Traversing the band's labyrinthine career as it leads to their recent heavy metal masterclass.
Words by K-Man (@kmanriffs):
I might be drawing a long bow here, I’m not entirely sure, but does anyone – anyone who loves heavy music - actually NOT care about ARMORED SAINT? Are they just the most universally loved quintessential Heavy Metal band around? For near on 40 years, ARMORED SAINT have been plying their trade. I was around when the EP and debut dropped in ’83 & ‘84, so like many others, I have taken the long journey with them to this point. It’s been a rollercoaster ride no doubt; marred by label hassles, a tragic death and nearly a decade in the 90's where the whole train came to grinding halt. Reinvigorated in 2000, ARMORED SAINT have arrived in 2020 with album number eight under their belt. ARMORED SAINT seem to work on a five year cycle between albums and the lead up to Punching The Sky has been palatable, with many a diehard fan salivating at the prospect of another quality set of tracks to wet the appetite. Having heard the album and been involved in many social media conversations about it, it’s not a stretch to suggest that Punching The Sky is some of their best work, if not their strongest ever.
To investigate the machinations behind the arrival of said new album, we have jumped at the chance to chat with original member/bassist/songwriter/producer/magician, Joey Vera! I hope you enjoy reading as much as I did chatting with the man! Nectar of the Gods, indeed:
Welcome to Heaviest of Art, Joey. As a long time fan, it’s such an honor to chat to you today and great to have you answer some questions for us!
Vera: Thank you K, glad to chat back with you!
Of course, the reason we have you here is to chat about the newly released album ‘Punching The Sky’ – how has the response been in the short time since its release?
Vera: The response has been very favorable. It seems to be connecting with people.
Oh, for sure. I haven’t seen a bad word about it at all! For good reason! Now, I want to dive into the new album real soon, but I thought we might take a step back and consider how the hell we got to 2020 and album No. 8. I mean, what a ride Joey – nearly 40 years! Do you even reflect on that? It is clearly something you want to do as a band when you start – stay together forever – but doing it is another matter. How do you view your ability to maintain that longevity?
Vera: Yeah, it’s been a trip for sure. We never thought we’d be here 40 years ago. But it’s what we wanted, to have a long career. I think we’ve all really seen the band as something bigger than the rest of us individually. We have always tried to respect that. We come from a very long lineage of friendship and that has been part of the glue too. And we can’t forget that the fans have always supported this band through thick and thin. We can’t do any of this without the fans so kudos goes to them too.
And further to that, I know John has mentioned that being on the other side of 55, it’s hard to know how much longer he will have in the game! The idea in the 80's was to keep playing as long as the Stones, but waddayaknow, they’re still playing now! Hah! Can you believe it??
Vera: Yeah, I saw them last year and they are still incredible. But for us, who knows? Our bodies have a harder time putting up with the workout we give ourselves onstage. As for now, we’re still enjoying performing and making music. We’ll leave it at that.
Indeed – keep fighting on, man! Still, there were some turbulent times – being dropped by the Chrysalis label after ‘87's ‘Raising Fear’ was a blow – what do you recall of that period? Was there an air of resignation at all?
Vera: Not really at first. We were glad to be dropped, at first. We didn’t see eye to eye with them and we wanted off. Of course, be careful what you ask for. We quickly realized how hard it was to get another deal, so we hunkered down and wrote music. In hindsight, it was a procreative process that led us into new territory and we unknowingly began to find our own voice. Then, Dave Prichard found out he had Leukemia. We had been writing and making demos and showcasing for labels for about 1 year and a half years when he got this news. Shortly after, he decided to go for a procedure that had a 50/50 chance of survival. It was tragic when he left us. but we managed to pull ourselves back up and make ‘Symbol of Salvation’ (1991) with Metal Blade. Yes, it was quite a turbulent time, but we were able to get through it.
I was going to broach the subject next, but thanks for mentioning the truly sad and tragic loss of Dave Prichard in ’89 as you were preparing for what would be ‘91's ‘Symbol of Salvation’ – man, it seemed as though you couldn’t take a trick at this point! Care to comment any more on that period?
