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 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)

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