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]


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]


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]


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]


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]


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]


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]


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]


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]


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]


Thursday, June 6, 2024

Armored Saint - Saints Will Conquer EP (1988)

Saints Will Conquer was a brief live album released to help herald the band's transition over to Metal Blade records, and also give the fans a brief taste of the band in that forum. It's not a complete set, featuring just five tracks, but there's also a bonus track from the band's initial 1982 demo. When I first picked this up, I was quite picky about live albums, having a few that I really liked (Live After Death, Live Without Sense to name a few), but I was generally more interested in studio material and found such stuff pretty redundant. Thankfully, this was purchased on one of my many trips to a used cassette section, costing me only about $2, and for that I'd say it was a worthwhile presentation of a band. Having said that, it's apparent early on that Richard Kriegler's awesome cover art would be the best thing about this. It still is!

The live tracks are sampled from across the band's first three studio albums, and it's got a dirty, raw and powerful mix to it which does successfully deliver their infectious energy to the audience, and thus the eventual listener. "Raising Fear" and "Nervous Man" go off without a hitch, and it's entertaining to hear John hacking and growling in the latter right before the lead. "Can U Deliver" is not my favorite Saint song, but the version here sounds much more intense and engaging than the studio incarnation, and if you've got the CD version of this, you actually get a few bonus tracks in "Chemical Euphoria" and "Long Before I Die" that frankly should have been included on every iteration, because they just ramp up the overall speed and heaviness and value. It's not as smoothly mixed as some other live offerings of its day, but at the same time it has a lot more pent-up power, this feels a lot more legit like what you'd actually experience if you'd paid your money and walked in to witness them on the stage. Any of the marginal sloppiness or imperfections from the performance is a bonus, especially the leads like in "Book of Blood", which just sound outrageous, especially with Gonzo and Vera laying down the rhythm below.

The "No Reason to Live" demo track is a power ballad, and not a bad one, but just know up front that it feels a little out of place after having your face sandblasted by "Book of Blood" and "Madhouse". The tune does pick into a passable little metal number, and John's vocals soar across the bridge; there is also a nice lead section, and Joey's bass is prominent, but despite all that it's not the most memorable of tracks in their catalogue. For demo production it's pretty solid, but I do wonder if it wouldn't have just been better to toss on a couple more live tracks and make this more consistent as a proper 35-40 minute live album. As it stands, its a little of a lopsided, hybrid thing, "No Reason to Live" could have just as well been thrown onto the Nod to the Old School collection later, not that they knew such a thing would happen at the time, but it's an odd man out. Otherwise, a solid and fun live recording, make sure you've got the versions with the bonus tracks!

Verdict: Win [7/10]


Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Armored Saint - Raising Fear (1987)

March of the Saint and Delirious Nomad were hardly albums that were infested with stinkers, but it was Raising Fear that really brought the band to the next level, a record I listen to without ever wanted to skip anything, one that ramped up my excitement level considerably. This is all due to the better songwriting, this thing is packed with tracks that embed themselves instantly into my memory and have not vacated even once, through the grunge years, the extreme metal onslaught, the modern era in which there are 500 albums released every week...this is another of those latter-80s gems which shall be forever be enshrined in my collection as long as I can carry it...my mind as long as it can hold a thought. It's not flawless, and it's not even the best Armored Saint album, but certainly another contender during a year already choked up with timeless classics. Ironically, it would be their major label swansong, before they moved over to the more appropriate Metal Blade roster.

The title track just blasts off, with some of the faster and more intricate riffing the band had mustered to its day, little guitar leads running up and down the intro while they chug into John's verses. Though the mix on this album is actually a little inferior to those before it, the songs more than compensate, and when Bush hits that chorus and shifts it up, I was just blown over. This is definitely a qualifier for the USPM niche, as some of their songs will be again the future, I'm not sure if the band is always equated with that style, but I think this one fits with the constant momentum and steadier use of the bass drum, that and some of the guitar licks feel similar to the stuff Riot and Sanctuary would be putting out shortly after this album dropped. Following this with the Lynyrd Skynyrd cover seems a risky choice, but "Saturday Night Special" is dirty and groovy and once again, Bush nails it with the vocals, and it kind of shows more of that transparency for the hard rock roots that have never abandoned Saint. That's the weird thing, this cover wouldn't have sounded out of place on any of their albums, whether the debut or any of the more modern releases, even Punching the Sky.

