Ruling the Ruins: Doro Pesch and Warlock Revisited

[22 March 2011]

By Adrien Begrand

PopMatters Contributing Editor

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.

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(Metal Mind; US: available as import; UK: 8 Mar 2011)

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.

Objects of Metal

By 1986, two significant things happened to Warlock: Graf was replaced by guitarist Niko Arvinatis, and the band inked a deal with Mercury Records in North America. With a bigger label behind them the band set out to create an album with the mainstream-friendly sheen that they desired, and Mercury responded in kind by making Pesch a metal media darling thanks to photo-heavy magazine spreads and especially the video for new single “Fight for Rock”. Gone was the heavy, frenetic style of the first two records; in its place was a sound more akin to American acts like Dokken and Lizzy Borden, a more even balance of headbanging riffs and hooks. Pesch especially made a significant transformation: rather than letting loose her banshee howl her delivery is a lot more controlled and dynamic, and for once not drenched in reverb, allowing the true power of her voice to surface. For a band bent on breaking into the US market, those factors were crucial, and over the next couple years it would yield modest Stateside success.

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True as Steel

(Metal Mind; US: available as import; UK: 8 Mar 2011)

True as Steel might not have the old-school charm of Burning the Witches, but it remains a charming little pop metal gem. The hooky, contagious “Fight For Rock”, for many of us in North America the first Warlock song we’d ever heard, remains one of Pesch’s defining moments on record. It’s not exactly heavy, but hard-edged with a catchy riff by Arvinatis, and boasting a powerhouse three minute performance by Pesch. Similar to Scorpions’ Love at First Sting and Dokken’s Under Lock and Key, the album sees Warlock incorporating a lot of clean guitar sounds to accentuate the main riffs, and the tactic work surprisingly well on “Love in the Danger Zone”, “Midnite in China”, and the aptly titled “Lady in a Rock ‘n’ Roll Hell”. “Speed of Sound”, “Mr. Gold”, “Vorwärts, All Right!” offer reminders that the band hadn’t completely abandoned its heavy metal roots, rounding out an album that has aged very well. Tacked on as bonus tracks are three songs from the rare Fight For Rock EP, which only makes the Metal Mind reissue more than worth picking up.

As good as True as Steel was, it merely set the stage for Warlock’s stab at the big time, but not before a massive overhaul that completely transformed the band. Now based in New York, Pesch, now main creative force in the band, replaced Szigeti and bassist Frank Rittell with a pair of Americans in guitarist Tommy Bolan and bassist Tommy Henriksen. And with Bolan as her main songwriting collaborator and producer, the reshaped band pulled out all the stops on album number four. The lavish artwork by Geoffrey Gillespie played up Pesch’s “metal goddess” persona, a pattern her solo albums would follow for the rest of her career, Bolan’s production would make for an impeccably polished record, and most significantly, it would boast the most famous single of Warlock’s career.

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Triumph and Agony

(Metal Mind; US: available as import; UK: 8 Mar 2011)

Looking back at Triumph and Agony it’s amazing to think how a band that had gone through so many different songwriters had remained so consistent. The transition from True as Steel to Triumph and Agony is seamless, and the album wastes no time in getting things going with the explosive, albeit lyrically absurd “All We Are”. Built around a chorus that celebrates the communal feeling of heavy metal in a mishmash of words that’s funny to read on paper (“All we are, all we are, we are all, all we need”), it nevertheless works because a) it’s so friggin’ catchy, and b) Pesch is simply indomitable, selling the hell out of the cheesy sentiment with a passion that’s infectious.

Triumph and Agony strikes a more even balance between aggression and melody than the previous album, as the first four tracks play up Warlock’s heavier side, the brooding “Kiss of Death” and the thunderous “I Rule the Ruins” (another future Doro staple) leading way. The rousing, fist-pumping “East Meets West” turns out to be a timely commentary on the eventual end of the Cold War, while “Metal Tango” is a concept so strange it had no reason to ever work, but Bolan and Pesch pull it off, taking the distinct cadence of the tango and turning it into a strangely effective heavy rocker. Capping off the album in style is the epic ballad “Für Immer”, easily the classiest power ballad Pesch and warlock ever pulled off. Four bonus tracks are provided, the best of which being “Under the Gun” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes”, a pair of songs that could have easily fit on the actual album. Triumph and Agony might not have broken any new musical ground whatsoever, but it was a well-deserved, modest success in America and Europe, and a minor ‘80s metal classic.

Sadly, that would be it for Warlock, in name anyway. Two more band members left, Pesch’s former manager sued for the rights to the name, and Pesch decided to forge ahead with her eponymous project Doro. The much-ballyhooed solo debut Force Majeure (1989) was a flop compared to Triumph and Agony, the tacky power ballad reading of Procul Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” a disastrous idea for a first single, and after that, Pesch’s American audience dwindled. Despite that terrible first misstep, though, Doro has gone on to have a wonderfully resilient career, yielding eleven albums, her popularity in Europe never waning. To this day Pesch is as electrifying a performer as she ever was, but as consistent as her solo records have been, it’s still those first four albums with Warlock that set the bar for the rest of her long career.

Today, women sadly continue to be treated, voluntarily or not, as objects in metal, the metal press doing little at all to stop perpetuating the stereotype, from writers who start off articles talking about how “hot” the singer is rather than how much merit the music has, to magazines putting talentless Hollywood Lolitas on their covers. However, for every Taylor Momsen and Kristen Randall, we get strong women like Angela Gossow, Laura Pleasants, and Mel Mongeon, who exude integrity in a scene still dominated by horny dudes, and they owe a lot to Doro Pesch, who stepped into that boys’ club and showed everyone that girls could kick as much ass, and often even more.

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