Armored Saint – Punching the Sky (Album Review)

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While the whole world is about to complete six months in lockdown and sees the days turning into nights and nights swallowing the days, here comes Armored Saint, with a work ethic that is seemingly unaffected by this whole shitstorm, because they function under the beat of a different drum. With almost forty years under their belts, their new album “Punching the Sky”, set for release on October 23rd, is only their eight full length. Granted, they were on hiatus from 1992 to 1999, but their output can be compared to Halley’s Comet, both in frequency and impact.

Since their comeback in 1999, the band has worked more like a bunch of guys getting together to have fun, rather than a profit-focused entity. When they set off to write an album, there’s absolutely no pressure other than the wish to express themselves artistically, and to have a good time. Just like they did when they formed the band in high school, they refuse to be confined to any formulas or labels. In the words of their main composer Joey Vera (bass, also of Fates Warning fame), “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“. That attitude is clearly seen on their releases since their return, “Revelation” (2000), “La Raza” (2010) and “Win Hands Down” (2015), and is further solidified on “Punching the Sky”. This is a diverse and attitude-drenched collection of songs, which presents their usual dose of grit and melody, while pushing their signature sound forward.

One of the drives of the new batch of songs presented by Joey Vera to the band was to have shorter, punchier tracks. This intention is only betrayed on the album starter, “Standing on the Shoulder of Giants”, where the group stretches their creative muscles through almost seven minutes. As you press play and hear Uilleann pipes, you might have the impression that you bought an Enya album by mistake, but that notion is quickly dismissed when the melodic guitars and John Bush’s voice kick in, and the track explodes with a crunchy riff and soaring screams.

The objective of having songs around the 4-minute mark pays off at the end, because the album flows smoothly right until the last track. Just like an addictive Netflix series, it’s hard to avoid the wish to go through the whole record in one sitting. In an era where people are getting more and more accustomed to listening to singles only, that speaks volumes. Following the onslaught of the first track, an equally dynamic and fast number comes through, in the form of the first single, “End of the Attention Span.” So far, so good – two songs with great potential to be played live and to be received, literally, with fists punching the sky.

Bubble” kicks in with industrial overtones, melodic bridges and a slower pace, but an equally enticing number, with a great dynamic between all instruments and guitars in the forefront – courtesy of Jay Ruston at the mixing desk. Another novelty for Armored Saint, Dizzy Reed (of Guns n Roses and Hookers n Blow) added keyboard textures throughout the songs, opening new paths and expanding their musical palette with discrete but precise interventions here and there. The guitar duo of Jeff Duncan and Phil Sandoval may have been eclipsed by more incensed peers like Murray/Harris or Downing/Tipton, but their seemingly telepathic interplay should have granted them a higher place in the metal pantheon. 

“Punching The Sky” Album Artwork

My Jurisdiction” starts off with Joey’s pulsating yet sad bass line and evolves into a funky riff, on what is perhaps the first song to address fake news. With that said, John Bush’s lyrics are always full of sarcasm, layers and multiple meanings, so the listener is invited to draw his own conclusions here. And speaking of John, the man who was brave enough to refuse an invitation to join Metallica because he wanted the band he formed with his high school friends to succeed, shines throughout the album, with his unusual, off-kilter phrasing and a reassuring vocal performance. His work on “Punching the Sky” proves that singers like him, Bruce Dickinson and Glenn Hughes should really be the object of a scientific study on the longevity of vocal chords. Despite screaming like a banshee and taking his chest voice to the limit through the years, this guy hasn’t lost an inch of his range and power.

Do Wrong to None” features a marching snare on the intro, bombastic thrash metal riffage that could easily be featured on an Anthrax song, and a chorus that carriers the Saint’s identity on its sleeve. The follower “Lone Wolf” is a much more melodic affair, a heavy ballad which proves the band’s versatility, and showcases Gonzo Sandoval’s exquisite timekeeping abilities. The multiple changes in pace and tone from one song to another were a problematic element on “La Raza”, but here, the band’s approach is such that this isn’t jarring for the listener – the ebb and flow of the album really stands out, and the fact that no song carries the vibe of its predecessor works in their advantage.  

If you’re looking for a high octane song in the same vein of fan favorites “March of the Saint” and “Raising Fear,” look no further, because “Missile to Gun” sees the band firing on all cylinders. At this point, it’s worth mentioning that much like Maiden, Priest and Metallica, Armored Saint has never been about one player or another standing out, but much more about working well as an ensemble. “Bark, No Bite” is a definitive nod to Thin Lizzy, with an exquisite twin guitar assault from Jeff and Phil, and “Unfair” is a slow burn type of song in the same vein as other numbers in their catalogue – “Aftermath” and “Another Day” come to mind – in that it builds suspense and involves the listener like a trap that one falls into willingly, exploding into an anthemic chorus.

Punching the Sky” is concluded by the reassuring “Never You Fret”, where John toots the band’s own horn by saying “we always bring the house down”. Another balls-to-the-wall song, which starts with Gonzo playing an American Indian flute, and triumphantly closes the proceedings. Armored Saint seems to only get better with age, and this album will further solidify their reputation as a reliable source of metal excellence. Veterans like Accept, Judas Priest and others have had quite a renaissance in recent times, with their output being on par, and sometimes better, than what they did in the 80’s. The Saint is another band of the same batch, which firmly re-established their place in the metal scene. The band is planning a launch party online on Saturday, October 10th, from 22:00-01:00 PDT, and this is likely the only chance for fans to see them live in a long time, so don’t miss it! Tickets can be purchased here.

Released By: Metal Blade Records
Release Date: October 23rd, 2020
Genre: Heavy Metal

Musicians:

  • Joey Vera / Bass
  • Gonzo Sandoval / Drums
  • Phil Sandoval / Guitars
  • John Bush / Vocals
  • Jeff Duncan / Guitars

“Punching the Sky” ” track-listing:

  1. Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
  2. End of the Attention Span
  3. Bubble
  4. My Jurisdiction
  5. Do Wrong to None
  6. Lone Wolf
  7. Missile to Gun
  8. Fly in the Ointment
  9. Bark, No Bite
  10. Unfair
  11. Never You Fret

8.3 Great

“Punching the Sky” is a step above its predecessor “Win Hands Down”, with Armored Saint bringing their A game. Adding nods to the old school but mercilessly forging ahead, this new batch of songs is overall stronger, and they make for a great listening experience of the album as a whole. Marching at full speed, these glory hunters are far from boarding the last train home.

  • Songwriting 9
  • Musicianship 9
  • Originality 7
  • Production 8
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