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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