Armored Saint – Punching the Sky Review

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.

Rating:  4.0/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Metal Blade
Websites: |
Releases Worldwide: October 23rd, 2020

Show 2 footnotes

  1. “Concentration. Oh please, that’s just an overrated inflated commodity.”
  2. Said concert stream was truly excellent and showcased a band having a total ball on stage while delivering metal as tight and righteous as it comes.
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