By Adrien Begrand
At the very beginning of Armored Saint’s sixth album, and first in ten years, we get a subtle little indication of just where this record is going to take us, and it’s so innocuous that we don’t even notice until we hear it a second time. It’s a tiny little cowbell intro, lightly tapped triplet beats that immediately make us wonder if a timbale roll will follow as the band launches into a cover of War’s “Low Rider”. Before we can wrap our heads around it, though, the raging “Loose Cannon” gets the album off to the races, and we’re immediately settled into that comfortable traditional metal sound that Armored Saint has excelled at for well over 25 years. Only this time around, as that intro foreshadows, we’re in for some cool surprises the further we delve into this much-anticipated release.
Having grown up in a heavily Hispanic-populated area of Los Angeles, bassist Joey Vera, guitarist Phil Sandoval, and drummer Gonzo Sandoval have never shied away from exploring their Latin musical roots in the past (“No Me Digas” on 2000’s Revelation, “Tribal Dance” on the 1991 classic Symbol of Salvation), but on La Raza the band delves deeper than ever before, and certainly in a lot more detail than longtime fans could have expected. However, the way they ease us into it is one of this album’s best attributes. The first four tracks are quintessential Armored Saint, as the aforementioned “Loose Cannon”, the dynamic, anthemic “Head On”, the riotous “Left Hook From Right Field”, and the confrontational “Get Off the Fence” all mine the same comfortably familiar NWOBHM-derived metal that has formed the band’s foundation since ’84’s great March of the Saint, led of course by John Bush, one of metal’s great voices. It’s an exuberant, slyly predictable 21 minute run, a perfect set-up for what turns out to be an extraordinary second half of the album.
From the fifth track on, it’s all about relaxed, sunny grooves and light touches of funk, main songwriter Vera taking us into his old neighbourhood. With its conga drums and slinky, Santana-esque bassline, the title track feels positively sweltering as the band works itself into a furious jam, culminating in a terrific extended solo break. The acoustic-tinged “Black Feet” draws from a richer sonic palette than we normally expect and is performed with verve, the simply titled “Blues” tastefully takes on an Alice in Chains vibe, while the wicked “Bandit Country” crackles with tension thanks to Vera’s taut, stuttering bassline, exploding into a chorus that puts the leather-lunged Bush front and centre. The best of the lot, and the best song on the entire record, is the languid “Chilled”, in which Latino and classic metal cultures interweave beautifully, the lugubrious verses and expressive lead fills by Jeff Duncan and Phil Sandoval wonderfully underscoring a towering performance by Bush.
Symbol of Salvation will always go down as Armored Saint’s definitive album, but you’d be hard pressed to find a record more concise, focused, and flat-out fun than La Raza. In fact, the only fault yours truly can find on this fabulous record is Bush’s lazy rhyming on the otherwise fiery “Little Monkey”. It feels like a creative rebirth for the band, and we can only hope Bush will stop wasting his time with Anthrax and stick with the band that he’s always meant to front, because to go another ten years without another Armored Saint album after the promise this one shows would be criminal. “It’s all pretty good,” Bush muses at one point on “Chilled”. That’s one hell of an understatement.