Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Satan - Into the Future EP (1986)

Into the Future (aka the Dirt Demo '86) came out three years after Court in the Act, and I think that might be one of the reasons that Satan didn't initially explode as much as they could have. The major British bands at the time were churning out hits like an assembly line, with better production and more accessible songwriting, and even the members here were a little involved in other projects, and yes, they had the provocative name that was going to get them in all manner of hot water (ha ha!), so this didn't have quite the prolific impact; it wasn't getting in front of peoples' faces, or butts in concert seats. That said, the smudgy mushroom cloud (?) cover artwork on this EP might be ugly, but the music itself is a great continuation of the style on the debut, and I daresay I think the mix is stronger, giving a little more tightness and power to the instrumentation. Michael Jackson also has a slightly more controlled delivery than Brian Ross, with a little more dirt to the low end and some sharpness to the higher.

There are only four songs, at under 18 minutes, but the A-side for this one, "Key to Oblivion" and "Hear Evil, See Evil, Speak Evil" are certainly among the better 80s tunes they wrote, and ultimately would belong on a double-disc collection of career highlights. They showcase all of the band's great riffing techniques...complex, tremolo picked lines, packed with melody, a bit of shred or neo-classical influence, and most of all, propulsive power. Jackson's delivery is on point, he even has a few screams on here that I really enjoyed, they felt angrier and more controlled and not just an errant falsetto boast. There might be an added level of weight to how it sounds, and part of that is the production, but it's kind of a bridge to their sophomore album, which was trying to keep a little more current with the heavier, thrash environment around it. The only one of the four that slacks is "Fuck You", and that's not because the music is bad...it's amazing, but the fact that it's mostly an instrumental with just the dumb "Fuck you!" exclamation for the lyrics...when Overkill did this, they made it a straight to the face statement with an aggressive thrash song...here, the music deserved much more, or it should have gone full-on instrumental.

Otherwise, this is one dope, deserving follow-up to the debut, consistent while it moves them a little forward with regards to production. Unfortunately, it's hard to find on its own, but you can usually get it packaged with Suspended Sentence for a pretty killer value, if you can get it at all. I think the songs are also on the Early Rituals collection that came out through Listenable, but I haven't been able to check that one out. Anyways, this is definitely one that I can remember on cassette, spinning it next to Possessed's The Eyes of Horror EP because both of them combined would match the daily duration of my paper route job. The NWOBHM might have been dissolving as of this time, but the chops on display showed that Satan was prepared to take on all comers for the future.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

https://www.satanmusic.com/

Monday, June 17, 2024

Satan - Court in the Act (1983)

Though it would take years along my metal path to discover and process so much of the lesser known NWOBHM of the earlier 80s, Satan was a band I encountered fairly early on. I mean, there was no way I was about to resist a band with such a provocative, obvious moniker, one that my parents were very likely to snatch away from me as they did with a Slayer or Sabbat (until giving up entirely). But I definitely found all three of their older cassettes in the later Junior High/early High School years, and was proud to have them in my collection. I remember having a pretty superficial reaction at first, thinking these guys were nowhere near as heavy as Slayer or Metallica and that their name was actually misleading, but I quickly took a 180 on that opinion because the level of proficiency and ambition here was palpable.

Now, to be honest, I've never had a version of this on which I really liked the production all that much, the songwriting and performance seemed to vastly exceed the capabilities, it just seemed a little faint and tinny for me. But that's easy to forgive considering its age and the fact that these guys were literally running circles around so many of their peers in the intensity and complexity of their craft. Compare this to Piece of Mind or Screaming for Vengeance or something, and you can hear that Satan was on an entirely other level, more competitive with the budding thrash bands that had just started to emerge the same year from California. It's still very much in the vein of traditional, melodic heavy metal characteristic of its own scene, but it just cranked up the picking velocity and riff count. Next to this, even stuff like the first two Mercyful Fate albums would feel like a slog; I'm not saying that I like Court in the Act more than any of those albums I just named, because I think they've got better songs and production all around, but there's no doubt this is one fast, furious debut deserving of all the cult status and critical respect it's earned.

