(Metal Blade 2015)
Calling Armored Saint heavy metal survivors would be a massive understatement. The long-running L.A.-based old-school outfit began its illustrious career back in 1982 when brothers Gonzo and Phil Sandoval, along with guitarist Dave Pritchard (R.I.P.), formed the band as students at South Pasadena High School. But Armored Saint have endured and thrived against far greater adversaries than the simple passage of father time. They’ve survived their singer being lured away by bigger bands, the death of a key member, changing musical climates, and the partially self-imposed purgatory of originality. Call it a sort of curse, if you will, but Armored Saint have always possessed and embraced their own original style of traditional U.S. metal. In the process, they were often lost in the gristmill of the metal scene’s marketing machinery. Considered too heavy for the L.A. glam-metal crowd and too melodic for the thrashers, mainstream success largely has eluded the band.
That said, Armored Saint have persevered against all adversaries to maintain a relatively small-but-loyal cult following worldwide. Much more importantly, they have continued to create consistently quality metal that is as soulful as it is aggressive and powerful. Their newest album, Win Hands Down, is a triumph in every sense of the word. The band – consisting of drummer Gonzo Sandoval, bassist Joey Vera, guitarists Phil Sandoval and Jeff Duncan, and vocalist John Bush – have managed to release an album that is dynamic, engaging, and original, no small feat in this day and age of extreme market oversaturation and copycats. These songs ooze urgency and passion, carpe diem seeming to be the mantra of the proceedings. Not only is Win Hands Down easily the best Armored Saint album since 1991’s outstanding Symbol of Salvation, it gets my vote for one of the top albums of 2015.
Many factors combine to culminate in the musical tour-de-force that is Win Hands Down. First off, the playing on this disc is downright fierce. Each musician in Armored Saint is an absolute master of his craft, and the production maintains the metallic crunch in the guitars without blowing out eardrums through over-mastering. Bush still sounds like his somewhat gravelly-throated self, but he performs with a range and power here that transcends much of his previous work. Lyrically, the band smartly eschews typical heavy metal clichés in favor of insightful personal statements and social commentary. For instance, songs such as the title track, “Muscle Memory,” and “In an Instant” tackle the overarching theme of perseverance over great adversity, while “Mess” attacks the culture of gluttony and waste in American society, and “An Exercise in Debauchery” skewers porn addicts: “Will you come out of this phase/is what I ask of myself/It’s your addiction to smut, man/you really need help.” Perhaps these lines don’t quite compare with the poetry of Poe or Keats, but they get their point across in a simple-and-concise manner.
Musically, Armored Saint possess an uncanny knack for showcasing subtle stylistic diversity while never straying far from their straight-ahead, no-frills heavy metal style. Sure, most of the album’s nine songs fall within the mid-tempo range, and bouts of exhilarating speedy guitar riffing are restrained to brief bursts. Surprises abound here, however, for the discerning and adventurous listener. For every cascading drum fill, glorious Thin Lizzy-esque guitar harmony, and galloping palm-muted riff, the Saints throw-in a stylistic curveball. Case in point: the opening riff and chorus to “Mess” sound almost funky before launching into a brief and dreamy Middle-Eastern sitar interlude. I could almost hear the jaunty, syncopated main riff to “Debauchery” being performed as a horn chart in a 1940s big band. On “Muscle Memory,” the gorgeous, minor clean-guitar arpeggios introduce us to a moody and soul-stirring track. Gentle acoustic strumming gives way to crushing distorted chords and gripping vocal melodies in “In An Instant,” while the dark and jazzy piano intro lend the magnificent ballad “Dive” an eerie feel.
But as much as Armored Saint have succeeded in creating an authentic piece of musical art, what matters most are the songs. From the anthemic and catchy opening title track, to the gripping and dynamic “Muscle Memory,” to the pummeling juggernaut “With a Full Head of Steam,” to the inspiring call to arms, “In An Instant,” Armored Saint have left us a collection of truly fantastic and memorable tunes. Back in the 1980s, the Saint once asked us, “Can U Deliver?” The decided answer is, “You bet!” Now, I’m (mercifully) out of hyperbole. I’ll conclude with this: Win Hands Down is the most aptly-titled album ever.
. Review by Jonathan Kollnot