BLACK DEATH — Black Death (review)

BLACK DEATH — Black Death album cover Album · 1984 · Heavy Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
4/5 ·
siLLy puPPy
Black metal has become one of the most popular and shapeshifting forms of the entire metal universe starting out as a form of Satanic reverie with heavy distortion and muddy lo-fi production conjuring up the sonic demons that have taken over the entire planet, however before Bathory, Mayhem and Darkthrone, there was another type of black metal altogether and although it’s loud and obnoxious like any good metal should be, this type of black metal wasn’t quite the facepaint and tremolo picking in praise of Satan type. This distinct style of black metal began all the way back in 1977 by a band called BLACK DEATH. I call this black metal because this was in fact the world’s first band where every member was an African-American thus technically this was the world’s first black metal band! Stylistically, this was more in the vein of the classic 80s sound and emulates bands like Judas Priest and other NWOBHM metal bands but it does evoke a sense of evil in the vein of early Mercyful Fate.

After the death of Jimi Hendrix who pioneered much of what would evolve into hard rock and heavy metal, it was surprising that very few musicians of African descent gravitated to the style. A few bands such as Thin Lizzy found a front man in the form of Phil Lynott but a heavy rock band consisting of ALL blacks? Unheard of until BLACK DEATH came along. While this Cleveland, Ohio band holds that title of first, claims have been made by the Los Angeles based Sound Barrier, another all African-American band that was around during the same early 80s period. True that Sound Barrier released its debut album “Total Control” in 1983 a year before BLACK DEATH released its eponymously titled debut, however BLACK DEATH was formed three years earlier and released three demos starting in 1981 as well as appearing on the 1983 various artists compilation “Cleveland Metal.” The band’s first recording “Outcast” found some airplay on local radio in 1980.

So the clear winner of this disputed claim belongs to BLACK DEATH which formed in 1977 with Greg Hicks (guitar), Phil Bullard (drums), and Clayborn Pinkins (bass). Guitarist and vocalist Reginal Gamble aka Siki Spacek filled the lineup in 1978 however Pinkins was murdered in 1979 and after a brief stint with a replacement finally ended up with Darrell Harris as the bassist that would form the lineup on the band’s one and only album that emerged in 1984. Musically BLACK DEATH was in that stage where 70s hard rock had upped the tempo and the distortion and created a grittier guitar riff based mayhem that was part Black Sabbath, part Judas Priest, part Mercyful Fate and part epic early US power metal in the vein of Brocas Helm or Manilla Road. The mix while not always seamless was powerfully performed with heavy driving guitars and bass and a stellar drumming style of Phil Bullard. The band cranked out a true headbanger of an album with seven strong melodic tracks that was released with the earlier two track EP “Here Comes The Wrecking Crew” as a 7” 45 RPM.

If there is a weak link it’s clearly the vocal style of Siki Spacek whose style takes a little getting used to but he actually has a fairly eclectic range. While he mostly performed in a brash bravado with a heavy growly voice almost Motorhead-esque in style, on “When Tears Run Red” he sounds a lot like Vince Neil from Motley Crue while on “Fear No Evil” he plays up his best Rob Halford and King Diamond. The album unfortunately didn’t lead to much success but showcases an amazingly diverse set of tracks with the lengthy nine minute closing title track bringing the more epic approach to its full climax. The band had a knack for crafting cleverly tight compositions that maintained a strong sense of melody, an even stronger range of dramatic metal fortitude and clearly had its hands of the pulse of the current metal scene by soaking in as much into their own style. Sadly the band wouldn’t be able to take things to the next step and the world would have to wait a few more years for Living Colour to emerge as the first successful all black heavy rock band.

For all its metal cliches and classic period feel, BLACK DEATH could certainly crank out the classic 80s metal like any other. This is a beauty of a beast that is heavier than the contemporaries. Although the band sounds like Judas Priest at times, the stellar bombast of the percussion gives this a fuller metal sound than the classic Priest albums of the era. What’s really cool is how BLACK DEATH takes the different Sabbath sounds and trades off with Priest, Manilla Road and Mercyful Fate. While the styles aren’t completely integrated into their own style quite yet, the tracks still emerge as addictively satisfying listens and this album has surprisingly grown on me. Despite the fact that these guys are all African-American, you could never tell from simply listening to this album. This album is as bad ass as any British invasion band that was emerging. While it may be a mystery as to why more black musicians don’t join the ranks of the metal world, it’s really cool to hear a band like BLACK DEATH that did just that and cranked out one truly impressive album styled in early 80s classic heavy metal and did it so well. Oh, the production is weak, but in my opinion gives it that awesomely authentic underground rawness, so i actually like it that way. Don’t miss this one, it’s better than you would think!
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