The New Wave of British heavy metal is alive and well in Los Angeles hard rock veterans, Armored Saint. On their latest album, Win Hands Down, this five-piece band showcases a sound that has more in common with early ’80s Iron Maiden and Judas Priest than with anything modern. Armored Saint has been around since 1982 with a couple of hiatuses, and with this latest effort, they suggest the secret to their longevity: find what you do well and do it often, but don’t be afraid to stretch a little bit.
For Saint fans, there’s something comforting about the first notes of the opening (and title) track — a barrage of guitar noise and drums leading into a high-energy riff. Thirty years ago Armored Saint toured with Metallica, and on that tour it was Saint’s volume that set them apart from the future hall-of-famers; it’s good to see that none of that ballast has waned. Singer John Bush has a voice that was made for metal, capable in a shout as well as a growl, yet smooth enough to discern melody and emotion. If it’s not distinctive enough that’s only because you’re used to three decades of imitators.
The next two tracks, “Mess” and “Exercise in Debauchery,” follow the same theme; relentless verses and hooky choruses, but nothing you may not have heard before. However, in this case it’s refreshing as opposed to hackneyed. But then things change. “Muscle Memory” is reminiscent of more modern metal, but without too many bells and whistles. The verse is low-key and melodic, and one expects electronic drums or effects, but to their credit Saint keeps it organic. “With a Head Full of Steam” starts mellow but picks up. “In an Instant,” however, is a seven-plus minute epic that features a brief acoustic beginning before rocking onward. And “Dive” begins with some dissonant keyboard and a melody that can only belong to a metal ballad.
The flaw with Saint — the thing that keeps them from being among metal’s elite — is that the talent level is not quite on par with the virtuosos who dominate the genre. Brothers and founders Phil (guitar) and Gonzo (drums) Sandoval are capable but limited. The careless lyrics are, at times, distracting (e.g. “A perfect chair / to park my derriere”). All in all, Win Hands Down is a reminder that classic ’80s metal still has life, and perhaps even room to grow.