But can that compare with hooky, killer originals like "Out on a Limb", "Chemical Euphoria", or "Crisis of Life"? Not exactly, and tracks like these are where the real strength lies. The riffing has definitely gotten more interesting, the choices catchier and the intensity more consistent as they find themselves more directly competing with the harder thrash sounds of their Californian scene and beyond. These guys don't have the hyper-melodicism and anthemic sound that the European power metal bands were starting to unleash, and they don't have screamy Rob Halford vocals, so they would hang in there by just writing bad ass, relatable tunes with unquestionable energy. Just listen to how nasty and awesome "Human Vulture" is, I remember one of the 'cool' older metalheads from my high school, who I envied for his great taste and long locks, had a t-shirt for this song, and it was inspiring. But there are no cuts on Raising Fear that I ever want to skip, the hooks are as fresh as they were when it released, and even though I don't find the production the best of their discography, it's still clear and potent enough to drive all of its 52 minutes of content home.

My appreciation for this album has indeed grown since it released, which puts it on a similar trajectory to its predecessors, only I started out having this one in a higher regard. As I hinted above, it's not the best of their works for me, but it's certainly worthy of the silver medal in their catalog, and one I'll happily keep listening to even when they're feeding my all my meals through a tube. Was also cool to see a knight-like character from the debut return, to seismically smash up Los Angeles like one of their earthquakes, palm-tree oases and all hurling through the debris as the electric-charged, spiked titan wreaks as much as havoc as this album does to my brain. Great shit.

Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]


Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Armored Saint - Delirious Nomad (1985)

I can't paint as vivid a picture of Delirious Nomad as I could for the debut album, because I simply never got it until much later in life. I just never stumbled the cassette or record for this thing out in the wild, and had only heard of it, though I did remember the title itself sticking out in my mind as pretty unique. It might have been high school before a buddy of mine let me dub this, and I had already been reared on March of the Saint and Raising Fear, two albums that remain high up in my regards, so this one just felt like a transitional bridge between the two, not that they are so different themselves, but the songs here just didn't bury themselves into my memory quite like those. Nowadays, I have given this one more attention and come to appreciate it, though it's not the first Armored Saint disk I'm going to reach for.

The estimable Max Norman jumps on board to record and produce this one, and in a nutshell, it feels like a slightly more serious-toned sequel to March of the Saint, as if the band traded in their suits of armor for some work clothes, rolled up their sleeves and got to work. The musicianship and structure isn't a lot different, you've got mostly choppy mid-speed thumpers like "Conqueror", "Nervous Man" and the more atmospheric and moody "Aftermath" carrying most of the weight, but those are good enough, and to be fair there aren't any duds in the bunch, just a few that are easy to gloss over because they're not written with the most memorable chorus hooks or verse riffs. Some tracks like "In the Hole" remind me of a more melodic W.A.S.P. sans the lewdness and glam asshole attitude (which totally fit that band, don't get me wrong); and "For the Sake of Heaviness" doesn't quite live up to its namesake, but it's also a catchy song and you can't go wrong with the lyrics proselytizing its genre. Still hearing a lot of hard rock grit to the writing, almost like this band could have spun themselves off into something like L.A. Guns, from the same scene, but I think we're all happy they kept upping the irons instead.

The performances here are comparable to the debut, but I'd say Gonzo gets a little more thunderous with his fills, and Joey Vera definitely stands out a lot more, maybe not in the mix, but in the lines he's laying out; in fact I think this is the album where you can hear him becoming the bassist that would be so sought out later by other bands and projects. The guitar leads here are pretty solid, and John gets even dirtier than March of the Saint, growing a lot more comfortable with the style, and there aren't really any throwaway cheesy lines either. The production is still very resonant, very 80s, and maybe not as smooth as the debut, but just as clear and powerful. There's just something about these old records that feels so timeless and genuine against the more overproduced mixes of contemporary times, and you need to do very little tweaking or mastering to ensure its immortality, and once again, Armored Saint are not playing the heaviest stuff compared to other West Coast luminaries like Slayer or Metallica, but it still felt rebellious enough as an alternate to the later stuff of the British wave that was closing out around this time.

Of the first four Armored Saint records, this is my least favorite, but over time I've grown to dig it nearly as much as the debut, and it's for sure worth picking up if you enjoyed the surrounding records, though much as it didn't stand out for me, this one seemed to be overlooked often. Well-constructed, driving, honest heavy metal with more ironclad riffs and raving, distinct vocals...and a really douchey looking cover photograph which looks like a younger Guy Fieri if he was in the CIA or something?!