The two major weapons in the arsenal here are Brian Ross' distinct vocals, and the incredible guitar duo of Russ Tippins and Steve Ramsey. All these guys would excel not only here, but in other bands as varied as Blitzkrieg, Skyclad, Blind Fury, Pariah and Tanith, all of which have excellent records. Yet with Court in the Act, we get to hear them all in unison, and it's quite something to experience. Brian's voice has always felt more relatable to me because of its workmanlike sincerity; sure he has a bit of range where he needs it, but it literally feels like the guy down the street, or at the bar, just started fronting a heavy metal band. It's smooth, melodic, and works great with reverb, but it's never too over the top or screechy, in fact I find it the weakest when he does in fact scream, like that one disposable cry in the bridge of "Alone in the Dock". He can pull those off, but it's not what is interesting about his delivery. It's that mid to upper-mid range which has the most impact. As for the guitarists, they are just fucking unbelievable, spurting riff after riff of busy, calculated, melodic bliss, leads searing fluidly through the undertow, and with this production, sometimes it's hard to tell what is what.

There are at least four tunes on here that make my Satan playlist every time, from the classic raging (proper) opener "Trial by Fire" and epic, escalating "Break Free", to "Hunt You Down" with its great groove and gang vocals, and "Dark Side of Innocence" with its immortal, captivating melodies with a heavy riffing substrate that actually sounds suspiciously like an influence upon a lot of German power metal a few years later. I also really dig the creepy synth intro to the album, "Into the Fire", with the thudding electro percussive beats that stomp through the scintillating ambiance. Or the acoustic interlude "The Ritual" which is absolutely gorgeous and shows off the guitarists' skills in that medium. But I wouldn't throw out the rest of the tunes, either, they're all pretty solid in support of just a few that are more timeless. I emphasized the guitars and vocals, but Sean Taylor's drumming on this one is also pretty intense for the time, lots of good fills, and Grame English, another legend, keeps his bass lines busy enough so that you're not just engaged on that higher, melodic level, but what is supporting it.

Amazingly, this is not even close to my favorite Satan record. I appreciate it a lot, it's one that I often revisit, at least for my favorite songs, and it's the best of their earlier output...but Satan is also my favorite NWOBHM band of the 21st century, and we'll get into why. Court in the Act definitely sets the standard, even the iconic logo and cover artwork style, and this is pretty much mandatory if you're into that British stuff, and should sit in your collection alongside the debuts of Angel Witch, Tank and Diamond Head, and all the Raven, Saxon, Venom, Maiden and Priest you can muster.

Verdict: Win [8.75/10]

http://www.satanmusic.com/

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Houle - Ciel cendre et misère noire (2024)

As a New Englander born and bred, adopted from a seaside hospital and rarely ever having lived more than a few miles away from the Atlantic, I've always felt the allure of maritime-themed metal music. A rare commodity, to be sure, but it has been done in a handful of instances, from the Golden Age 80s piracy of the great Running Wild and the decades-late goofy folk metal bands in their wake, to the more serious blend of storm and gloom that a band like France's Houle manifests. I had already commended their adherence to the theme on their eponymous 2022 EP, and with Ciel cendre et misère noire they embrace it all even more closely, an album that is dreary and partially immersed in the traditions of BM, but also has a few unique characteristics that might broaden its appeal beyond that niche.

To be honest, a lot of it is what you'd expect, fast paced and slathered in tremolo picked melodic guitars that evoke both the melancholy of a dingy seascape and the inevitable turbulence that one might face in that environment. There's a certain 'heavy metal' vibe to some of their riffing patterns in tracks like "La danse du rocher", and they also have a lot of cleaner passages with acoustic guitars and tighter, simple chugging patterns used to perforate the vocal lines, often then reverting to the more desperate, blasting rhythms. Adsagsona has a very carnal rasp about her when she's performing in the lines, but I actually found her less structured, ranted/shouting French vocals to be more confrontational and interesting, where the more standard rasp can feel a little overbearing. However, they certainly sound bloody as hell, there is no reining anything, and it's pretty sweet that she can go across such a range, even having some softer, narrative lines over a few of the more folkish moments, which are present but never in a quantity to challenge the metal dominance through the writing.

