Armored Saint are a colossus, and Win Hands Down will long be remembered as one of the seven wonders of modern metal. The album – the band’s seventh studio offering in a career spanning more than three decades – is all things Armored, a vintage crush of classic power propelled by a cathartic blast of life in the year 2015. This is Armored Saint, and this is nothing short of magnificent.
The fist-pumping adrenaline rush starts with the title track and escalates from there, “Win Hands Down” delivering an album-opening rally cry that re-introduces the players after their five year sojourn since the release of La Raza in 2010. As always, they are the same Saints we’ve grown to know and love – frontman John Bush and bassist Joey Vera, guitarist Phil Sandoval and his brother, drummer Gonzo Sandoval, and guitarist Jeff Duncan – five masters of metal that combine to forge one of the genre’s most criminally-unsung forces.
“When we started work on this record, I said, ‘Let’s pretend we are a really big band and can do whatever we want’,” says Bush of the spark that ignited Win Hands Down. “Technology allows us that luxury, and we can take that luxury when it comes to writing. In the end, we know who we are, so we don’t have those boundaries that other bands might have – you push yourself, dig deep and write stuff that makes you feel happy and fulfills you. That’s really important, and I think it came through. This means a lot more to us than just, ‘We made a rock/metal album…’“
As has been the case since their reunion album Revelation in 2000, Bush and Vera are the principal songwriters, the bassist writing the music, the frontman writing the lyrics, and the band joining the fray to add their studio punch to the musical maelstrom.
“I wanted more music sections, and didn’t want to be tied to verse/chorus/verse/chorus/guitar solo/end of song – if I felt inspired to write a bridge, and I wanted it to appear twice, it could,” says Vera of his slight shift in perspective for this album. “I wanted to be able to play with the music. Some of the songs are a little long on the Armored Saint side, so I might have had to pull the reigns back a little bit with John and say I wanted one section to be just music, but we were able to play with the arrangements a bit to fit what we both wanted to do… The results are great, and there are great performances from everyone.“
The Armored Saint machine is firing on all cylinders, and Win Hands Down isn’t for the faint of heart or slight of metal. At the helm of the onslaught are the vocals, Bush proving yet again why his name needs to be in any discussion of the Big 4 metal singers. “There’s a lighter side to some of the lyrics, like ‘Up Yours,’ but I’m not afraid to strip myself emotionally and lyrically and divulge my feelings,” adds Bush of the nine tracks clocking in at just north of 50 minutes. “To be honest, a lot of what I write is reminding myself how to live – ‘If you want to live like this, put it in a song…’ I strive to be a better person and father, and a good human – this is a reminder. I’m not trying to be [Bob] Dylan, I don’t have that much foresight, but – especially being a little older – you can identify things. I try and write things people can relate to, but I’m also writing about things that have an impact on me. It’s the platform I have, and it’s nice when people are able to relate.“
From the bombast of “In An Instant,” inspired by the terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon and the harsh reality that one second can change our lives forever, to the more personal “Muscle Memory,” an epic reflection about one’s legacy and leaving something behind that will make your family and peers proud, there’s as much lyrical substance as there is instrumental prowess, Vera and Gonzo forming a rhythm section thick enough to rival any in metal, with Duncan and Phil Sandoval leading the charge with their fret boards ablaze.
There are even a few firsts on the album. Pearl Aday joins the Saint on “With A Full Head Of Steam,” it’s galloping gate marking the first time Bush has ever shared lead with a female singer, and “Dive” features piano as the lead instrument for the first time in the expansive Armored catalog. “‘Dive’ was the last song that we wrote, a midnight hour sort of thing,” recalls Vera. “I wanted to do something different, and we’ve never had a song with piano as a lead instrument. There was a little piano overdub that I played on “Another Day,” but this is the first time it was the backbone of the song.” Adds Bush of the track, “Everyone can write a sweet song, everyone can write a dark song, but can you write both? That’s what we were trying to do. The song was Joey’s idea, and I endorsed it highly. Our lives are so fast-paced, you forget to take a moment and enjoy that moment that you are living in.“
Then there are the moments that are a little more tongue-in-cheek, without losing the trademarked Armored stomp. “An Exercise In Debauchery” is about people’s fascination with porn – “I’m not lecturing, it’s just my way of busting balls about it,” says Bush – and “That Was Then, Way Back When” rides the band’s power metal groove as the singer pokes fun at his generation’s desire to be connected online – “People who weren’t friends in high school need to be now? I’m not being mean, I just have a hard enough time communicating with the people I want to communicate with!“
“When we first got back together and decided to make Revelation back in ’99, we didn’t get the band back together to conquer the world,” says Vera, looking back as he reflects on the current state of Armored Saint. “That was Plan A, and Plan A didn’t work out. Now, we are doing this for the same reason we started making music to begin with – the right reasons. We know who Armored Saint fans are and we know we have an obligation to the people that support us, so we try and make choices that are smart and relevant to what we’re about. This isn’t the place to start my polka career.“
Maybe not, but don’t put anything past Armored Saint. As they decree in the album’s opening track:
With boots on ground
Win hands down
A giant sound
Win hands down
Then drop the reins
And place my crown
Win hands down
There’s no polka here – just heavy metal the way it was always mean to be. Win Hands Down? Armored Saint have… Hands down.
–Paul Gargano, March 2015