Vera: As I said previously, it was very hard. But Brian Slagel from Metal Blade was instrumental is making us realize that we couldn’t let all that material go to waste, Dave would have been super bummed. We had written about 26 songs by that time, so we called Jeff Duncan and Phil Sandoval and asked them to come join us to make the record. It was a very emotional record to make. But for all these reasons it always has a place in us. I think the fans feel this too.
Yes, I felt that it was a truly special record from you, when it arrived. But then things imploded and we had the 9 year stretch between ‘Symbol’ and 2000’s ‘Revelation’ album. Of course, John was fronting Anthrax for some of that time period. I know that the future was uncertain and it is written that you disbanded. But, were you ever fully done as a band?
Vera: I think at the time of the split, I did think it was over, but I was okay with that. We put in a lot of work during those 10 years and I was exasperated. I was ready for change. I was starting a new life with my new wife and I was looking forward. After a few years, I’d see John now and again and he’d tell me, “we’re not done making music together”. Maybe we both knew one day we’d resume.
And weren’t we all happy about it when it happened, man! To the new album Joey – congratulations - it sounds fantastic and quite possibly the best thing you have done since ‘Symbol’ and perhaps your whole discography. Some would say you have no right sounding this good in 2020? When it was complete, did you feel as though it was up there with you best material?
Vera: Well yes, but I say that after every record I make! But I think both John and I knew we’d done something special as a whole record. We knew we’d taken some chances and dug a little deeper this time, so we were very proud of the record at the end. But honestly, still at the end of the day, we had no idea what people would think. We never really do, but what mattered to us is that we were happy with it.
Since its release, I’ve been in many conversation about its merit as probably the best traditional heavy metal album of the year. It’s not retro or revisionist in style, it’s modern in its delivery, it takes chances in places but yet it is so goddamn authentic in its Armored Saint ‘sound’. This is A Game Level. There’s not much of this around now, Joey. You seem to be very comfortable with where the band sits and what you want to deliver?
Vera: Yes, I think we both felt this sense of freedom to try some different approaches, push a few boundaries. We don’t discuss much about what we’re doing while we’re doing it. we don’t want to over analyze or manufacture something that isn’t us. So we tend to allow things to happen organically. We experiment with judgement.
That’s cool. You have a sense of what is ‘you’ as it happens! So, what would say is the main difference between 'PTS' and 'WHD' (2015) ? – there seems to be a focus on nailing that real AS groove and catchy chorus hooks. But with a real anthemic feel. Not that 'WHD' didn’t possess such qualities, 'PTS' seems more dialed into that element.
Vera: Well, if there was any conscious efforts at all, it would be that I was willing to let simplicity take center stage, and I then wanted to push that into a place where John could really shine. Yes, I was after big melodies and epic sections. I wanted every song to have a goose bump moment. I think I got that on 'WHD' also, but the main difference is that I wanted to achieve this in a shorter song format. Simplicity. And I wasn’t shy about overdubs and unlimited orchestrations of instruments either.
Yes, those elements of the album work so well! Now, I know that this album came together via separate writing and then sharing ideas digitally – clearly that method works. But when was the last time you were in the same room/studio and jamming ideas out? I know Jim Matheos of Fates Warning has said he would find that a very weird experience if that happened now?
Vera: I’m so used to this way now. I find it much more practical. I think it would work for writing stripped down rock songs, but the level of things going on in the music I’m writing now, it’s better if I’m left alone. I think the last time the band actually wrote in the same room was when we got with Jeff and Phil before recording 'Symbol'. We recorded 'Revelation' as a band in the same room, but the writing was done like it is now for the most part. But this method really came to fruition when I began writing 'La Raza' (201o) in 2008.
How did this album come together considering the COVID bullshit that has put the world on pause? Was there any delay or interruption to the process?
Vera: None for us. We were just finished with tracking when Los Angeles shut down. I was doing some technical stuff at my home studio for a week or so but I delivered the sessions to Jay Ruston in mid March and then we just emailed back and forth. Technology.
So, perfect timing then, great work! Now, production wise, Joey – you handled the whole thing I believe with the inclusion of Josh Newell and Bill Metoyer who worked with you on 'Win Hands Down'? Clearly you are confident with what you want achieve sound wise. What do they bring to the table for you? Do you find it hard to step back and let others twiddle the knobs, so to speak?