Production is a bit brighter than it might appear from looking at the album packaging, but I think that makes sense with the emphasis on the melodic guitars. The drumming is snappy and intense, the bass cruises along with its own character, and there's also a lot of folk and neo-classical vibe to some of the guitar melodies or bass lines throughout. The album is paced out and structured well, with some nice breaks where the guitars will surge like the beam of some ship cutting through a storm. I think the downside for me here is that I didn't find a lot of the material nearly as catchy as I would have wanted...the vocal personality, especially the more insane she gets, often drowns out the value of the riffs, and while they're all well played, there's nothing terribly novel or sticky about them. This is no throwaway album, mind you; it continues upon the potential of the EP, without expanding it all that far, and I also think Houle has a niche with plenty of room to develop, but I found myself more inspired by the theme than the musical content itself.

Verdict: Win [7.25/10]

https://www.facebook.com/HouleOfficiel


Saturday, June 15, 2024

Corpus Diavolis - Elixiria Ekstasis (2024)

Adorned in what might be the most erotically diabolic cover artwork of the year, the fifth album from Corpus Diavolis offers another scorching on the more traditional side of European BM, never sounding quite so distinct as its avant-garde French countrymen, nor the Medieval stylings of other peers, but full-on Satanic, blasting black metal. The reliance is wholly on the sinister, ritualistic infusions, but that's not to say that this is some monotonous, overblown effort, it's meticulously plotted and padded out to offer enough variation that you'll enjoy exploring some of its longer tracks, a couple of which just scrape the 10 minute ceiling. I had already been impressed with the group's 2021 effort Apocatastase, and this one is ever more nasty sounding and effective.

That's not to say you'll come across much original, but the Frenchmen overwhelm you with components that keep the experience like a richly occult canvas that continues to sprawl out across a dungeon wall. Vocals shift in between genre rasps, snarls, tortured groans, and little passages of chanted choirs that hit at just the right time like the finale of opener "His Wine Be Death". The guitars possess the balance of tremolo picked, winding and sinister melodies, but also spiked up with little atmospherics, clean or dissonant and always conscious of expanding the sound to a higher level than just its basic rhythmic drive. The drumming is as savage as necessary for the style, charged up with lots of little fills or percussive fits that add even more of that ritual haze to the proceedings, and the bass is just present and plunky enough to fatten up the bombast, especially during the slower to mid-paced segments of the disc.

There's an advanced sense of depth and composition here in tunes like "Cyclopean Adoration" and "Menstruum Congressus" that transcends any superficial stab at the style, and if you're fond of black metal bands that go that extra mile, you'll easily find yourself lost in its orgiastic, serpentine, vaulted mysteries, like an entire forbidden night at some vile subterranean temple, caught to tape. That's not to say that it's always so strikingly memorable, but there's enough meat here musically and lyrically to appreciate and Corpus Diavolis makes for another consistent, competent and compelling pillar of its scene.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10]

https://www.corpusdiavolis.com/

Friday, June 14, 2024

Armored Saint - Symbol of Salvation Live (2021)

I've been increasingly noticing the trend in 'full album performances' these last 5-10 years, obviously because so many of these bands are getting older, and want to present this stuff to their loyal fanbase, boost ticket sales, and give a quality performance and product rather than take risks with tunes off less popular evolutions throughout their careers. It only makes sense for Armored Saint to gift us this hour-long set list from slightly before Symbol of Salvation's 30th year anniversary, with the same lineup they've had forever. I mean, let's give the boys some credit, after Dave passed away they've stuck to their guns through hell and high water, and with Punching the Sky and this performance, they have arrived back on top where they've always belonged.

Now, this doesn't have the impact for me that the original album does, and I feel like a few of the tunes ("Reign of Fire") sound a lot more potent on stage than their neighbors ("Dropping Like Flies"). All told, though this is a faithful rendering of the album, all thirteen tunes, and in sequence it still hits a lot of the emotional highs and riffing genius. It's much more washed out and polished than Saints Will Conquer was, and in a way I miss that recording for its more feisty, aggressive feel, but this is extremely professional, the band doesn't phone it in nor do they really fuck anything up, so if you want to hear a note for note representation of Symbol on a stage, and couldn't attend yourself, this is where it's at. The bass playing is pretty great throughout, John doesn't sound much older than he did in 1991, and the drums crash and simmer below Phil Sandoval and Jeff Duncan. I do feel like their rhythm guitars could be cranked up a bit for some more power, they clearly have to sit in support of the louder vocals and rhythm section, but at least the riffs are clear and the leads do stick out where they should.

