Monday, May 2, 2016

ARMORED SAINT "Win Hands Down"

(c) 2015 Metal Blade

  1. Win Hands Down
  2. Mess
  3. An Exercise In Debauchery
  4. Muscle Memory
  5. That Was Then, Way Back When
  6. With A Full Head Of Steam
  7. In An Instant
  8. Dive
  9. Up Yours
John Bush--Lead Vocals
Jeff Duncan--Guitars
Phil Sandoval--Guitars
Joey Vera--Bass, Vocals
Gonzo Sandoval--Drums, Percussion

Additional Musicians
Eric Ragno--Piano, Keyboards
Pearl Aday--Vocals "With A Full Head Of Steam"
Kayleigh, Jezebelle, Giuseppe--Vocals on "Up Yours"

Armored Saint is one of those bands that, unless you were TRULY into metal back in the 80s, you probably heard about but didn't actually hear.  Oh, sure, you might have heard an early song or two, most likely "Can You Deliver", and they may have owned the CLASSIC Symbol Of Salvation album, which I think is one of the 100 truly must-own metal albums of all time, but most people would likely be hard pressed to name a dozen Armored Saint songs...again, unless you are a true, dyed-in-the-wool metalhead.  

But you know what?  Armored Saint doesn't care if you've never heard of them.  They play because they love to play, and to heck with everyone that doesn't understand or believe.  You know how I know that's the attitude they have?  Because NO ONE keeps playing for 30+ years with little to no recognition unless they are in it for the love of the music and for what they are doing.  And that describes Armored Saint to a "T".

2015 saw the return of the Saint with what I consider to be one of their three best albums ever, in Win Hands Down.  Now that John Bush has returned to the band full-time following his long stint in Anthrax, the band has come out swinging for the fences, in my opinion.  Yeah, they released a couple of "okay" records while Bush was with 'Thrax, but Revelations was really nothing to write home about with the exception of "After Me (Comes The Flood)" and a couple of other above average tracks, and the new material on Nod To The Old School really did nothing for me.  But, with La Raza, the band took a solid step back in the right direction, even though I think that record lacked the focus and intensity of Symbol... or this newest record.  

Win Hands Down is a solid chunk of metallic hard rock that is excellent at its best and very good at its worst.  Kicking off from the very get-go with the angry screaming of Duncan's and Sandoval's twin guitars and Gonzo's thunderous drum sound, it is obvious that the Saint is here to kick some teeth in as the title track, "Win Hands Down" comes blaring from the speakers! A big, scream-along chorus, ferocious power chord grooves, and Vera's signature bass rumbling deliver on this traditional-sounding Armored Saint track that could easily have slid into the mix on Symbol Of Salvation, shoving its way into the mix right after "Dropping Like Flies" and just before "Last Train Home", in my estimation.  Even the atmospheric..dare I say trippy...interlude at 2:40 doesn't slow down this machine, as the ripping guitar solo at the 3:22 mark just blazes away anything resembling doubt about how great this track is!  Bush is in top-notch form vocally, and everything on this track works to near perfection!  

"Mess" has a bit of a throwback sound to the intro guitars, which is pretty cool, and the urgency here is undeniable.  Again, Gonzo has some massive drum lines in this track, backed up perfectly by Vera, and the guitars just chew through your ears all throughout the track.  The overall pattern and rhythm of the song is a bit odd, to be sure, especially going into the choruses, and there is some downright strange instrumentation used right after the first that a sitar???...but, again, it works for me and I really like the sonic experimentation here.

"An Exercise In Debauchery" is definitely an old school Armored Saint-sounding track with a much more accessible chorus than "Mess", and some truly frenetic guitar work throughout.  Vera gets the chance to step up to the forefront and drop some truly great bass SOLOING into the mix at about the three minute mark, which simply has to be heard.  

"Muscle Memory" is an interesting track, showing a band that has matured and has become introspective as it has grown longer in the tooth.  A bit more laid back in approach than the first three barnstormers, "Muscle Memory" has some cool guitar effects layered into their classic 80s metal sound, but the song is written with a wisdom and understanding of one's legacy that the guys in the band couldn't have even begun to approach in their younger days.  One of my favorites on the album, the song reaches Iron Maiden epic territory with its seven-plus minute running time, with hints of Ragno's keys being interspersed throughout and some cool percussion sounds thrown into the mix. 

"That Was Then,Way Back When" turns the pace back up a bit with a galloping, metallic rhythm guitar line and a straight forward drum attack, but it lacks some of the real grit and the teeth of the first few tracks despite the inspired interplay of Bush's vocals and a quirky solo section after the second chorus.

"With A Full Head Of Steam" is an interesting number, starting off rather sparsely with some simple bass rumbling and rim-shot drum work under a laid back guitar riff, only to burst forward in a...pardon the title-borrowing here...full head of steam as it charges into the first verse, which finds Bush trading off a couple of lines with Mrs. Scott Ian, Pearl "My Daddy is Meat Loaf" Aday, who sounds decent here with her husky-yet-still-feminine vocals, although she still pales compared to the powerhouse vocals of Bush.  The guitar solo here isn't typical Armored Saint material, and comes off as something far more modern than most of the other stuff on the record, although Vera's bass work is still something to behold.  Not a horrible song by any means, and it has some interesting time changes throughout the track, but this one took several spins before it really clicked with me.

"In An Instant" is a really strong track about the Boston Marathon bombings that packs a good deal of emotion, interspersing acoustic guitar sections with some equally hard-hitting, angry moments.  Again, this is a track that only an older, wiser Armored Saint likely could have written, and is one that shows not only the depth of the band lyrically, but also gives them a chance to stretch their musical muscle and step outside their normal metallic box.  A top 4 track for me on this record for sure.

"Dive" starts off with a really cool piano intro and Bush actually singing, rather than snarling, on a track that reminds me a LOT of some of the things Queensryche was doing with their slower, more progressive material on Empire or Promised Land.  The only true "ballad" on the album, "Dive" really impresses me with its ability to incorporate a new approach, experiment with atypical Armored Saint instrumentation, and a softer vocal approach from Bush.  Not saying I would want an entire album of this type of material (which I jokingly called "Armored Floyd" when I was describing it to a friend of mine), but as a stand-alone moment on this album, it works very well and I like it a lot.

"Up Yours" closes the record with the most acerbic, biting lyrics on the record and finds the band in a rather chippy mood as it finishes things off in rip-roaring fashion, even incorporating some screamed "up yours" chants from Bush's children, Jezebelle and Giuseppe (not sure who Kayleigh belongs to) into the final run through of the chorus.  Showcasing the fact that these "old guys" still have their chops, a raging guitar solo rips through the middle section of the track, leaving little doubt that while time may have matured the band from an overall songwriting stance, they are still metalheads at the core and are at the top of their game when they are snarling, spitting, and screaming in your face...up yours! 
The packaging is pretty good...for a digipack...grrrr....and the booklet contains all lyrics, thank you's, writing credits, etc.  There are no band photos, at least in the traditional sense, but otherwise its a nicely done package.

A great return for a criminally overlooked band, Win Hands Down easily made the top twnty albums of the year for me and is the album from the band I turn to most outside of Symbol Of Salvation.  If you haven't done so, seek out both of these albums immediately, and go ahead and snag March Of The Saint and La Raza while you're at it.

Rating:  Utterly crankable, Win Hands Down is a really, really good record.  Crank this to 8 with no hesitation!


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