I haven’t always been an Armored Saint fan. Hell, the only reason I ever heard about them was because Anthrax recruited John Bush back in the early 90s. For that matter, I wasn’t even really an Anthrax fan at that point. Sound of White Noise changed all that, and that led to picking up a copy of Saint’s Symbol of Salvation. Still a metal neophyte – “harder, louder, faster” was the credo – I was pretty disappointed, and eventually I sold it to a friend of mine who, as it turns out, had better taste than I did.
Eventually, thanks to the limbo Anthrax found themselves in around the turn of the century, Armored Saint regrouped to bring us Revelation. With a little maturity under my belt, I found a new appreciation for them. Catching them live on that tour was a revelation of its own; so much talent and pure energy on that stage. The songs I had once discarded now sounded anthemesque. What a fool I had been all those years.
As Anthrax picked back up, it would be several years before we’d hear from the Saint again. Their loss was our gain when they decided to return Joey Belladonna to the fold and cash in on nostalgia before it was too late. With La Raza, Armored Saint erased any uncertainty that may have remained in my mind. These guys were the real deal. Incredible vocals, quality songwriting, and zero pretense. They were working class metal for working class metalheads, and that spirit continues on with their latest effort Win Hands Down.
Wizards and warriors, hellfire and brimstone, chains and leather…all of these are themes that you will not find featured here, because for the most part, those things do not exist in the lives of John Bush, Joey Vera, Gonzo Sandoval, and Jeff Duncan. What you will find are ruminations on lives well lived and subsequently mellowing out; men of a certain age not afraid to use clichés like “water off a duck’s back” and “ripe like low-hanging fruit.” More to that point, Bush has been looking for – and found, we learn – “a perfect chair to park my derriere.” But no one ever said you can’t have a relaxed, nuanced view on life and still write kick-ass metal songs.
For all intents and purposes, the band puts their entire musical philosophy on display in “Muscle Memory”:
I want music to bring me down to my knees
make me sob like an infant, make me angry
rip me to shreds, glue me back up
make my mind explodeIf that isn’t a damn near perfect statement about what one should look for in their music, then I don’t know what is. I can’t say that Win Hands Down is having quite that effect on me, but it is one hell of a fun listen.
The opening title track is a straight rocker. I never thought the phrase “win hands down” would make for a fist-pumping crowd chant, yet the crowd at a recent live show proved me wrong (that happens a lot). It’s more blue collar than bullet belt, but John Bush makes it work; that guy could sing the phone book and make it sound like an arena anthem. “Mess,” meanwhile, is either a bit of biting social commentary, or an extended lament on the perils of dining at the Golden Corrals of the world (“The line at the all-you-can-eat buffet / will blow you away”). I can certainly relate to the latter notion. It’s all you can eat! Stop browsing – grab and move, then come back for more. “An Exercise in Debauchery” is a bit more serious in its talk of perverts and sickos, but the message is undercut somewhat by the energetic, rockin’ chorus.
Perhaps a different kind of growth characterizes the next couple of tracks. Clearly there is no acrimony between the Armored Saint and Anthrax camps, as Bush shares vocal duties on “With a Head Full of Steam” with Pearl Aday (a.k.a. Mrs. Scott Ian). Now this one is pretty badass, exactly what you think of when you hear “full head of steam.” The fast heavy main riff, the urgent vocal deliveries by both parties, electric leads… just scintillating. This one follows the intro/retrospective “That Was Then, Way Back When,” a tongue-in-cheek autobiographical account of a former superstar now stuck in an ordinary life, desperate to rekindle the glory days (“I can’t accept fact that I’m a has-been”). It’s not very likely that any of these guys sit around moping about their 80s heyday, but I’m sure there are those who think that’s what has been going on these past many years.
Things get a bit turbulent as the album nears its end. The part acoustic/part electric “In an Instant” is said to be about the Boston Marathon bombing; I don’t quite see it but the general idea of how life can change, well, in an instant, is readily apparent. “Dive” is a bit of a dark ballad, with its soft piano and vocal intro that includes that aforementioned line about having found a perfect chair. The rest of the lyrics are a bit more serious; suicide is no joke. Thankfully, they turn right around and crank the amplifiers back up for the closing middle-finger salvo of “Up Yours.” Always leave on a high note, right?
Win Hands Down is arguably the best of the albums Armored Saint has released since reconvening 15 years ago. Yes it’s a small sample size, and La Raza was damned good, but it’s close. The musicianship and songwriting are solid, and John Bush sounds as amazing as ever. If you like your heavy metal straight up, decked out in blue jeans, with lines in its face and grey in its hair, this is an album that you must hear – loudly and often.