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]

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