The advent of COVID has stolen most of 2020 from those whom consider metal a dish best served live. Though not really comparable in terms of real world body counts, one can’t help but liken this ubiquitous plague to the one that claimed much of Europe during the Medieval Period, rendering the concert-going world into a proverbial wasteland like something out of The Road Warrior. However, this is an appropriate setting for a quintet of heroes to emerge from the clouds of dust and sand, clad in dystopian nomadic attire to claim the mighty sword of metal from the great knight of the post-apocalyptic crusade. Though this lofty visual has been lifted from the music video of their breakout 1984 single “Can U Deliver”, it’s a fitting analogy for their triumphant return to the stage to tout their soon to be latest studio offering “Punching The Sky.”
The audience noise as Armored Saint took the stage at the Whisky A Go Go, a famed smaller venue in Los Angeles with a capacity of normally 500 people, was naturally absent yet somehow implied, as if the thousands tuning in from North America to East Asia were there by some unexplainable means. This virtual energy would be channeled by lead vocalist John Bush instantaneously as he grasped the microphone stand and the opening riffs of the first song commenced, raining down a hail of metallic splendor as if these seasoned veterans of more than 50 years of age each were still in their early 20s. To those who might have been new to the band, the visual of mostly long-haired metal maniacs toting denim vests and animated movements might well have appeared a throwback to the heyday of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden circa 1985, and this held true even as most of the material that graced the stage had originally been released after the turn of the millennium.
In many respects, the set list that was displayed during this 75 minute performance was an exercise in orthodoxy, placing a clear emphasis upon the promotion of the band’s 8th studio LP, and yet the resulting performance was still a surprisingly one. The years of punishment Bush has subjected his voice to on the road since the mid-80s, and particularly the odd contortions he put it through imitating the likes of Layne Staley and Phil Anselmo during his 90s stint with Anthrax, had done zero to weather his mighty pipes as he transitions through recently composed bangers and old school 80’s fanfare seamlessly. Likewise, the dueling guitar work of Phil Sandoval and Jeff Duncan brilliantly channeled the classic duels of Tipton vs. Downing and Smith vs. Murray, with Sandoval’s lead passages carrying an expressive, lyrical quality that contrasted perfectly against Duncan’s somewhat more shred-happy solos. Combined with Joey Vera’s highly animated, Steve Harris-like bass displays and Gonzo Sandoval’s solid, foundation-building kit work, the resulting unity of sound was nothing short of colossal.
Though a very by-the-numbers approach to performance meshed with promotion, one couldn’t help but feel privy to a grand secret as the new-before-heard closing song of the yet unreleased “Punching The Sky” dubbed “Never You Fret” rang out. Largely a stylistic return to their 80’s sound, it was an ironic yet perfect song to kick off the concert, though it was slightly upstaged in the energy department by the speedier “Missile To Gun” towards the middle of the set, channeling that classic Judas Priest proto-speed metal sound that this band had appropriated often during their 80s ascent. Other more modernized offerings off the new album such as recently released single “Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants”, along with more recent and groovier entries like “Left Hook From Right Field” and “Pay Dirt” also seemed to lean a bit closer to the band’s vintage sound due to the combination of the band’s live energy and the acoustics of the stage.
Then again, the apex points of this stellar performance were clearly focused upon the band’s classic material. Poignant moments were shared via a brief aside by Bush as he introduced the band’s primordial offering “On The Way”, reminiscing upon the memory of deceased original guitarist Dave Prichard prior to the Iron Maiden-inspired anthem commencing, as well as with the introduction he gave to “Isolation” off the “Raising Fear” album, which the band had performed acoustically via live stream earlier in the year at the height of the COVID quarantine, and its haunting balladry mixed with raging heaviness provided a stern reminder of the drama of this still ongoing ordeal. But the celebratory fanfare that closed off this concert with 1991 banger “Reign Of Fire” and longtime fan favorite “Can U Deliver” ultimately stole the show, and despite being an hour deep into a rigorous set, all players involved and especially John Bush were at their absolute best.
Following the 12 song set, additional time would be allotted for an informative and nostalgic Q&A session with all 5 members present. Topics varied in scope, with one of the more memorable moments being John and Phil reminiscing upon a chance meeting with Alice In Chains front man Layne Staley (R.I.P.) at a performance in Mexico, inspired by news from one of the fans’ questions noting that the same 90s icon had performed a cover of one of their early songs “False Alarm”. Likewise, Joey Vera’s memories of some antics at a hotel following a show that Armored Saint played with Metallica during the “Ride The Lightning” tour, along with John Duncan, Gonzo Sandoval and the rest giving their thoughts regarding their long since departed compatriot Dave Prichard, even going so far as to envision the band hypothetically being a 6-piece were he still of this earth after the mode of Lynard Skynyrd and post-1999 Iron Maiden. It was a fitting close to a grand triumph over the adverse cloud that has hung over most of this year, told like a tale by campfire via five seasoned warriors turned bards, whom God willing, will continue to march onward for many battles to come.
ARMORED SAINT Setlist
Never You Fret / Pay Dirt / Mess / For the Sake of Heaviness / End of the Attention Span / On the Way / Isolation / Standing on the Shoulders of Giants / Missile to Gun / Left Hook From Right Field / Reign of Fire / Can U Deliver