I think about this in a live presentation rather than studio, and it definitely feels like the energy is front loaded with the first tune and then returns for the last 3-4. I just don't think these single album shows are necessarily the best to interact with a live audience as it would be to take some awesome songs from various other albums and intermix them. You could have removed half of this, included some of the gems from Raising Fear, Delirious Nomad and March of the Saint, and given the fans a much better show. Having said that, though, the material is all played well, consistent with the studio incarnations, and as an exercise in 'pulling it off', this record certainly succeeds. The DVD presentation is also quite good, with some fun stage banter and obvious passion being meted out with the songs. The hair might have receded, but the power is timeless. It's the best live offering from the band, no doubt, but I would love to have a mixed set of material with this quality of production to create the 'de facto' product.

Verdict: Win [8/10]

https://www.armoredsaint.com/

Thursday, June 13, 2024

Armored Saint - Punching the Sky (2020)

Win Hands Down definitely spun Armored Saint back around to the right direction, but without Punching the Sky appearing five years later, it might all have been for naught. It didn't look like much to me when first announced, the cover another of those digital looking images, from the guy who did Iron Maiden's Brave New World no less. But the advance singles sounded fantastic, and I was certainly excited to hear what might be some of the band's catchiest material in nearly 30 years. Turns out that is exactly what this represents, the proper modernization of their classic style for 2020, with the same lineup no less, and yet sounding more youthful and energized than they arguably had ever been, even during their best records like Raising Fear and Symbols.

It doesn't quite start out on its strongest leg, "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants", which features the title among its lyrics, but that's definitely a driving setup for "End of the Attention Span", the song that first blew me away from this album. Thick, heavy guitar tone that is more muscular than anything off the older albums, but still lets a little of the melody punch through, and a huge groove that frames the verses, which might be off one of their mid-80s albums only if it had gone to the gym and taken steroids. It's heavy enough that if you told me this was a later Anthrax-Bush collaboration I might have believed you, but the structure is definitely set up with a little hard rock flair to the leads, and the charisma of the older albums certainly starts to creep up on you as it progresses. Not all the songs go this intense, but there are a few like "Missile to Gun" and the finale "Never You Fret" which strive for a similar level of speed, and these are also quite catchy, the latter having a few Savatage-Criss Oliva vibes in the playing.

But like Symbol of Salvation, this is quite a varied offering, with some slower but still heavy grooving tunes like "Bubble" or "Fly in the Ointment", and stuff like "Lone Wolf" that captures a slightly more proggy hard rock vibe to it that definitely hearkens back to stuff like "Dropping Like Flies" or "Tribal Dance". The bass tone is super thick throughout this, and it almost has to be, because the guitars are enormous and John's voice is produced to captivate throughout the entire playtime. Leads are all pretty good, always have been, and even though this isn't exactly comprised of the most unique riffing progressions throughout, just about every song here can throw in some catchy hook that you might not expect, meaning the band still has enough ideas to remain relevant. I wasn't a huge fan of "Unfair", they were definitely going with an Alice in Chains vibe on that one, with the more massive bass and a less harmonic vocal style, but it's not really a detriment to the rest of the album either.

Punching the Sky definitely has a loudness production thing which feels heavily digitalized in just how layered the sound is, so it's not going to give you the nostalgic vibes of the first 3-4 discs, but as far as translating that into a context of today, it's a raging success, a catchy album that I've listened to a good number of times in the last couple years, certainly more than the three before it. It's almost intricate enough call it the sequel to Symbol of Salvation, but not quite as good. Having said that, I think it has the potential to drawn in newer generations of listeners, for better or worse, and then maybe get them exploring back down that rabbit hole to the band's prime. They could certainly metalize this a little more, dial back some of the production so it feels more natural, and create a modern masterpiece, but until then this is plenty excellent for my money.

