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We talkin' 'bout practice - 86%

Disposable_Hero85, May 23rd, 2016
Written based on this version: 2001, 2CD, Metal Blade Records

A sports team with championship aspirations is going through a rough patch. The old veteran on the team, nicknamed “The Saint,” approaches the reclusive, young and ultra-talented star of the team, call him Bucky, to tell him for the umpteenth time that he plays too selfishly. Bucky springs up from the locker room bench and yells “And who are you besides an old arthritic fuck?! You’ve never been half the player I am!” The tension in the locker room is palpable. The old vet calmly instructs Bucky to follow him to the film room. He obliges hesitantly, staying several paces behind as every eye in the locker room follows him. The audience stirs, eager for The Saint’s screening of highlights from his glory days: his college days where he was anointed a symbol of salvation, his team raising fear across the league during their reign of fire, and maybe even a career-altering injury just for the sake of heaviness. But alas, movie audiences are stupid. Instead, The Saint queues up tapes of him practicing over the course of his career, but practicing like champions practice. Baffled and now unexpectedly alone, Bucky peers into the hallway, but the only soul in sight is an old janitor, identified only by a patch on the breast of his grey coveralls (and later confirmed by the credits) as ‘Gus’. The janitor shakes his head and lets out a singular, disdainful laugh. Gus then holds up a finger for each championship The Saint has won as he continues hobbling down the hallway behind his top-heavy trash cart. Humiliated and lonely, Bucky realizes the blindness that his youthful hubris has inflicted and understands that, although The Saint is certainly not the athlete that Bucky is or even he himself used to be, he is a true champion. He humbly walks back into the room to study the practice tape with a fresh sense of purpose. Fast-forward to the end and the team wins the championship with a healthy dose of mutual respect. Yay!

No, Nod To The Old School is not a best-of highlight reel of one of metaldom’s most underappreciated champions, and so may not be the best place to start if you’re new to the Saint (and therefore I assume you, the reader, are already familiar with their work). It is, however, like a montage of practice film, still a cross-section of their career. And oh what practice film it is! Subtler than a direct attestation to this band’s nadir, it indicates the less-flashy aspects of the heart of a champion while confirming their remarkable consistency. And while metal moved to more extreme endeavors before Armored Saint could conquer their league, there are plenty of important lessons aspiring metal musicians can learn from them, even in their practice tape.

For example, we get four songs from the 1983 Armored Saint EP sessions. No surprise, the production is really good for a demo from this era. Lesson Well Learned is a great track: trademark Dave Prichard riff, Joey and Gonzo changing rhythms with ease, and Bush really belting it out. On The Way has some nice dual guitar interplay between Dave and Phil, but otherwise is not all that exciting. As for the other two songs, I actually prefer these versions to those on March of the Saint. They just have the energy and rawness that the debut album was sorely missing. Anyways, these versions are really cool and show that, indeed, Armored Saint were professional musicians from their inception.

Disc 2 kicks off with a classic-era song, ‘You Can Run But You Can’t Hide,’ originally on the soundtrack to The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years. This song could have easily been taken from the Raising Fear sessions, although the production is much cleaner. Then there’s the weird ‘Betty ‘79’ track, which, if I’m not mistaken, is the beginning of AC/DC’s Sin City recorded in a bathroom while the band is playing in a different bathroom. Anyways, it’s short and does no harm.

The rest of Disc 2 is taken from a 1989 demo originally recorded by Dave Prichard, hinting at the blue chip athleticism they once possessed. Again, the sound quality and mix is incredibly clean yet crunchy for what was essentially a home demo. The band sounds fresh, like they were truly enjoying writing and playing together at this point, and frankly, I’m a bit surprised none of these tracks ended up on Symbol of Salvation. ‘People’ is a mid-tempo rocker featuring Joey Vera’s funky slap bass prominently. ‘Get Lost’ and ‘Tongue And Cheek’ are pretty standard mid-paced Armored Saint songs. ‘Pirates’ ups the tempo and lets Prichard run free with a great melodic riff over Vera’s quick pulsing bass-patterns while Bush delivers a supremely catchy chorus “We’re all!!! Pi-rates!!!” Great song. Last up is Medieval Nightmares. This one’s got a really cool, heavy groove with plenty of space for Bush’s gravelly, almost desperate singing. Prichard trades solos with Jeff Duncan, who delivers a very Adrian Smithian solo. Cool.

This compilation also has a couple of new originals, re-recordings, covers, and live cuts from the latter part of our protagonist’s more recent work. The production’s good and the mix is great, although the guitars tones are a bit too fuzzy for my taste. First up are two new songs in a very similar vein as the previous year’s Revelation album: mid-paced, crunchy, and catchy. ‘Unstable’, in particular, has a cool dynamic between the heavier verses and the more downtrodden, eerie mellow of the chorus. Honestly, the two covers, Robin Trower’s Day of the Eagle and Judas Priest’s Never Satisfied don’t do much for me, although bonus points for picking a deep cut from the Priest catalogue. Nothing against the originals, I just find the covers a bit stale. Same goes for the rehash of March of the Saint. However, the all-acoustic version of Tainted Past is an enjoyable listen. The rhythm and lead guitars work beautifully together amongst themselves and with John Bush’s underrated melody lines. Both live recordings are of songs from Revelation. The band’s energy really brings these songs to life. Both songs are catchy and quite heavy, but I’m not going to spend a lot of time reviewing songs from another album.

All around, a nice package for Armored Saint fans. There are also some enhanced CD tracks, that admittedly, I’ve never watched in the 10-15 years I’ve had this album.

All-Stars: Pirates, Medieval Nightmares, Lesson Well Learned, Unstable, Tainted Past
Bench-Warmers: March of the Saint, Day of the Eagle