanctioned by the band. In 2017, the metal archivists at Hells Headbangers Records gave the material the attention it deserved by finally releasing the first-ever authorized reissue of Black Death on CD and vinyl. This snappy new deluxe version features two extra songs ("Retribution" and "Here Comes the Wrecking Crew") from a limited, bonus 7-inch single that was included with the original LP. As soon as I put this disc in my CD player and "Night of the Living Death" came roaring out of my speakers, it felt like 1984 all over again!
"I Don't Think You're With Me!"
Black Death is steeped in the leather-n-studs tradition of Judas Priest and Black Sabbath, with some nods to the fast-n-loud sensibilities of the then-new thrash scene and a hit of punk rock. (Siki Spacek's screams of "turn it up louder!" echo the MC5's immortal call to "Kick out the jams, motherf***ers!") In addition to the aforementioned "Night of the Living Death" (which is still my favorite B.D. song), other strong tracks include "Streetwalker," "The Hunger" (a doomy Sabbath style dirge that would make Tony Iommi proud) and the speed burner "Scream of the Iron Messiah," which also sports one of the most abso-freakin-lutely METAL song titles ever created.
Be warned, the vocal stylings of Siki Spacek might be an "acquired taste" for some listeners, especially when he goes for a high pitched wail (ala Judas Priest's Rob Halford) but can't quite reach it. Otherwise, the playing and performances on Black Death are rock solid. The only song that I didn't particularly care for was "When Tears Run Red (From Love Lost Yesterday)," a droney break-up song that goes on way too long for its own good (hell, even the title is too long!). The bonus cuts "Here Comes the Wrecking Crew" and "Retribution" are great listens too, with lots of fast-n-furious guitar squealing and Spacek screaming his ass off throughout.
All in all, Black Death is a true time capsule, capturing an era when underground metal was still wild, weird, unhinged and dangerous. Black Leather + Black Vinyl = Black Death. Still badass after all these years!
So Whatever Happened to Black Death?
The members of Black Death attempted to record a follow up album in the late '80s, but the project never got past the demo-tape phase before the band split up. Sadly, drummer Phil Bullard passed away in 2008.
In response to the renewed interest in their material, Siki Spacek and Greg Hicks both started new, competing "Black Death" bands in the 21st-century. This eventually led to a legal squabble over the rights to the moniker. Spacek currently fronts an all-new version of the band called Black Death Resurrected, which has released one album, Return of the Iron Messiah, in 2015.
© 2018 Keith Abt
Tim Truzy on March 04, 2018:
I must admit, I remember my metal days. Truthfully, I didn't listen to metal until I heard the great sample of Slayer's song on a Public Enemy track.
In any case, I thought all of these years that Living Color was the first Black heavy metal band, and I went to see them in college.
Although my metal days are long gone, this was an interesting article for getting the facts right. I love knowing music history - it helps a person connect with the youth of today when you can tell them, "Look, music crosses all lines. Yes, people of color did perform hard rock."
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on March 02, 2018:
This isn't my type of music, but interesting article nonetheless. =)
Dean Traylor from Southern California/Spokane, Washington (long story) on February 25, 2018:
Wow! Why I haven't I heard of them back in the 80s? Glad to see someone's resurrecting these lost bands and their tunes.