Thursday, April 28, 2011

Saint - Hell Blade (2009)

I love how art can be so subjective that folks can see things differently depending on their vantage point or their musical ear, in the same way that some can see a Jackson Pollock painting and see a brilliant work of art, while I look at it and see a bunch of paint splattered on a canvas with no apparent form or reason.  Some art meets the listener where they are at, and some forces the listener to open their mind and think about what it is they're seeing or hearing.  I also love how music reviews can be so polarized.  Consider the album I'm reviewing here, Saint's 2009 album "Hell Blade".  My esteemed reviewer colleague Iron Guardian was quite disappointed with this album, and he stated his opinions on the subject well, given the small space he had in print to do so at the time of his review.  I, on the other hand, hold a totally different view of this album.

I've been a fan of Saint for quite a number of years, but due to my age I just missed their legacy in the beginning of my "metal education" because their 2nd full-length album was their last before their partial reunion over 10 years later.  Other than the excellent "Primed and Ready" on the 2-CD Heaven's Metal boxset, I'd not heard any Saint material since early high school until a couple years after I was married.  I happened across an original CD copy of "Too Late For Living" in a pawn shop near my apartment building, and at the meager price of $6 (compared to the over $200 the old Rad Rockers catalog was reporting for used, scratched copies on auction), I eagerly snapped it up and purchased it without delay.  That CD quickly became a metal classic favorite to me, and I still hold it in high regard for its consistency, songwriting, performances, and just how high-quality the whole package was.

Fast forward years later and the band reunites, sort of, to record a hard rock-oriented EP with a different vocalist.  Decent music, but not really what Saint fans (including myself) were hoping for.  5 years later, we are treated to the excellent "In the Battle" which sounds as though it could have been recorded in 1989, a year after Saint's original swan song, as it carries on the sound and spirit of that record well, despite being over 15 years later.  Following that up 2 years later with "The Mark", the band got heavier and sounded even more hungry than it had been since probably their earliest recordings.  However, I still feel like the band hadn't quite lived up to the promise of their early work.  2008 saw the release of "Crime Scene Earth" which lacked Josh Kramer's vocals in several songs and had some production woes.  the 2.0 re-issue of this album fixes the mastering and puts Josh back at the vocal helm, which pleased fans (including myself), but I still felt like the songwriting on that release was a tad clumsy for a band who had come back so strong just a few years earlier.  Enter "Hell Blade", the band's most recent full studio effort.

One thing that must be mentioned is that soundboard wizard J. Powell has said he produced this album like a 70's metal album because that's how it sounded to him.  I agree, and though it has a modern edge to it, this is a major throw-back to the late 70's where Judas Priest was producing very strong material and really defining what became the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM).  Having said that, this album pulls out all the stops.  Guitars are crunchy and punchy, with a near-perfect tone for this style of metal.  They recall the halcyon days of NWOBHM but have the polish and professional feel one would expect from a band this seasoned.  The dual-guitar work from Dee Harrington and Jerry Johnson is rife with melody, power, precision, and flair.  Not since the early days of the band have they sounded this tight.  Richard Lynch's bass word thunders along underneath it all, content to be part of the scenery, rather than the main attraction.  However, the thumping basslines add the appropriate low-end to the mix and give the songs pack an even greater punch.  Drum work is also very well done, with steady beats and rhythms augmented, when appropriate, with good rills, rolls, and breaks that serve the songs without getting in the way.

Vocalist Josh Kramer is in fine form here, belting out lyrics in his trademark fashion, with that nod to Rob Halford without aping him or sounding like a copycat.  Some have complained that he doesn't do the high-pitched screaming stuff enough on this release, but truthfully, I don't think that's a huge issue.  Yes, it's part of his style, but he shouldn't be obligated to utilize that portion of his vocal range all the time, or some arbitrary percentage of the time.  If it makes sense within the song, great.  If not, don't force it.  My thoughts on this album are that while there are moments where he might have augmented the song a bit more with the high-pitched wails, what he has done here makes sense and works with and for the material, so that's the most important aspect.  Lyrically, the band continues with their "straight out of Revelations" themes, with songs about the New World Order, hell, and the continued fall of mankind.  But it's not all doom and gloom here, either.  "SinnerPeace", "You and Me", and "Crying in the Night" offer the hope of Christ as the alternative to all that negativity, so the band strikes a good balance between traditional darker metal themes and more hopeful material.

So what does all this add up to?  Well, to some it may seem like a workmanlike metal album from a band who has been in the game a while.  To me, based on the songs, production, performances, and the whole vibe, it sounds like a band at their best, just as hungry as they were in their younger years.  "Hell Blade" sounds more vital and fresh than anything the band has done in 20 years, and it's been in heavy rotation for me for about the last year and a half since I first got it.  That's the highest compliment I can pay to this album - the fact that I took it with me as one of about a dozen CDs that accompanied me on a business trip, and during that week away, I probably spun it some 10 times, after having already listened to it exhaustively months earlier.  This album has the staying power that their other recent releases just haven't quite mustered.  I'd go so far as to say this album is on par with "Too Late For Living", and is perhaps just shy of being a masterwork for the band.  Highly recommended.


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