Vera: I worked with both Josh and Bill (and Jay Ruston) on 'WHD' and I wanted the same team with me again. I trust them for their ears. I know that if I have any doubts about something, I can ask their honest opinions. They are great for that as well as their engineering expertise. I don’t want to be bothered with tech stuff while I’m trying to get the best performances from my band mates.
And song writing wise – you have written most of the music and John the lyrics. Can you tell me what part Jeff Duncan, Phil Sandoval and Gozo played in the construction of the album?
Vera: Well, I write all the music. Phil contributed the very first riff to 'Attention Span' but he didn’t have a song, so I made some changes and wrote the rest of the song. He also gave me an idea that sparked me writing the song ‘Do Wrong to None’, and Gonzo was on that idea also. Phil also contributed a few lyric lines to John that inspired him on the songs ‘Unfair’ and ‘Attention’. Jeff helped me write and construct most of the double guitar melody solos, which I had written to begin with, but Jeff made them more guitar friendly.
Great stuff! I’m always keen to find out what the other members contributed to the album! Ok, let’s chat about some album track specifics, Joey. As signature laden as the album sounds, you seem to love the freedom to include subtle instrument elements that gives your music whole new dynamic. For example – the opening Uilleann Pipes salvo on ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’ – great epic feel to it as it drops into the track-ending riff before starting the vocal groove. How does that idea come about?
Vera: As I said before, I’m conscious about attaining that goose bump thing. I hear music as a great art form and I hear things like a movie. So anytime I see an opening for an opportunity to hit the EPIC button, I take it. I like taking the listener outside of expectations and challenge them. I feel like music is a universal language and in that sense it’s open for universal instruments. I’ll take that to the limit. I think for me, it adds a nuance that might otherwise not be there. One of my goals is to take you away from here. And using world instruments helps me do that.
Brilliant response, I love that attitude Joey! Hit the epic button at every chance! Same can be said for the marching band snare intro on 'Do Wrong To None' – I believe this was performed by Jacob Ayala, the son of a childhood friend? Love how the riff pattern follows up the snare intro. One of your heaviest moments for me. Again, though, it’s a subtle addition that just adds to the Armored Saint palette, yeah?
Vera: Yes, we had the tune written, but when it came time to record I thought how cool it would be if we did it with like 50 marching snares. Our good friend has a son who was in high school marching band, and I thought it would be perfect. He did great. Again, just taking advantage of an opportunity with this, making something cool out of the intro. Also, those weird sounds in the background? We played a festival in Italy last year and outside the window of my hotel there was a bog filled with who knows what! Weirdest animal sounds I’ve ever heard! So I recorded it on my phone. And that’s what that is.
Haha! Wow! Animal noises, really?? I wondered what was going on there! Thanks for clearing it up. I’ll also highlight Gonzo contribution in playing the Indian Flute intro to the final track ‘Never You Fret’? His idea? Yours?
Vera: Yeah, Gonzo came to me with it. The other parts of the intro I already had recorded, the Indian samples and those voices are me, but he played me this little thing and I recorded it. It was in a different key, but I pitched down to fit the song, and it worked.
It’s short – but yes, works a treat! Now, let’s chat about this man - John Bush. My god, what a performance. The high end may not be in his ball park anymore, but that aside, I don’t think he’s lost a thing with his voice! He’s always been a favorite of mine. You must be thrilled with what he does and can STILL do with his vocal phrasing and power in the choruses?
Vera: John is the man. His voice is just completely recognizable. It’s just him. He’s a true original and he’s been taking care of his voice more than he ever did over the past 10 years. It really has paid off for him. Part of what my goal was, it was to give him space in the music to do his thing. When I’m writing, I hear his voice in my head. Him and I worked very hard on making the vocals really shine. I think he did an amazing job, he’s just one of the best singers in the business. And he happens to be in our band!
His lyrics are also on point too – lots of social commentary delivered with his own inimitable style including his ability to weave in some sarcasm and humor across the albums numerous tracks. For example, I love the message around ‘Attention Span’, the reaching for the stars motivation of ‘Giants’ and ‘Missile to Gun’.