Verdict: Win [8.5/10]

https://www.armoredsaint.com/

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Armored Saint - Win Hands Down (2015)

I have to admit guiltily, that until I decided to revisit through all the Armored Saint albums, I had nearly forgotten that Win Hands Down even existed. After the lamentable La raza, we had hit a point where the band would sort of continue indefinitely, putting out new studio efforts at least before the turning of entire generations would pass. And while this one is not among my favorites of their catalogue, I can say that it probably wasn't fair to neglect it, because they definitely ramped the heaviness back up for this one, and it kicks both Revelation and La raza sternly up the backside, with the first couple tracks alone superior to anything you'll find on either of those. Really, listening back through this, it feels like a setup for Punching the Sky, which is the disc that really brought back that old magic for me.

This album definitely recognizes a few outside influences, from the groove metal that must have filtered over from John's years in Anthrax, to the Eastern meditative acoustics that feel like Ravi Shankar was sitting in for "Mess", or "Muscle Memory" with its unique sounding chorus and backing vocals.  But it's important that these are just seasonings to what is otherwise a pretty hard hitting, impactful effort. The title track is going for another epic status like "Reign of Fire", not even remotely as good or catchy, but there's a genuine energy and excitement here from the entire band, which has the same configuration as the last 25 years before it. Most of the tunes have some faster or groovier parts, even when they kick off as a ballad like "In an Instant", you're going to be treated to some great riffs and vocals at some point, you can be assured. Even "Dive", which is the GENUINE ballad here, has the same care and catchiness you'd come to expect from their more varied material since Symbol of Salvation, and there really aren't any tracks here that make me cringe...a few dumb lyric lines here or there, some riffs that go nowhere, but by and large Win Hands Down is competent.

Production is super clean and effective, though it definitely has that modern, polished pump to it from a lot of pop and 2000s radio rock. I don't think the band surpasses itself performance-wise, John clearly still has some range to his delivery, but the other musicians aren't pushing themselves, they seem to have plateau'd back in 1991 and are more focused on writing catchy tunes than pushing the envelope of their style any further. In a time now dominated with LARPing power metal nerds that play their instruments like Yngwie on PEDs, it's refreshing to hear Armored Saint aligned more alongside the old heads in groups like Saxon or Diamond Head that are still putting out good music in their genuine style, simply dressing it up like it belongs in today's market and not the 80s. This is not an album I can remember long after listening, which probably explains my initial memory hiccup, but while I'm into it I can fully enjoy almost all of the tunes, even though it's a little bloated at 51 minutes. However, if this album is to be credited with getting them ready for its follow-up, all the power to it.

Verdict: Win [7.5/10]

https://www.armoredsaint.com/

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Armored Saint - Nod to the Old School (2001)

I remember being most excited for Nod to the Old School because it would include Armored Saint's original s/t EP, which I had not ever gotten the chance to own, being introduced to their music through March of the Saint (which does include "False Alarm"). So, if nothing else, it would be worthwhile for collection purposes, although after hearing Revelation the year before, that prospect was probably less exciting. This is in fact a smattering of many things, from a handful of live tunes, acoustics, covers, rarities and new originals, and thus pretty important for the long-term fan, because at least a few of the tunes are better than anything they'd drop on their 2000 or 2010 studio albums. And unlike a lot of shitty cash grabs, some care and effort was put here to give those same fans something fresh.

The new track "Real Swagger" is passable, but probably not good enough for any of the records, while "Unstable" promises a little heaviness and groove but also doesn't really hit the marks. There's an updated 2001 version of "March of the Saint" which is decently produced, but lacks a little of the original's magic, and a couple live cuts from Revelation which don't sound half bad on the stage, being that "After Me, the Flood" and "Creepy Feelings" were at least some of the better tunes on that disc. But these are captured with a cleaner sound than Saints Will Conquer, for better or worse, and as weird as it is just to wedge in a couple of these onto a studio collection, they don't detract much. The cover of "Never Satisfied" by Judas Priest is pretty awesome, one of the best tunes here, and "Day of the Eagle" from Robin Trower is also present, though a little rougher in production, and without much familiarity with the original it didn't have the same impact. There's a tasteful acoustic version of "Tainted Past" off Symbol of Salvation, which works, but obviously just doesn't leave me with the impact of the original.

