Review Summary: Although not thematically cohesive, Songs of Armor and Devotion features a band at the top of their game having a mid-career resurgence.
Following on the heels of widely praised album Transmission Alpha Delta
, Strung Out is back with their first full length album in nearly five years, Songs of Armor and Devotion
. With the band undergoing lineup changes between this album and the previous release (namely the replacement of longtime drummer Jordan Burns), many fans were rightfully concerned about whether Armor
would stand up to the lofty standards set by many of the band’s previous releases.
One thing that makes this album really different from the previous two releases is how much faster it is. Armor
is really, really fast. Speedy riffs. Huge solos. Everything seems to be on overdrive here. There is somewhat of a cost to pay, however, as this album does not feel quite as sonically cohesive overall as its predecessor Transmission Alpha Delta
did. On the latter, all the songs seemed to fit around a common theme musically and lyrically. The songs flowed from one to the next really seamlessly. Armor
, on the other hand, is all over the place from song to song. Its not necessarily a bad thing, this album actually has a lot going on and feels more like a greatest hits album, consisting of favorites you just hadn’t heard yet. I think the idea here was some type of culmination of all the previous albums, its like the band took all they knew about songwriting and threw it all at this album. However, if there was one element that was stands out as the glue of Armor
, it would have to be an almost sinister/dark vibe to it. It’s a cool touch that is hard to put your finger on but it is a somewhat consistent unifying theme throughout the album. It works, but it’s also a very different listening experience than Transmission
. which felt more like a whole album, while Armor
ultimately feels more like a collection of really good songs.
Its fair to say that drummer RJ Shankle can be credited with a good deal of the uptick in pacing noted earlier. Shankle’s style helps propel Armor
forward in a way that moves the songs along really quickly. Overall, Shankle fits this particular album and these songs in a way that Jordan Burns may not have. While Burns has Shankle beat from a technical drumming standpoint, Shankle really fits within the structure of this album like a glove. While it would have been fun in an alternate universe to see how these songs would have turned out had Burns behind the kit, the reality is that Shankle more than holds his own. The album seems improved with Shankle’s influence and his more traditional/straight ahead style of playing. While previous releases benefited from Burns’ technical and innovative style, this album thrives with the help of a huge push of adrenaline from Shankle.
Songs of Armor
and Devotion is by far the most technically ambitious album Strung Out has ever made. So many of the songs are filled with impossibly fast riffs, crazy solos, and huge choruses. The album showcases Bassist Chris Aiken to a much greater extent than previous releases. His playing is really on a whole new level here. It sometimes takes paying special attention to really hear everything that is going on in these songs because all of it is centered around great writing and huge choruses that are giant ear worms. Jason Cruz once again is really solid on this album, with tons of songs providing relatable moments in the lyrics and great melodic parts throughout. The songs ultimately serve to drive the technicality, as opposed to anything seeming out of place or over the top. The album never strays into wankery or showy nonsense, it really all blends together to form some super solid songs. This is a band at the top of their game from front to back.
One particular issue that is interesting is that the songs this band chooses to showcase as singles tend to not really be the strongest songs. This pattern was evident on the last album with “Modern Drugs”, going back even further with “Carcrashradio”, and again here with new single “Under the Western Sky”. While these songs are decent enough in their own right, it is tough to make a serious case these songs represent some of the band’s best work. This becomes even more apparent when you have a song like “Ulysses” as Armor
does. A song that practically begs to be a standout single. “Ulysses” really has it all: great riffy choruses, a killer bridge, a chorus that would bring even the hardest cynic around, and a huge solo to close it out. Its like nothing you’ve ever heard. It’s the best song Strung Out has ever written. It needs a wider audience and should be the obvious choice for the next single.
Let’s talk about some of the weaknesses of this album for just a second. While there isn’t much to complain about here, there are a few verses strewn throughout the album that can seem a little forgettable. Its also true that there is a really excellent chorus or interlude around every forgettable corner, the forgettable parts aren’t all that frequent, and none of them are anything you would categorize as being bad in any way. Every song on Armor
has at least one part (and often multiple parts) that are incredibly well done and make you want to hit rewind. There isn’t a single song on this album that merits hitting the skip button.
One more somewhat small negative is that the album does close on somewhat of an anticlimactic note. Considering Strung Out’s penchant for epic closers (Westcoasttrendkill, matchbook, etc.) “Bloody Knuckles” feels like a bit of an odd choice to close out the album. While there is a really great part in “Bloody Knuckles” that feels like it might get fleshed out a bit more, that part never returns and the album ends on a note that makes me feel like this song could have been fleshed out a little more.
Final thoughts: After a little bit of a mid-career lull, we are now seeing a veteran band that is having a late career resurgence. The quality of this album song wise is right on par with previous release Transmission Alpha Delta
, with some components (such as the blazing fast riffs, more guitar solos, more melodic moments, etc.) even surpassing the last release. While some of this comes at the expense of a slightly less cohesive listen, overall this is an incredibly solid release that is going to please many, many fans.