ARMORED SAINT – Punching The Sky (2020)
Leaders and stalwarts of the American Metal scene since the early 80s, ARMORED SAINT‘s upcoming new album ”Punching The Sky” sees them returning hard. A diverse, attitude-drenched collection, it’s everything the band’s faithful have come to expect from them while pushing their signature sound forward.
ARMORED SAINT 2020 is more classic hard rock than metal, more melodic than aggressive, and all extremely well arranged and interesting. So melodic hard rockers, this album is for you too.
“The goal is to write really good music. I know I’m stating the obvious here but that’s about the size of our agenda,” says bassist Joey Vera. Exploding to life with the crunchy, rousing “Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants” and not letting up until the closing ruthless riff of “Never You Fret”, the record is possessed of an urgency and vigor which very much places it in the right now, but could only be the work of Vera, guitarists Phil Sandoval and Jeff Duncan, drummer Gonzo Sandoval and vocalist John Bush. “When you’re a band that began four decades ago, you really have to push yourself harder than ever when it comes to making a new record,” states Bush. With Vera acting as producer, he recruited the same engineering team that worked on Win Hands Down with drums recorded by Josh Newell at El Dorado Studios in Burbank, CA, guitars tracked by Bill Metoyer at Skullseven studios in North Hollywood, CA, and vocals, bass and additional recordings by the bassist at his studio. The record also features a few guest musicians, with the sound of Uilleann Pipes, Patrick D’Arcy and Guns ‘N’ Roses keyboardist Dizzy Reed.
Armored Saint is like that comfortable pair of jeans you’ve held onto forever, steadfastly ignoring the badly frayed cuffs, rips, and discolorations that accumulate over a lifetime of wear and tear. They’re a familiar and reassuring part of your life and you’ll brook no talk of replacement. These overperforming underdogs have been delivering their hard scrabble, punchy take on heavy metal since their 1983 EP, and through the 37 years since then the only things that have really changed are their hairlines. For people that came of age with the band, there’s something extra special about a new Armored Saint record and it always feels like a reunion with old friends. It’s been five long years since they last checked in with Win Hands Down, but eighth album Punching the Sky makes up for the long wait and then some. In fact, this is their best and most consistently killer outing since 1991s Symbol of Salvation, bearing all the trademark Saint sounds but with added bells, whistles, and most importantly, armor-plated balls.
The way things open with what sounds like Irish folk music, you’d be forgiven for initial confusion, but “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” quickly shifts toward the classic Saint sound, with beefy guitar leads and pounding drums slowly gaining ascendancy. Soon thereafter the powerhouse bellow of John Bush makes its welcome appearance and we’re off to the races. And what you get is one of the band’s best songs in their long career, and when the chorus hits it’s a world class slobberknocker – catchy as poison ivy and sure to resonate extra deeply with those over the age of 35. Bush brings the thunder, imparting a working class muscle and grit that few others can, and this song will stick in your head like a butcher knife. That they follow up such a triumph with another cut of equal greatness is even more impressive. “End of the Attention Span” is everything I love about Armored Saint cranked up to 11. Aggressive riffs undergird fierce, pissed off vocals as the band vents their collective spleen at the world of social media and 5 second attention spans.1 This is another song that ranks among the best the band’s ever done and I’m highly impressed.
The goods keep on coming with diversity of approach and consistency of quality. “My Jurisdiction” and “Do Wrong to None” are hard-nosed rockers with biker bar attitudes and winning choruses. “Lone Wolf” sounds like a lost hit from Symbol of Salvation and “Missile to Gun” is another one for the Saint pantheon, loaded with piss, vinegar and testosterone. This one is born to be played live, as demonstrated on their very good record release concert stream.2 Elsewhere, “Fly in the Ointment” bears a striking resemblance to Alice in Chains and contains a highly earwormy chorus, and “Unfair” reminds of the ballads Bush did with Anthrax and it gets better and better with every spin. The only song that feels a little underwhelming is “Bark, No Bite,” but even that has a pretty infectious retro sound, paying homage to 70s rock acts like Thin Lizzy with loads of sweet guitar noodling. At 53:34, perhaps it would have made sense to drop it, but Punching the Sky is still great with it, so it’s a small matter. Add a great sense of flow from track to track and you have something that wins hands down.
This is a highly seasoned lineup and most of them have been playing together since their high school days. The guitar interplay between Phil Sandoval and Jeff Duncan is first-rate and they’ve managed to curate and preserve the Saint sound amazingly well over the years. They churn out riffs that are instantly recognizable as “Saint style,” and they’ve outdone themselves here with some excellent riffing and harmonizing. Joey Vera and Gonzo Sandoval make up a very formidable backline and they add a big punch to every song, giving the material a really strong foundation. And what more can be said about John Bush at this point in his career? He’s credibly included in any discussion of metal’s best vocalists and his voice has held up uncannily well over the decades. He’s always been a favorite of mine and he proves himself all over again here, as if he even needed to.
When I realized I put 9 of the 11 songs from Punching the Sky on my Armored Saint playlist it was clear to me just how great this album is. This can hang with any of their first four albums and proudly hold its own. It absolutely smokes Win Hands Down and proves the band is as vital and creative as ever. Not too shabby for an act this long in the tooth. More balls, more brass, less hairline – how can you NOT root for these guys? Get in your punching stance and aim for the stars.
One of the best albums of the year so far.
01 – Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
02 – End of the Attention Span
03 – Bubble
04 – My Jurisdiction
05 – Do Wrong to None
06 – Lone Wolf
07 – Missile to Gun
08 – Fly in the Ointment
09 – Bark, No Bite
10 – Unfair
11 – Never You Fret
John Bush – Vocals (ex-Anthrax)
Phil Sandoval – Guitars (ex-Life After Death, ex-Royal Decree)
Jeff Duncan – Guitars (DC4, Odin, ex-Lostboys)
Joey Vera – Bass (Fates Warning, Mercyful Fate)
Gonzo Sandoval – Drums (ex-Helizer)
Patrick D’Arcy – Uilleann Pipes
Dizzy Reed – Keyboards (Guns N’ Roses)