Metal is in many ways unrecognizable to people who’ve been listening to it since its earliest days. A brief history lesson: heavy metal, as it was originally called, evolved out of the bluesy hard rock of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the music of bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Grand Funk Railroad, Cactus, Sir Lord Baltimore, Ted Nugent, etc. But it didn’t become its own thing until the latter half of the 1970s, with albums like Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Sabotage, and more crucially Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules (after original vocalist Ozzy Osbourne had been replaced by Ronnie James Dio, formerly of ex-Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore‘s band Rainbow); Motörhead‘s Overkill, Bomber, and Ace of Spades; Judas Priest‘s Killing Machine (aka Hell Bent for Leather) and British Steel; and Iron Maiden‘s self-titled debut and Killers.

These were the albums that triggered a worldwide explosion. And in the early 1980s, heavy metal was in its glory. Songs were written to get fists pumping and heads banging, and they might have been faster and heavier and louder than more mainstream rock, but they were recognizably still rock songs. The genre had not quite achieved self-awareness yet. That happened with the arrival of Metallica, and more broadly thrash, which led to death metal, and grindcore, and doom, and black metal, and everything else that contributed to the louder-heavier-harsher-noisier arms race that’s taken us up to the present day, when the cutting edge of metal is barely recognizable as music at all. Dissonance and hyper-complex compositions, not to mention crushingly assaultive production, have all combined to make metal much uglier and more alienating than it was in the beginning. Which is fine, but a lot of metal fans seem to have forgotten — or never known at all — that it didn’t start out that way.

Marta Gabriel is the singer for Crystal Viper, a traditional power metal band from Poland whose albums Legends and Queen of the Witches have been reviewed here in the past. Crystal Viper are all about celebrating the sound of metal as it existed between 1980 and 1985 in a totally unironic, fist-pumping way. They released an album at the beginning of 2021; it’s called The Cult and it’s inspired by the writing of H.P. Lovecraft. It’s good, but Gabriel clearly had something else up her sleeve, as she’s just released Metal Queens, a collection of cover versions of songs by early ’80s metal bands with female singers.

The album features Gabriel on vocals and bass guitar, Eric Juris from Crystal Viper on guitars, and Cederick Forsberg from Crystal Viper and Blazon Stone on drums. There are special guests on three songs: Jag Panzer and Titan Force singer Harry Conklin duets with Gabriel on a version of Chastain‘s “Light in the Dark,” Riot V singer Todd Michael Hall appears on the Blacklace song “Call of the Wild,” and Raven bassist John Gallagher plays on the Rock Goddess song “My Angel.”

Unless you’re 50 or older, and even if you are, there are a bunch of songs here that might as well be originals. I don’t remember Acid, Blacklace, Zed Yago, Rock Goddess, Malteze, or Hellion, and even Chastain is only familiar to me as a name. There are also versions of songs by Canadian singer Lee Aaron and former Plasmatics leader Wendy O. Williams, though, and I remember hearing both of them in the early ’80s. (Aaron put out an album this year.) I was surprised not to see a song by the German thrash band Holy Moses, but perhaps they came too late, not releasing their debut until 1986.

Metal Queens begins at a gallop, with a version of the Belgian group Acid‘s “Max Overload,” a proto-speed metal track from 1983 not that far away from Accept‘s “Fast as a Shark” or something similar. It’s one of those songs metal bands used to write about how metal they were and how hard they were going to rock you; it’s a perfect album opener. That’s followed by the slower, heavier “Metal Queen,” a theatrical, Dio-ish track originally recorded by Aaron in 1984. “Call of the Wild” is another speed metal sprint, with Gabriel and Hall trading off lines and harmonizing on the choruses and Juris delivering screaming old-school leads and solos.

The stylistic variety displayed across the 11 tracks on this album is powerful evidence of early metal’s creative vigor. There are epic ballads, clenched-fist thrash tracks, and songs that chug along with an almost punk-rock energy. The version of Wendy O. Williams‘ “Goin’ Wild,” from her 1986 album Kommander of Kaos, starts off almost romantic before exploding into a raw howl of lust. Gabriel, whose voice is normally clean if slightly gritty, does a great job inhabiting the late Williams’ hoarse rock ‘n’ roll howl, honed in punk clubs with her first band the Plasmatics.

The album’s penultimate track is one of its fastest, a blinding speed metal version of “Reencarnación” by Santa (Saint), which Gabriel sings in credible, theatrical Spanish. And it all comes to a close with her flamethrowing take on “Mr Gold,” by Warlock, the band that first introduced the world to Doro Pesch, who went solo in the late ’80s and maintains a cult audience today.

Marta Gabriel is a woman with a vision. She’s been leading Crystal Viper since 2006, when she was just 22. Her original music is powerful enough to make her metal bona fides unquestionable, and yet her love of the genre drove her to make this album, to pay tribute to the women who came before her. It’s not just an admirable gesture, it’s a really fucking good record that will thrill headbangers who remember the originals, and might convince young fans of the glories of the old ways. (OK, probably not.)

Phil Freeman

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