October 23, 2020 Armored Saint – Punching the Sky (Album Review)
In their nascent years, there was a band that would literally take the stage wearing medieval armor and brandishing contemporary weapons. Who were they? None other than valiant Metal crusaders Armored Saint! Founded in 1982 by the brothers Sandoval–Phil on guitar and Gonzo on drums—along with Dave Prichard on guitar, the band was quickly solidified by Joey Vera on bass as well as John Bush on vocals. A strong lineup, other than a few timely breaks, and punctuated by the unfortunate death of Prichard in 1989, Armored Saint has been relatively steady since that hazy beginning. Going onto release albums in each of the last four decades, they are back on Friday, October 23, 2020 with their eighth LP, Punching the Sky.
Released via long time label, Metal Blade Records, Punching the Sky comes ahead of Armored Saint: The Movie, a documentary scheduled for later this year. Additionally, it otherwise marks their first release of studio material since 2015’s Win Hands Down, with 2016’s Carpe Noctum, a live album that captured the band performing at Wacken Open Air 2015, having kept fans satiated in the meantime.
This new album is a dense conglomeration of Rock and Heavy Metal tunes, peppered by the soaring exasperation of Bush at the microphone. That said, there is the punchy bass of songs like “Do Wrong to None” and “Missile to Gun” which is matched by dense, layered guitar and drums. There is also an ethereal bass tone combined with sparse, purposeful drumming to lift “Fly in the Ointment” into rarefied air.
The vocals of Bush are as impressive here as they were close to forty years ago. His work on the opening track, “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants” lends the album its title: “standing on the shoulders of giants/ punching the sky every day,” and his pipes lend altitude to the already supernal “Fly in the Ointment.” On “End of the Attention Span,” his legendary ability to squeeze ten pounds of syllables into a five-pound bag is as impressive as ever. Often sounding on the cusp of losing his breath, but at the same time comfortable and relaxed in that very state, Bush is easily able to fill whatever space his compatriots give him to fill.
As noted, the vocals themselves are classic Bush and bolster his reputation as an impressive vocalist. As early as “End of the Attention Span,” the band begins an interesting interplay of tight, aggressive musicianship, bred and bled though decades of practice and hard work, however, combine this with some old-man cloud-yelling subject matter. Millennials distracted by their glowing screens? Check (“End of the Attention Span”). Too old and tired to stay out past nine, even on a weeknight? Check (“Lone Wolf”). Even tracks like “Bark, No Bite,” “Bubble,” and “Fly in the Ointment” tread some tired old terrain, with a splash of irony in an otherwise Big Gulp of going to bed before the late news. Overall, there are great songs, but the lyrics can detract a bit from the overall message. Of course, if these phrases are being coined ironically, then hats off to the band.
Elsewhere, “Unfair” is a sparse, but powerful ballad that deals with inevitability and the endless passing of time. “My Jurisdiction” again combines the clanky bass of Vera with the steady work by Gonzo to form a lush rhythm platform for the dueling guitar work of Phil and Duncan, with Bush squaring the circle with some quirky vocal stylings that almost lean toward some mid-era Clutch. Lastly, after opening with a brief, quiet moment of soul-centering, “Never You Fret” is a blistering thrill ride to end the album that ultimately ends too soon. All in all, it is this track that best sums up Punching the Sky: a mix of different tempos, conflated vibes, steady rhythmic work from which guitar solos and powerful vocals branch out.
Punching the Sky is definitely a ride worth taking, and each trip around the block is an opportunity to focus on a different instrument, element, and them. That is why Cryptic Rock gives this solid return from Armored Saint 3.5 out of 5 stars.