“I would’ve loved to sing like Ozzy. But these horrible noises came out of my throat instead!”
When it comes to metal’s unsung heroes, Sabina Classen deserves to be near the top of the list. As vocalist with Holy Moses, she’s spent four decades leading the charge for women in (extreme) metal, with scabrous roars and screams her trademark.
Formed at school in the late 70s in Aachen, Germany, they may not have had the same global impact as their countrymen Kreator and Destruction, but their vocalist is an undisputed underground icon and, as Hammer discovers chatting with her today, one of the loveliest human beings in the entire metal scene. It certainly helps that, as Sabina explains, becoming perhaps the first aggressive female vocalist in metal was an accident.
“My boyfriend Andy [Classen] joined the first Holy Moses line-up and we’d hang out at their rehearsal space,” she remembers. “Their bass player, Ramon, was the founding member, and he kicked the singer out because he looked too much like a hippie! Ha ha! Then he said to me, ‘Sabina, you sing now!’ I was shocked. I said, ‘I can’t sing, I’ve no idea about singing!’ But he was insistent, so I took the microphone and did this deep growl, just to show him that I couldn’t sing, ‘See? Only this fucking noise is coming out!’ But he said, ‘That’s it!’”
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Four decades on, Sabina still seems shocked by her transformation into a metal vocalist. Holy Moses were all still at school when they started to pick up local shows and a small but loyal fanbase. Heavy metal was only just beginning to establish itself as a genre as the 80s dawned, and thrash was some years away from emerging as a major force. Sabina and her bandmates didn’t even consider that they might be able to make a career out of music.
“We had no ideas about getting a record deal. For me, only big bands like Black Sabbath and AC/DC had deals. So we’d just rehearse after school and write the songs. We had friends from school and friends from Belgium and Holland, and they came to our rehearsal room and eventually they said, ‘We want this on tape!’ So they pulled out this old- school tape recorder and taped what we did at rehearsal. We played shows and sold the tapes for five German Marks, and it was other people that sent those tapes to record companies. And then we got signed. It was totally crazy.”
Holy Moses signed a deal with Bochum-based AAARRG Records in 1985, just as thrash was becoming an unstoppable phenomenon. Although noticeably less commercial and considerably snottier than their US counterparts, German thrash was beginning to have significant impact internationally, too, with the country’s own emergent Big Four – Destruction, Kreator, Sodom and Tankard – all flying the flag for Northern European brutality. Not that Holy Moses knew it, however.
“In our small city, where we started out as a school band, we knew nothing about the other bands or anything else!” Sabina chuckles. “Once we got that deal, we got in contact with the guys from Sodom, Destruction and Assassin and all of those bands. They already had real merchandise but we were still doing it all by ourselves. So they taught us a lot.”
Recorded at Phoenix Studio in Bochum, Germany, in 1986, Holy Moses’ debut album, Queen Of Siam, remains an anomaly in the band’s now-extensive catalogue. In contrast with later albums, their earliest songs were neither particularly fast by the standards of the mid-80s nor as precise as metal was becoming. Nonetheless, the scabrous, raging likes of Necropolis and Walpurgisnight were vastly more intense and extreme than the majority of hard rock and heavy metal available in the early-to-mid 80s, with Sabina’s voice a fundamental part of their vicious appeal. Recalling the album’s recording, Sabina pulls a face of discomfort, noting that even after a few years of fronting Holy Moses, she felt completely out of her depth in this new environment.
“It was a horror!” she frowns. “They put me in a separate room to do the vocals. I couldn’t believe having music in my ears through the headphones and not being able to see my guys! I didn’t know anything! It was all the songs from the demo tapes from ’81 and ’82, but everything sounded totally different on real tape with a real production, so we all had to learn a lot and quickly. We definitely learned that all of our songs were way too long! Ha ha! The producer cut everything. He’d keep saying, ‘You have to cut this, because that riff comes back again and again and again!’”
Sabina becomes misty-eyed when she thinks back to Holy Moses’ first taste of success in the late 80s. After following up their debut with the skull-shattering fury of 1987’s Finished With The Dogs (“We wanted to play a lot faster and we rehearsed with a metronome!” laughs Sabina) and the more sophisticated The New Machine Of Liechtenstein in 1989, they became a permanent fixture on the European touring circuit and a genuinely big deal in Germany, Holland and Belgium in particular. For Sabina, it was a magical time, never to be repeated.
“We had so many great times and great tours. I particularly loved the tour we did with [US crossover icons] D.R.I. and [cult LA thrashers] Holy Terror in ’87 because it was our first time meeting the bands from the States. The guys from D.R.I. helped us a lot and the shows were totally crazy. They were all sold out. I remember Berlin and Hamburg, where the fans were going so crazy when we played, it blew me away. In my heart we were still a school band! I couldn’t believe that so many people wanted to listen to the crazy noises that we made.”
Although she is unerringly modest, Sabina is aware that she is regarded as a true pioneer for women in heavy music. When Queen Of Siam hit the streets back in 1986, aggressive vocalists in metal were becoming increasingly common, but Sabina was arguably the only high- profile female screamer around. More than three decades later, she allows herself an occasional inward glow of pride for kicking open the door for her metalhead sisters.
“Now, after all these years, I can be really happy to have done what I did, making that first step to do it,” she nods. “When I started out there were no girls in the audience! So something changed and now, when I look at the scene and listen to bands like Arch Enemy with Alissa [White-Gluz] and many other young girls, they could all be my kids! I’m nearly the grandma, you know? I’m really proud that I followed my instinct. Now I can see how much success girls can have in metal, I’m happy that I helped to pave the way for that.”
A six-year hiatus during the 90s aside, Holy Moses have continued to make music, most recently with 2014’s utterly crushing Redefined Mayhem album. They’ll celebrate their 40th anniversary in 2021. These days, Sabina spends much of her time either working as a psychotherapist or, rather charmingly, working with horses. But her passion for metal has never wavered and continues to inspire her on a daily basis.
“I studied psychotherapy and now I work with my clients, so I do have another life,” she smiles, eyes twinkling. “But in my heart, I always felt I needed the music. Without it, I wouldn’t be the same person I am now, working with my clients or working with horses. It’s an unbelievable energy that I get from it. Metal makes you feel like you can do anything. It’s a community and it has power. So I’ll do it as long as I can do it.”
In truth, it’s a little hard to equate the fiery, near-demonic figure Sabina cuts onstage with the humble and self-effacing soul that we speak to today. But make no mistake, this living legend has plenty of fire in her belly and is ready to scream again when the moment is right.
“I was riding my horse earlier today and I rode into the woods where it was really dark,” she muses. “At first I was afraid, sitting on my horse in the dark wood, but at that moment I thought, ‘No Sabina, feel like you do when you’re onstage. Be that Sabina! You can cope with a festival playing to 100,000 people so you can manage your horse now!’”
Published in Metal Hammer #330