Sunday, 26 July 2015

Armored Saint's 'Win Hands Down' - Album Review

Despite never really becoming household names, Armored Saint have always been popular. Their no-nonsense brand of 1980's heavy metal brought them a fair amount of success in their early years, and since reforming between 1993-2003, and again since 2008; the band retain a certain cult status and have plenty of dedicated fans around the world. 2015 sees the release of Win Hands Down, the band's seventh studio album, and their first in five years. Sound wise, the band have always stuck out like a sore thumb a little among their contemporaries. They were never flashy or melodic enough to fit into the hair metal (and related bands) scene, and never heavy enough to be considered thrash. Armored Saint have always carried the torch for classic heavy metal, and their sound has not changed much throughout their career. The band was dormant for much of the 1990s while frontman John Bush travelled the world with thrash titans Anthrax, which helped to shine a light on the band's earlier albums somewhat. Since reforming however, Armored Saint have taken things leisurely and only recorded and toured when they feel like it. Clearly content with their current status, the band just do what they do for enjoyment. Fans of the band will know what to expect from a new Armored Saint release, and Win Hands Down is not likely to surprise anyone. The band's simple, big-riffed approach is present here; and Bush's gritty vocals are as passionate as ever. He has never been the world's most melodic singer, but his power is what makes him a strong singer. His vocal melodies are very simple and not always that memorable; but when you hear him sing you cannot help but feel the emotion he puts into his performances. The majority of the album was written by Bush and bassist Joey Vera, who has also been a member of progressive metal band Fates Warning since 2000, and their writing partnership is as strong as ever. These two have always been at the forefront of Armored Saint's songwriting, and on Win Hands Down they have written another nine solid heavy metal tunes. Joining Bush and Vera are fellow original members guitarist Phil Sandoval and drummer Gonzo Sandoval; along with long-time guitarist Jeff Duncan. This line-up has been together since 1990 (break-ups aside of course) and have really gelled together into a well-oiled machine.

The gets off to a strong start with the blistering title track. A slightly thrashy riff forms the backbone of the song, and the high-energy verse grab you by the scruff of your neck and refuses to let you go.  Vera's bass guitar really helps to drive the song, and plenty of bursts of strong lead guitar helps to add melody to the song. The song's chorus is quite catchy too, with Bush's soaring vocals and simple melodies. Mid-way through, the song has a great atmospheric section with swirling effects and some distant soloing. This does not last long however, as the song cracks it back up and the 'proper' guitar solo hits. Mess is up next, and it is quite a dynamic tune. The verses have a slightly progressive feel with some interesting, almost tribal drumming. There are also plenty of great riffs scattered throughout the song, with each one bringing something new to the table. An Eastern-sounding section is also thrown in to add yet more variety, and the song possesses another solid chorus that shows off Bush's skill as a vocalist. An Exercise in Debauchery is more of a standard heavy metal track, but it is no worse of for being so. The main riff has a solid groove to it, and some flashy guitar breaks in the verses help to add extra melody between Bush's vocal lines. Gonzo Sandoval really displays his chops throughout this song with some great drum breaks, and a really catchy beat throughout the chorus. The classic metal vibe is reinforced with some fast, but bluesy soloing; plus there is even room for a short bass solo! A big bass riff and some atmospheric guitar lines herald Muscle Memory's arrival. The slightly progressive vibes from Mess are back here, and the song builds up gradually to a powerful chorus which is one of the most instant moments of the album. It is one of the longest songs on the album at just over seven minutes long, and it crams a lot of music into this time. Again, there are lots of memorable riffs here that will stick in your head, and a fantastic guitar solo that is one of the best I have heard in a long while. It starts off slowly, and gradually builds up to a shredding climax in a way that mirrors the way the song builds on itself too. This is probably my favourite song on the album, and it shows the band at their collective best. That Was Then, Way Back When is back to fast metal territory, and it really rocks! The chugging verses are sure to get the blood pumping as Vera's powerful bass cuts through mix; and the chorus is another winner with some big backing vocals to help Bush with the soaring notes. It works well to pack a punch after the more complex previous song.

With a Full Head of Steam features the guest vocals of Pearl Aday, who's tough voice works well when singing duet-style with Bush. After a slow start, the song really kicks off with a in-your-face riff and some great double-bass drumming from Gonzo Sandoval. After Muscle Memory, this is probably my next favourite song from the album, as the furious riffing and general attitude the song represents really draw you in and make you want to bang your head! This is a very uncomplicated song, but this is what makes it work so well. Once again, the riffs here are stellar and make this song continually enjoyable on repeated listens. With its acoustic intro, In an Instant starts out like a ballad, but it soon morphs into another rocker that has a great mid-paced feel to it. The acoustic moments to return throughout, and are mixed with some surprisingly delicate vocals from Bush and some effects-heavy guitar leads in the background. This makes for an interesting song, and the transitions between the acoustic and metal sections do not feel at all forced. This actually is the album's longest song, but thankfully it does not drag. This is another solid track that is enjoyable to listen to. Dive is more of a proper ballad, and features some excellent, mournful piano from session player Eric Rango. A gentle string arrangement helps to give some depth to the song, and adds to the overall melody. Bush is not the best singer for ballads, but he does an admirable job even though his voice does not really have the emotional depth to really do it justice. There is something of an Alice in Chains feel to parts of the song, as the backing vocals mix in and give that grunge tone to everything. There is another great guitar solo here, that adheres to the 'less is more' adage. After two slower songs, the album's final song, Up Yours, is suitably faster. This is another uncomplicated song, but it works well to bring the album to a hard-hitting end. There are yet more killer riffs throughout this song, including a great dual guitar moment that is full of 1980s melodies. This is simple heavy metal at its finest and I am sure it would go down really well live with its fist-pumping chorus and headbanging riffs. Overall, Win Hands Down is another really solid album from Armored Saint. The album is surprisingly diverse and packs a lot of ideas into the music without ever feeling trite or overly-complicated.

The album was released on 1st June 2015 via Metal Blade Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Win Hands Down.

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