Heavy metal, back when bands actually shrieked about defiling groupies instead of Satanic surgical procedures, was always in the running for music's most misogynistic genre. It remains, overwhelmingly, male-dominated. But since the beginning — and maybe now more than ever — strong metal women have put up their dukes and got down to it.
Birtha Birtha ABC Heavier than other early female hard-rock acts Goldie and the Gingerbreads or Fanny, this physically fit L.A. foursome were the first all-woman metal band to reach the big leagues. They specialized in blooze of the Big Brother/Joplin school, but the '60s were dead and gone. So their 1972 debut's highlights are the big-booted, hard-funking rockers "Free Spirit" and "Too Much Woman (For a Hen Pecked Man)" — the latter about not settling for a wimpy guy — plus some brutal Uriah Heep–style organ doom called "Judgement Day."
Heart Little Queen Portrait Nancy Wilson wasn't metal's first lady guitar hero — that'd be April Lawton, of Mitch Mitchell's post-Hendrix outfit Ramatam. But Nancy and her singing Vancouver sister Ann — joined here by four un-macho men whose names everybody forgets — were certainly metal's first lady superstars. And though Heart's bicentennial album features plenty of Celtic folk, some samba, and one overheard baseball game, the three toughest cuts ("Kick It Out," "Little Queen," and tooth-baringly vengeful Zeppelin rip/future Sarah Palin theme "Barracuda") still grab your throat and won't let go.
Girlschool Hit and Run Bronze Think of Motörhead's sister band as the missing link between the Runaways and Donnas — two groups of all-female rockers who received more media hype, but never made an album this killer. Girlschool's second, released in 1981, defines Britain's concurrent New Wave of Heavy Metal as a greased-leathered go-go-go hybrid of biker, glam, and punk: only the closer exceeds four minutes, and the gender-bent blitz through ZZ Top's butt-rockin' "Tush" clocks in at 2:16.
Precious Metal Right Here, Right Now Mercury Give or take Vixen or Lita Ford, hair metal was too populated by boys dressed as girls to leave room for the real thing. But that didn't stop these five California gals from getting in on the subgenre's ground floor and outstomping Mötley Crüe. Unashamedly bubblegum, making no attempt at badassness, and built from girl-group hooks and Diddley beats that roll as much as rock, this 1985 curiosity might be metal's happiest album ever.
The Gathering Mandylion Century Media As the '80s turned '90s, "troo" metal thrashed and grinded ever meaner, uglier, more insular, more "extreme." But then, come mid-decade, certain Continental European bands opted to get gorgeous instead. Depressive Dutch death-metal wizards the Gathering hired full-voiced Anneke van Giersbergen and commenced to travel through time, conjuring serene Wiccan ceremonies spiked in Amsterdam hash while name-checking Cleopatra and Chaka Khan across spacious expanses of sea, sand, and prog-dirge thump.
Various Artists Sirens Sonic Cathedral/The End The Gathering's goth-feminization of metal opened the bewitched floodgates: Evanescence, Flyleaf, Nightwish, and Lacuna Coil owe them their careers. As do several of the 15 Euro-dominated bands on this 2005 "exclusive sampler celebrating the female voice in metal." But the best acts here add intriguing twists — Peccatum's Middle Eastern undulation, Cirrha Niva's organ-grinder passion play, Subterranean Masquerade's smooth-jazzed psych-blues, Star of Ash's spooky drama, Madder Mortem's staccato muscle, and After Forever's monster-opera march-step.
Bottom You're Next Small Stone Slow and low was the tempo for this down-tuned San Francisco–via–New York City power trio, whose no-dudes-allowed sludge synthesized sundry inscrutable shades of stoner rock, cemetery gunk, riot grrrl, Seattle Sasquatch plod, and Lower East Side noise. They made three albums from 1999 to 2005, all on different labels, each artier than its predecessor. Their third veers from desert drone ("Testimony of the Mad Arab") to jackhammer clank ("Memories of Orchard Street").
Christian Mistress Agony & Opium 2O Buck Spin The Brothers Grimm nightmares of Brooklyn's Made Out of Babies are a scream away from being Otep for hipsters, but other corners of the female metal planet are heading in a more traditionally heshing beer-and-denim direction. A good sign, where the power-belting of Christine Davis and her dual-guitared Olympia, Washington combo are concerned. This 2010 debut makes for one kick-ass demo. Given a production budget, Christian Mistress might rule the world.