Verdict: Win [8/10]


Monday, June 3, 2024

Armored Saint - March of the Saint (1984)

It's easy to forget, with the virtual floodgates at my fingertips for so many years now, just how vital 'access' was to forming my metal perspective and collection as a youth. If I wasn't lucky enough to be taken around to a Church flea market or the local mall, I had to find stuff on my feet. My bicycle. My skateboard. Fortunately, I had a department store about three blocks away with a music section, and while they didn't stock much beyond the obvious popular hard rock and metal releases of the time, there were a few lesser known bands (for the time) there due to their label distribution. This is where I first encountered Saxon, Grim Reaper, and Armored Saint, the last of which called out to me instantly with the bad-ass band name, and the Larry Elmore-like cover artwork which triggered the Dungeons & Dragons nerd within me, who had already settled in there for a few years since getting my Monster Manual and red box.

So I actually adopted the Saint fairly early in my metal adventure, probably not long after this very album was released, I'd have been about 10-11, and totally stoked for some Medieval or epic fantasy metal. It turns out that isn't quite what March of the Saint offers, though the lyrical subject has been broached a few times through their career; but rather some workmanlike, American heavy metal which does often dip its toes into more accessible hard rock terrain. That wouldn't have bothered me to begin with, since about half my collection consisted of KISS, Alice Cooper, Rush and Van Halen, but this stuff was nowhere near as intense as a lot of the band's California peers would become very soon after. These days, I sometimes look at this and think it appears rather generic, but there's also a timelessness to this full-length debut which is matched by both the aesthetics and production, and though it's not ultimately one of my favorites from this band, it's always been something reliable to spin when I'm just down for some legit 80s metal with very little to zero bullshit attached to it...except maybe the whiny "seduce me..." lines in "Seducer", which now feel like a foreshadowing towards Celtic Frost's Cold Lake, or the uneccessary abbreviation in the title of "Can U Deliver".

Where this album digs in, though, I can forgive and forget such quips, especially with the lead-in tracks on both 'sides' of my original cassette. The title track needs very little introduction, after the anthemic little Mussorgsky march it erupts into what is the most fast and ferocious tune on the album, with some of the better riffs, and my introduction to John Bush's gritty-yet-melodic vocal style, which has over the years become one of the most iconic and unique in the scene. He's got a lot of charisma there, often straining himself for an impish higher-pitched scream, but really excelling when he stays in that middle layman's range with all his gravely power. You could easily imagine this guy fronting a glam or hard rock band, and sure as I mentioned a little of that creeps through over their career, they aren't entirely detached form it, but I'm certainly he happy he wound up doing Armored Saint and Anthrax instead, because he just brings a different feel to him that flexes between the heavy, power and thrash metal. I can hear a few parallels with James Hetfield so it makes sense he was once considered for that group, but Armored Saint is absolutely his best vehicle ever.

This is also where I 'met' Joey Vera, and though his performance here is pretty standard compared to some of his later appearances, his lines cruise along in tunes like "Mutiny on the World", the other of my favorites on this disc, and offer just a bit more breadth when they curve away from the rhythm guitar, which in the hands of Phil Sandoval and the late Dave Prichard, is also pretty badass, with a clean and potent tone that highlights both the triplet-trotting and the meaner chords. Phil's brother Gonzo is also a long-time beast in this band, and while his playing is still fairly fresh here, it's solid, energetic enough for the basic tunes, and pops out nicely. The production is just phenomenal, which I might not have said years ago, but listening now it's just well-rounded and obvious why these guys were picked up by a label like Chrysalis, lots of potential. The track list isn't entirely stacked here, a couple of tunes like "Can U Deliver" are give or take, but with "Glory Hunter", "Mad House", "Envy", and many others in support, it's easily on the top half of their discography in terms of overall quality.

We're years away from when Armored Saint would hit their peak, but you can already hear some riff patterns that they'll later perfect on superior songs, and the attack between those guitars and John's pipes is well established here in a way that will only get better with time. There's a good amount of variety here, though that too will improve, and there was a cool distinction between this road-ready metal style and the harder hitting, faster and more technical thrash from that side of the country, where they both felt pretty badass and could breathe on their own. We could spin Kill 'Em All or Show No Mercy and then swap over this with no problem, never thinking we were wimping out as we sat on our Tony Hawk and Lance Mountain skateboards sipping the latest gourmet soda from the local convenience store on the corner. I'm dating myself...you could buy the drink and cassette back then and still have a couple bucks left over to change up for some arcade games, but I can assure you that March of the Saint is still worth whatever you'd pay today for the vinyl or CD. A darn good debut.

Verdict: Win [8.25/10] (clench your fist, a battle's on the way)