A few months ago an industrious fellow created the MP3 blog Female Fronted Heavy Metal: 1976-1989, an absolutely jaw-dropping collection of 13 downloadable mix CDs featuring 245 different bands from metal’s classic era. Back around 1984 the notion of a woman performing heavy metal was still a novelty to many, but we metal fans back then were certainly no stranger to such artists. We knew of what we thought were a good number bands with female musicians: Girlschool, Rock Goddess, Lita Ford, Lee Aaron, Bitch, Madam X, to name a few, but as a 14-year-old, I had no idea that was just the tip of the iceberg. Hell, marveling at the aforementioned blog this past January, even at the age of 40, I couldn’t believe the wide, vast array of metal bands with women singers there were, especially from 1976 to 1983. Going over the lists of obscure band names and sampling so much music I’d never heard before, it was astonishing how so many good bands went by virtually unheard. The trouble was, back in the early-‘80s, women in metal lacked a true trailblazer to help lead the charge.
Sure, there was old NWBHM standby Girlschool, but their sound had gotten a little passé, their best music already behind them. Husky-voiced Lee Aaron’s racy video for “Metal Queen” was played constantly in Canada and Europe, but despite that unforgettable anthem she was more of a hard rock singer at heart. Ex-Runaway Lita Ford was in all the magazines, but at the time she only had a couple of middling solo albums and was largely published as a pin-up with minimal stories about her music. Rock Goddess, led by the talented Jody Turner, could never match their scorching 1983 debut. In the following years, Metal Blade touted Betsy Bitch and her eponymous band, but the music never achieved anything more than a cult following, while Sabina Classen’s excellent Holy Moses always remained a below-the-radar band. What metal needed was not only a woman with the voice and charisma that could convey the same level of power and bombast as the men out there, but also a band behind her who could match that presence with songs that were just as potent.
Enter one Dorothee Pesch, a diminutive teenage blonde bombshell from Germany with a voice for the ages. After mucking it out with a couple of bands called Snakebite and Beast that went nowhere, she joined Düsseldorf outfit Warlock in1982, a band whose star would rise dramatically over the course of five years solely based on the talents of its five-foot-three frontwoman. Not only would Doro Pesch help put a significant crack in metal’s glass ceiling thanks to her phenomenal singing voice – a raw, raspy, multi-octave scream with a vibrato most singers would kill for – but she would be the first female metal “celebrity” to receive a lot of media attention and use it to her advantage. Yes, she was pretty, and the fact that the metal press would emphasize her photogenic quality was inevitable, but flip through any old magazine from the era and you’ll see those photos and posters of Doro and Warlock, and you get the sense that she was fully in control of her image. She wore leather, studs, and spandex like the guys did, but it was clearly on her own terms. With that distinct, inimitable voice and the persona she created, what Doro projected most of all was empowerment.
Warlock lasted in name only until 1988, with managerial hassles and a continually rotating band lineup playing a big part in keeping the band from achieving the fame they nearly had, but it did yield four studio albums ranging from very good to excellent. Three of those records, 1985’s Hellbound, 1986’s True as Steel, and 1987’s Triumph and Agony, have just been reissued by the terific Polish label Metal Mind in a limited run of 2000 copies featuring expanded digipak artwork and liner notes, and although they’re not seminal Teutonic metal classics in the vein of Scorpions’ Taken By Force, Accept’s Restless and Wild, and Destruction’s Sentence of Death, they’re still well worth revisiting, if only to hear the great Doro Pesch in her prime.
Before taking on those albums, however, Warlock’s debut Burning the Witches definitely begs mentioning as well. In contrast to Pesch’s first demo with Snakebite, for instance, Warlock sounded like a fully-formed band in 1984. With guitarist Rudy Graf and Peter Szigeti as songwriters, with Pesch co-writing here and there, Warlock faithfully followed the classic “German metal” formula set by Scorpions and Accept. In other words, it was traditional heavy metal that combined strong melodies, fierce, sharp, taut riffs, and a strong knack for speed from time to time. It was a perfect backdrop for Pesch to work with and flaunt her vocal power, which she wastes absolutely no time doing on the record.
Starting with the “Fast as a Shark”-inspired “Sign of Satan”, Pesch makes her presence known instantly. Her charisma is impossible to miss, her vocal phrasing on the entire album impeccable enough to make the dodgy production a non-issue. It’s a truly dominant performance, ranging from the Motörhead style “Homicide Rocker”, the shattering ballad “Without You” that echoes early Judas Priest, to the humorously titled, mid-paced fist-pumper “Hateful Guy”. That said, the strength of the rest of the band can’t be overlooked, as Graf and Szigeti show remarkable dexterity on “After the Bomb”, while the murky, groovy “Dark Fade” echoes the menace of Mercyful Fate with surprising effectiveness. As far as early-80s metal debuts went, Burning the Witches to this day makes a striking first impression.
From its frustrating, comically smoke-blurred cover photo to the music therein, Hellbound, meanwhile, is a slightly stranger album that finds Warlock starting to tentatively move toward what would be regarded as its “definitive” sound. The end result is a record whose reverb-heavy tone (including the massive drum sound that was so in vogue at the time) retains the bite and snarl of the debut thanks to producer Henry Staroste and German studio legend Michael Wagener handling the mixing. However, we also find the band streamlining its sound somewhat; while the speed of Burning the Witches still makes sporadic appearances, the emphasis here is more towards mid-paced material, the bulk of which being catchy arena anthems.
It starts off as a very bumpy ride, through no fault of the songwriting. The title track echoes Judas Priest’s “Freewheel Burning” in its rhythm guitar riff during the verses, while Pesch employs a harsher howl than before, but is marred by some very distracting fake crowd noise tossed into the mix. If your album’s not called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, odds are that such a stunt will fail. An even worse fate befalls the otherwise catchy “All Night”, as the flagrant overuse of synths in an attempt to make the 1985 album sound “modern” makes it feel painfully dated a quarter century later.
Thankfully the rest of the album recovers from that initial setback. The fun “Earthshaker Rock” is a goofy little rave-up with broken English lyrics so earnest it’s impossible not to be charmed (“State of shock! / Metal rock!”), and has since gone on to be a concert staple for Pesch to this day. Her commanding presence dominates the hostile “Down and Out”, while her delivery on the shock rock-inspired “Time to Die” is inspired, her screams raw and primal. Of the two bonus tracks included on the 2011 reissue, “Hellraiser”, previously available on the 1999 Earth Shaker Rock compilation, is the most interesting, a slow, grinding little jam unlike anything the band had attempted before.