When you look up the term “underdogs,” there’s a band photo of Armored Saint looking back at you. They’ve struggled since 1983 to eek out a foothold in the metal market and in the process released some great albums like Raising Fear and Symbol of Salvation. And they were easy to root for as the quintessential blue-collar metal band stubbornly staying true to their sound, but they were always held back by bad timing, musical trends and personal misfortunes. When vocalist John Bush left to join Anthrax in 1993, Armored Saint was put on extended hiatus, reuniting intermittently to release the Revelations and La Raza albums, neither of which were up the standards of classic Saint. With Anthrax now behind him, Bush was free to devote time to his first love and as a result, we get Win Hands Down, their first in five years. What it delivers is the sound of a much older, wiser band with lyrics saturated with the introspective musings, nostalgia and melancholy that only comes with age and experience. That’s the theme running throughout the album and though this isn’t brimming with all the angst and rebelliousness of youth, the Saint sound is still there and rings true, albeit with a bit more mileage and a few extra wrinkles.
As a fan from their humble beginnings, the opening title track really got me fired up. It’s classic Saint from soup to nuts with a big anthemic chorus, muscular grooves and a vintage Saint guitar line at :22. Bush sounds great and the song would easily fit on Symbol of Salvation. This is the sound of life long friends back together again doing what they love and it’s righteous. Heck, even the jazzy interlude that appears out of left field works.
After such an auspicious start, things get a bit less accessible. Tracks like “Mess” and “Exercise in Debauchery” have the band’s trademark hard rock crunch but are less immediate and take a few spins to truly sink in. The chorus in the former is a let down, but the chants of “you ain’t no different” during the bridge more than make up for it. Other songs are unusual and a bit outside the band’s wheeelhouse, but brim with snappy and interesting writing. Case in point: “Muscle Memory” – a thoughtful examination of one’s legacy and what one leaves behind to be remembered by. They couldn’t have written this back in the 80s or 90s, but with age and back hair come new perspectives.
Other highlights include the heartfelt but rocking “In an Instant,” written about the Boston Marathon bombing, and the classic hard rock punch of “That Was Then, This is Now. It’s an especially nice touch that the album ends with the Saints at their most feisty and rowdy on the sardonic rager “Up Yours.” It’s like you witness the band work through their issues and makes peace with the past, only to leave as a fully actualized and hungry unit once again. Pretty cool when you think about it.
Though not a collection of instant hits, this is quite the insidious grower and all the songs have merit. It’s also surprisingly deep and musical with lots of interesting melodic touches and surprisingly proggy playing. However, some of the songs are too long, even approaching Metallica-like levels of editorial resistance, and considering these guys made their mark with short, direct rockers, this newfound bloat works against them. It feels like they were so happy to be recording together again, they didn’t want the fun to end, which is understandable, but counterproductive.
As always, John Bush sounds like a younger, meaner version of Steven Tyler. His raspy, whisky-throated roar has aged remarkably well and gives the material a masculine gravitas. The guitar tandem of Phil Sandoval and Jeff Duncan deliver their classic hard rock flavored riffs, providing the album the familiarity it needs, even when the band goes off into uncharted territory and their solo work is quite impressive. The backline is dominated by the well-travelled Joey Vera (Fates Warning, Seven Witches) and his bass is all over this thing, audible, meaty and noodly. Good stuff there.
As a long time admirer, I had high hopes for this third act in Armored Saint‘s career, and admit this is a different album than what I expected. It’s closer to what Jordan Campbell famously dubbed “Dad Metal” and it’s definitely the product of a band with miles on the tires, but what it lacks in anger, it partly makes up for with depth and maturity. I’m quite glad these guys are back doing what they love. The world is a better place with Armored Saint in it and I hope they stick around for a good long time.