As lousy as it is to deal with the disappointment of an old favorite going on to offer up, ah, let’s say “less than stellar” work, it’s far, far worse to have to write about that disappointment and its basis. For some time I thought that would be the case with Armored Saint’s first record since 2000’s Revelation (an album a decade, whether they’re ready or not), but I finally seem to have come around. So the relevant question is whether I’ve talked myself into liking this one. The answer? I really don’t think so. But I do know that I wouldn’t have given this album nearly as much time if it didn’t have the Armored Saint name on the cover. The same name that’s on the cover of four “absolutely have to fucking own and play regularly, even after all these years” albums.
La Raza’s hard rock and modern heavy metal isn’t exactly my usual fare. I usually regard those that add “modern, melodic” in front of “traditional metal” with as much disdain as someone that’s trying to add Coke to my bourbon–it just ain’t what I showed up for, and it usually ruins the taste. But giving La Raza the benefit of the doubt allowed it time to work its charms. While digesting the immediately gratifying heavier, more straight-ahead numbers like “Loose Cannon,” the title track, “Bandit Country,” and the insistent “Head On”, it eventually became hard to resist slipping into the laid-back groove of the aptly named “Chilled” and “Blues”. And it would have been easier to write off some of the borderline questionable melodic choices (see the verse of “Off the Fence”) if I didn’t find myself humming them incessantly throughout the day. No doubt, there ARE a couple of moments simply beyond the pale (“Little Monkey” is the greatest offender), and the Saint could have edited this effort a bit and still had more than enough material.
The performance and musicianship here are excellent given the style, and frankly, that’s a difference-maker. John Bush is fantastic, as you’d expect him to be, and bassist Joey Vera shines as well. His bass lines do much more of the heavy lifting than the style requires, and he contributes plenty of melodies of his own, as well as frequently propelling the tracks during some of the heaviest moments. Gonzo is an excellent partner, and the two still make a formidable rhythm section. The guitar work of Jeff Duncan and Phil Sandoval avoids flashiness and outright heft, but is almost always fairly interesting and is without a doubt classy and polished, especially in the solo work. In the end, La Raza may lack the edge and aggression the majority of our readers demand, and the album certainly isn’t mandatory, as the first four Armored Saint records are. But the fact is that this record is pretty damn successful at what it sets out to do. Aside from the longtime fans, those with an ear for contemporary melodic traditional metal and hard rock could do far worse.