So that was the WEAKER half of the compilation, and the rest is what I was really looking forward to, because you don't only get the 1983 EP, but also some demo stuff from 1988-1989, some of which was recorded on a 4-track demo, but sounds fucking excellent all things considered, like "Pirates" and "Get Lost", fun heavy metal tracks on which the more raw production can't hide John's great vocal lines. The only sucker here is the rehearsal of "Betty '79", a stupid ditty, but this is made up for by a demo for "Reign of Fire" from a few years before it came out, and this version sounds awesome. As for the original s/t EP, I am happily to have finally had it, "Lesson Well Learned" and "On the Way" are both pretty good, clearly establishing March of the Saint with some late 70s Judas Priest vibes, especially on the latter. "False Alarm" is good too and in a way this has more pumping energy to it than the album version, but I'm not sure which I'd prefer.

Nod to the Old School is definitely your textbook case of odds and ends thrown together, with a great variation in quality, but it does at least feel comprehensive, even more so if you've got the limited edition or later pressing with a few more bonus tracks. You don't get the impression that they've left a lot off there that you'll have to track down later, for a Nod to the Old School II. And maybe there is enough material out there for that, especially these couple decades later, but when you put this on the shelf with the albums it feels like a complete set. Nothing amazing, and I don't know that anything here will become your favorite, but a few of the older tunes and demos are really great and if history had been kinder, they might have been inspired to put out a follow-up to this which explored those roots. Instead we had to wait almost a decade for La raza. Imagine having to contain our excitement.

Verdict: Win [7/10]

https://www.armoredsaint.com/

Monday, June 10, 2024

Armored Saint - Revelation (2000)

It would be nearly a decade before Armored Saint came out of its early retirement, reuniting the Symbol of Salvation lineup and remaining within the Metal Blade family. I remember being quite excited by this news, as I wasn't a huge fan of the three albums John Bush had done with Anthrax by the turn of the millennium. Sound of White Noise was alright, don't get me wrong, but he needed to get back to where he belonged, and so there was genuine jubilation when I found this album among the physical promos I would receive for the paper zine I was writing back in those years. Following up Symbol of Salvation is an unenviable task, and there was pretty much no way that Revelation was going to pull that off, so I have to give it credit for at least remaining in the band's general style and offering a couple catchy tracks.

That's not to say this is great, of even good, because it's definitely a lot more straightforward and risk averse, at best taking just a chunk of their earlier sound circa Delirious Nomad or Raising Fear and then modernizing it with the studio wizardry of a later decade. Still a lot of hard rock roots poking through here, and there's even a slight element of stoner-y style, like "The Pillar" which opens up like an outtake from the underrated Trouble record Manic Frustration, though it does transform into something decidedly Saintly once the verse bobs along. There are some solid tunes like "After Me, the Flood", "Control Issues" and "Creepy Feelings" with its cool melodic, harmonized intro, that strive to match the quality of past records, but I don't think the band had let these tunes mature quite enough to offer that same level of unforgettable. Where they do branch out a little, like "Damaged", they go for a bass-driven, almost alt rock/metal feel and a simple chorus or two, in fact they remind me a little of the purely prog/alt rock era that Seattle's Queensryche were slogging through around the same time...only not that lame.

Ultimately, enough of this didn't work for me to mire it in mediocrity, like the Spanish track "No me digas" or the dull Stone Temple Pilots pandering of "Deep Rooted Anger". The production is very much brick-walled compared to the older albums, and it sounds like a case of the band just communicating lightly and decided to just throw something together, and not waiting for better ideas to gestate, which is a huge downgrade from the incredible Symbol of Salvation. Revelation has a cool cover, and it's not nearly as staggeringly lackluster as its own follow-up, La Raza, which would take another decade to appear back unto a scene that wouldn't care much, especially with its lack of weaponry. It seemed like trying to stamp on a few minor style changes to fit the times was a complete bust for Armored Saint, whether in 2000 and 2010, and if they had called it quits for good after this one, I would not have been too disappointed. We know now that they'd be capable of greatness once more, but those three decades were pretty rough.

