It seems age is no obstacle for many of the heavier bands of yore. Earlier this month, Blue Oyster Cult released an album that was better than anyone could have expected. And while not quite as long in the tooth, here come Armored Saint, with just their eighth studio album in nearly forty years. Can they deliver?
Armored Saint’s last album, Win Hands Down, was released in June 2015 – two months before I started reviewing albums. It’s been a while. Amazingly, the band’s lineup has been unchanged for over thirty years, and the comfort level they have with each other, the songwriting maturity, the knack for earworm arrangements, it’s all in play here on Punching The Sky.
The opening 1-2 punch of “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” and “End of the Attention Span” stand up to any pair of traditional metal songs released this year. The riffs are killer, the band pushes the energy levels, and John Bush belts out the verses with his trademark sly, cooler-than-it-should-be style. Impeccable production doesn’t hurt at all.
Elsewhere, “Missile to Gun” features the album’s best intro. This is a song (along with others mentioned here) that should earn a well-deserved place on many best-of playlists. And closing track “Never You Fret” offers more quality fist-pumping, with a harmonized riff, super vocals, and more awesome lead breaks – something that occurs with regularity throughout the record.
Throughout the album, bassist Joey Vera (also the main songwriter here, and the bassist for Fates Warning, who have an album of their own dropping in two weeks – busy guy!) shows he is equally comfortable in the producer’s chair as he is in front of a bass stack. This album kicks and punches with an organic aggression that hits the sweet spot. None of the drums are over-quantized, the harmony vocals in the choruses are spot on, and the mix is impeccably balanced. This album could be a lesson in modern metal production.
Musically, Phil Sandoval and Jeff Duncan deliver killer riffs and searing leads much as we have come to expect over the years. Vera and drummer Gonzo Sandoval are as tight and punchy a rhythm section as there is, and John Bush might be the only human being on the planet whose voice has not changed over the last forty years. Play March of the Saint and Punching The Sky back to back and you’d swear they were recorded on the same day. He might not go for the high notes anymore, and he might have a bit more edge to his voice, but he remains a preeminent vocalist.
Weak spots are hard to discern. “Bark, No Bite” could likely have been left off the album, and at times the song choruses can be a bit awkward – “Bubble” being the primary culprit here. These are minor nitpicks on an otherwise tremendously strong album.
While Armored Saint’s last two albums, La Raza and Win Hands Down, were both enjoyable, Punching The Sky is a step up, and one of the band’s finest efforts – certainly their best since Symbol of Salvation. This is traditional heavy metal at its finest, and you owe it to yourself to give it a spin.
(released October 23, 2020 on Metal Blade Records)
Heavy Music Headquarters Rating:
Watch Armored Saint – “Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants” Video