Vera: Yeah, John has always written with the sense that you’re never quite sure which side of a point he’s taking. He likes to leave some room for the listener to take away what they think the song is about. He gives some clues to that with his humor and sarcasm but he’s rarely written with the voice of a dictator. He prefers to just report the story, and there’s been no shortage of topics in the last 5 years, that’s for sure.
On that, you are most certainly correct! Speaking of those three tracks – you have actually taken the time to film videos for them as promo lead in for the album’s release. You clearly still believe in the power of that medium? What I’m getting at here is that many bands seem to resort of ‘lyric Videos’ which, for me, don’t work as well.
Vera: I think now, more than ever, it’s so important. None of us can leave the house to go see a live show so at least we can make videos to help keep a connection with our fans. It seems to have taken a whole new connection. We’ve been having fun making these videos.
Great point, Joey! It’s all you can do right now. Do you have favorite track right now? I’m actually really partial to ‘Lone Wolf’ – a track that I haven’t seen referenced much/if any, in reviews I’ve read. Love the female choir involved in the chorus and John’s darker, emotive vocal on this one. It’s a real killer deep cut in my opinion.
Vera: Funny you mention that, as 'Lone Wolf' is one of my favorite tracks on the record. I think because we took some chances on it. I originally wrote this on piano and it has a very R&B chord progression. But I orchestrated the instruments in a way that made it a heavy rock song. Then John came up with some cool lyrics and together we chose to make his approach very funky, and it worked so well I think. This one was a win for me. It’s dark, funky, groovy and epic all at the same time.
Awesome - I knew I was hearing something cool with that track! Can you tell us about the cover art? Being an art focused webzine also, we are keen to dive into the meaning of the album artwork. This one uses your classic Spartan warrior helmet logo rising from some sort of molten lava tundra! Great use of colors really gives it a killer look. Who’s work is this? You must be pleased with how it complements your style? The whole package is complete.
Vera: Yeah, I love it. It was done by a conceptual artist in the UK named Steve Stone. Our drummer Gonzo suggested putting our logo on the cover, but I wanted more than just that. So, I had the idea of our logo taking on the attribute of a very large object in nature. First a mountain, then a pillar of sorts, then eventually a giant labyrinth of stone. I made a sketch and gave it to Steve and he ran with it and added all of these other elements to make it totally majestic. I saw the labyrinth as a maze of sorts that the band has been trying to get through since day one. And it’s now old, weathered, and rising up towards the sky. In some way, it represents us as a band evolving, growing, learning. The sky is not the limit. 'Punching The Sky' is suggesting we want to go beyond that. Steve really brought it all together though and we think it’s great.
Brilliant – I knew there was some symbolism in its representation. So cool. Last few questions, Joey. I want to ask you about the current live predicament the music world is in. We are in uncharted territory. Obviously there would be plans to tour this album – but like everyone else who has released an album after March 2020, nothing has been allowed. Being frustrated with that would be an understatement, yeah?
Vera: Yeah, it’s frustrating that we can’t make any plans for playing live.
Having said that, you did do a virtual album release show on October 10th. How was that experience? Weird? Lack of a real audience affect you energy wise?
Vera: Yes it was strange at first, but we just got into the music and had fun with it. We know it’s either we do this, or we do nothing at all and that prospect seemed even more dreadful. You gotta adapt and deal with it.
It’s an interesting medium that seems to be gathering steam now that bands are realizing we aren’t coming out of this as quick as we would like. I mean, Obituary just did 3 live stream shows playing full album feature sets. Is this something you’d consider in 2021 doesn’t clean itself up?
Vera: Yes for sure. We’ve already talked about it. If the next 6-12 months looks like things are staying the same, then we’ll probably do another virtual show in the future.
For the record Joey, I’m in Australia and I know you’ve only visited once with the band. I’m sure you have good memories. Can you do something about a second visit please?
Vera: I love Australia. I’ve been there twice. I would love to go back and believe me, as soon as the world opens back up, we’ll make every effort to come back there.
Joey, such a pleasure to chat with you today – the new album is a magnificent beast, the response to it so far has been nothing short of phenomenal. We here at HOA hope it all goes well. Anything else to add here?
Vera: Thank you very much for the support. And to the fans, we can’t do any of this without you. This is a two way street. We thank you all for the generous support!
Punching The Sky is available now via Metal Blade Records. Order your copy HERE.