Verdict: Indifference [6.75/10]

https://www.armoredsaint.com/

Friday, June 7, 2024

Armored Saint - Symbol of Salvation (1991)

1991 was a year of peaks and valleys for me musically, as I've no doubt mentioned before in the write-ups for seminal works that everyone other than me seems to worship eternally. This was mostly towards the death metal or extreme spectrum; not to say that I despised albums like Blessed Are the Sick, Rise, or Human, but they all felt transitional or disappointing after such monumental and influential works that inspired me before. At the same time, there were also a few bands that not only hit their stride, but put out their very best material, and Armored Saint was one, borne on the tragedy of losing guitarist Dave Prichard the year before. Thankfully, he got to write a lot of the material that was included here, and even throw a lead on one of the tracks, so as bittersweet as Symbol of Salvation might have felt, it was a more than fitting tribute.

And this is not only the best form this particular stable of Californians, but one of the best American heavy metal albums of all the 90s. It is by far the most varied, balanced and memorable effort they'd released to its day and ever since, mixed and produced by Brian Slagel, Eddy Schreyer along with a host of others, including Joey Vera himself. It manifest what might be the band's biggest single, "Reign of Fire" and also one of the best metal songs of its style that I've ever heard, an epic paean to the sword & sorcery genre which young autothrall equated with the cover of their debut album way back when. Riff after riff of excellence, with these great, rapid fire rhythm guitar licks and some of the best chorus framing and screaming John Bush has ever let part from his lungs. I was instantly smitten with this track and have never fallen off that wagon, but the twist is that the album does not stop there. It's got a very diverse set of skills that also incorporates much of the band's hard rock influences that I've mentioned on the earlier albums. Something like "Dropped Like Flies" or the groovy war anthem "Tribal Dance", complete with namesake percussion at the intro (and better than Sepultura at this, mind you), proggy bass spurts, and more badass urban groove than Extreme or Guns & Roses could shake their collective leather-flattened wee-wees at.

Even "Last Train Home" and "Another Day", a pair of softer tunes that I might normally shirk if delivered by the hands of lesser heshers, are superb songs that instantly catapult into the memory banks, with more complex structures than you might think, especially the former with its proggy set-up and some of Joey Vera's best bass playing in history. Try fucking forgetting THAT chorus, it sends shit by Tesla and Slaughter home on a goddamn stretcher! The latter definitely has more of a ballad structure, but it's got some amazing vocals in the depth and a mysterious feel to the clean guitars, that twist wonderfully into the electric leads. The entire 13 tracks, at nearly an HOUR, remain adventurous and creative without ever repeating themselves, or repeating anything the band had ever recorded before, so Symbol of Salvation easily stands as the group's most ambitious and matured work. It takes a bunch of heavy metal and hard rock tropes, twists them into a poignant and monumental force that you can listen to basically forever, without it ever sounding old or tired. 

John's vocals are flexed to their maximum potential, to the point that every damn Anthrax song he fronted just sounds to me like he's revisiting one part of this album. Even as you delve deep into the record's depths, with tunes like "Warzone" and "Tainted Past", or "Hanging Judge" (which they got to play onscreen in Hellraiser III), you are finding all these amazing little hooks or chorus parts, though there's also a strange vibe of melancholy and mellowness to even some of the harder hitting riffs...perhaps a symptom of the sorrow that lead to this record. Now, I won't say it's always perfection, 2-3 of the tunes might not feel as strong as others, and there are a few production gaffes where some of the percussion might hiss a little, some instruments could have been adjusted for more maximum emotional impact...but overall, this is probably the most involved Armored Saint album. Ironically, a lot of people I've met have compared this one to The Black Album, which came out the same year, but while both have a lot of accessibility and radio potential (which one of the pair did receive to a fault), I feel that Armored Saint were ramping up the musicianship while Metallica was dumbing it down for the arena crowds.

Regardless, this is an album that really stood out to me even more BECAUSE it was surrounded by so many transitional works that didn't light my world on fire. It also seemed gloriously defiant of the trends that were about to burst, from grunge to rap-metal to the rise of 'alternative rock' and so forth, not that I have personal enmity towards those styles at all, I like a lot of it, but it was cool to haver a band like this remain so grounded. Sure, they were changing things up, but not in a way that was trendy or hip by any estimation. Sadly, a year or so after this album, the band went on hiatus, John eventually moved over to Anthrax where he was clearly too good for the material they were writing in the post Belladonna era, Joey played on all sorts of stuff. The Saint scaled their mountain to its summit, and then hung up their boots and just stayed there in a cabin, sipping hot cocoa by the fire. But not forever.

Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10]

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