Thursday, June 4, 2015

Album Review: Armored Saint - Win Hands Down

They often get called one of the underground's legendary bands, but I have to say that I've never been enamored by Armored Saint. Their early work was fine traditional metal, but that's all it was. Maybe it was the fact that America wasn't pumping out tons of bands that played that kind of style well, but those records were good without coming close to great, and it seems their reputation has grown over the years more for being the 'true metal' home of John Bush, which gives a lot of fans the opportunity to praise his vocals without having to admit that Anthrax wasn't all that bad when he was in the band. Their last album, "La Raza", bridged the gap between their metal roots and Bush's more alternative rock days with Anthrax, but it was a record that failed on both levels. It wasn't heavy enough for the metallic moments, and wasn't melodic enough for the rock moments. It seemed like an album made by a band that didn't know where they were going.

This time around, with another five years of experience behind them, Armored Saint is a much more focused beast. "Win Hands Down" is the record that "La Raza" was trying to be, a more effective hybrid of traditional metal and hooky rock.

Kicking off with the title track, we get to hear that mixture right away. The main riff has a metallic bite to it, but the groove of the song is more rock oriented, with a chorus that is both hooky and traditionally metal chanted at the same time. It's actually interesting to hear the two approaches come together so easily. And when the song breaks down into an almost jazzy instrumental interlude, it shows that Armored Saint isn't backing down; this is the record where they're doing whatever they damn well please.

"Mess" is a bit of an appropriate title for a song that manages to have a slinky metallic riff, pounding drums, and then a section of what sounds like Indian music placed in the middle for seemingly no reason. I'm not saying it doesn't work, but there isn't much of a logical progression into or out of that section of the song.

"An Exercise In Debauchery" is the most metallic song, with plenty of energy running through the track. The title makes a bit of a difficult hook, but more problematic are the lyrics, which include lines like "your addiction to smut". I'm sorry, but there has to be a more elegant way of calling someone a sexual freak. But there's a very nice bridge after the solo that tilts the song back into the win column. I'm equally puzzled by the line "a perfect chair to put my derriere" in "Dive". It's highly questionable songwriting.

The problem with the record, and this will be odd to say about a band featuring John Bush, is the vocals. His actual performance is great; his voice sounds as strong as it ever has, but listening to an entire record where he is responsible for the vocal lines exposes his shortcomings as a songwriter. The hooks on these songs just aren't sharp enough to do the job he's shooting for. Too many of them are simple repetitions of the title, without much in the way of a lasting melody. That approach works from time to time, when there's either a remarkable title, or the energy of the song demands nothing less, but these songs are built to have strong melodies, and they just don't show up often enough. On their own, each song is fine, but that deficit begins to nag and eat away at the record by the time you get through all nine tracks.

Overall, "Win Hands Down" is both a better record, and a more interesting one, than "La Raza" was. I can see exactly what the band was trying to achieve, and even if I don't feel they quite hit the mark all the time, there's enough here to make for an enjoyable record. While I don't think this proves Armored Saint is criminally underrated, it's a solid record that at the very least shows they should be known for more than housing a former Anthrax singer.

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