Five years since the release of their previous release Win Hands Down, Armored Saint is ready with their third album since the permanent reformation back in 2005 following John Bush’s exit from Anthrax. His time in thrash metal legends might just be one of the finest vocalist switch from one established band to another and while his exit form Anthrax might have been unfortunate it did result in at least two positive things.
One is the return of Joey Belladonna to Anthrax which pleased major portion of band’s fans and resulted in significant rise of commercial popularity. The other is the reformation of Armored Saint, a band whose importance to heavy metal is much greater than their commercial success.
If you you’ve been following Armored Saint for some time then you know that Punching the Sky is not going to present you with many surprises, but it will rather focus on band’s own established form of heavy metal. And it most certainly is heavy metal, but what always made this band approach unique is that while heavy metal is the best categorization for it, it’s their thrash metal punch and hard rock sensibilities that make it unique. If familiar with the band, you also know that the album is produced by Joey Vera and that the album sounds absolutely fantastic. There is enough warmth and rawness to it, yet at the same time the album is very clean sounding with each instrument balanced out perfectly.
“Standing on the Shoulders of Giants“ is a very typical Armored Saint’s opener, with determined buld-up, massive groove, running time of over 6 minutes and melodies, which time and again serve as a reminder to Anthrax fans just how big of an impact Bush had on the Anthrax’ music on those four albums he recorded with them.
“End of the Attention Span” follows in a similar vein, but it’s trimmed down and rather concrete, yet at the same time it’s filled with several distinctive parts and one hell of a flow. Lyrically, no matter how thematically relevant and current, the song does have several face-cringing moments. There is a universal quality to the theme of the decline of attention spam in age of social media, but presenting it in such a specific way makes it come across as inelegant and dated already here on the day of its release. Just think of hearing those lyrics five or ten years down the road.
In many ways it’s smooth and predicted sailing on the album’s 11 tracks. The diversity is, for the main part, tied to shifting pace and experimental nuances in intros and mid-section breakdowns. As such it’s a textbook Armored Saint, which is expected. Bit more daring wouldn’t hurt, but then again when band is so good at what they do, it’s utterly reasonable to stick to their guns.
And what guns they are.
Jeff Duncan and Phil Sandoval deliver razor-sharp riffs and guitar leads that are as melodic as they are powerful. Vega’s bass is perfectly present in the overall sound, avoiding the trap many bands fall in when they end up burring bass under guitars or make the bassist just play whatever the guitarists are playing. Together with drummer Gonzo Sandoval he locks in the massive grove that is a driving force of Punching the Sky.
And then there is John Bush, whose power and delivery are as impactful as ever. Couple of lines into the opener you already know why Anthrax chose him as replacement for Belladonna, and Metallica wanted him to take over singing duties for James Hetfield back in the day. Bush is simply a powerhouse and one of the finest heavy metal singers out there.
Despite not changing their formula the new album doesn’t lack the dynamics, just take a look at the middle of the record where “Do Wrong to None” is textbook mid-tempo puncher, “Lone Wolf” dials up on catchiness with massive anthemic tune and “Missile to Gun” picks up the pace for eminently delivered upbeat. “Unfair” would serve as fine album closer with its impeccable build-up throughout the entire song. Unfortinately the band chose to close the album with faceless “Never You Fret”.
Armored Saint do take their time in creating an album and in the end, it pays of. Sometimes one wishes for them to step out of their comfort zone some more, just to see how well you could pull that off, but as mentioned above, if you are so good at what you do it almost does make up for lack of unpredictability.