By 1991, Los Angeles metal act Armored Saint had already been through the major-label wringer and experienced tragedy that would have broken up most acts, even though they were still only hitting their mid-20s. The group had been part of the early-’80s L.A. metal scene that birthed heavy metal record label Metal Blade Records, then were signed and chewed up by major label Chrysalis through the rest of the decade, and endured the death of guitarist Dave Prichard from leukemia in 1990.
Still recovering from the major-label experience and the loss of a beloved friend and bandmate, vocalist John Bush, bassist Joey Vera and drummer Gonzo Sandoval soldiered on for 1991’s Symbol of Salvation. The group — which had started writing songs for the album while Prichard was still alive — returned home to Metal Blade Records, welcomed guitarist Phil Sandoval back into the band after his departure following 1984’s March of the Saint, and rounded out guitar duties with Jeff Duncan, formerly of fellow L.A. metallers Odin. Armored Saint put together an enduring testament to the power of anthemic heavy metal, mixing a flair for commercial hard-rock songwriting with the band’s metallic roots.
The record was not a commercial success. Armored Saint broke up soon after its release, its dissolution further spurred by vocalist Bush receiving an offer to replace Joey Belladonna as front man for Anthrax. Armored Saint have reunited off and on since 2000, with three studio records since. The band is everyone’s primary live gig in 2018, and Symbol of Salvation has grown in legacy and stature in the years since as a lost heavy metal classic of the early ’90s. The album is being performed in its entirety on their current tour, which hits the Regent Theater on Saturday, Aug. 18.
L.A. Weekly caught up earlier this month with John Bush to discuss the tumultuous time period around Symbol of Salvation, shortly before the band flew to Europe for a run of festival gigs.
What were your emotions about Armored Saint returning to Metal Blade Records for Symbol of Salvation?
It was basically [Metal Blade founder] Brian Slagel coming to our rescue. So many things were in flux with the band. The most important thing was that Dave Prichard had passed away in 1990. We were in this limbo state for how we were going to continue onward. We had all of these songs written. The band was mainly me, Joey and Gonzo trying to figure out how we were going to go on.
We knew we had to record these songs. After all of the toil we went through and the hard work we did to write these songs with Dave through his illness, they just took on another meaning with us. We regrouped, we got Jeff back and we got Phil back. We had no label because we got dropped from Chrysalis. Brian said, “I'm here for you. I love you guys. I love your material. Come back here, this is where you belong.” It was like getting into a nice, giant, beautiful bed with a nice comforter, saying to ourselves, “This is nice, this feels good.”
Was the songwriting process for Symbol of Salvation already complete by the time you rejoined Metal Blade?
We did one last tour for [final Chrysalis album] Raising Fear in winter 1988. By that point we knew our days were numbered with Chrysalis. We did this tour in a van because we had no tour support from Chrysalis. We only did one run when the album came out and we wanted to do more shows, so we said screw it, this is how we're going to do it. It was from January through March. It was actually a cool tour because we went through all of these different opening slots in a short amount of time. We did shows with Alice Cooper, Michael Schenker, Ted Nugent, and a bunch of headlining shows.
One hilarious story from that tour. We drove to Syracuse, New York, in a 54-hour period to do the first show of the year in January. Dave concocted this thing that looked like a beer bong. His idea was that we would pee into this thing and hold it out the back of the van, so we wouldn't have to stop anywhere. Of course as you're driving along, you're trying to pee out of this thing, but it's also getting all over the van, and the people driving behind us are wondering what's going on.
We came back from that tour, and that was when we got dropped by Chrysalis. Not too long after that, we started writing. We didn't know what the future held for us. So we just decided to write songs that feel right to us. It was cool, because it opened us up to thinking about being more than just a heavy metal band. It was kind of relieving in some weird way, and that really created a more diverse songwriting circumstance.
We found out shortly after that Dave had leukemia. It threw us into this whole other head-spinning world. We wrote all of these heartfelt, emotional, yearning songs. Songs like “Last Train Home,” “Another Day,” “Tainted Past”; songs that you could feel were coming from a desperate band.
Were there any thoughts of breaking up after getting dropped by Chrysalis and after Dave's passing?
Yeah, I almost did. It was actually Joey and Gonzo that said no. I was just super despondent at the time. But we said, “We've got these songs. We can't let that fall by the wayside. Dave would hate us.” And that was true.
Where was Armored Saint's place in the sea change that was going on in heavy metal and rock in 1991, when Metallica and Nirvana were exploding?
Armored Saint have always been this anomaly. We're from Los Angeles. We're super proud of being from Los Angeles. We were part of the L.A. scene in the ’80s that created this world for hair metal. Bands like Ratt and Great White opened the door for bands like Warrant and Poison. We were in that scene and playing local shows with all of those bands, but we never really sounded like those bands. We were never an “L.A.” sounding band.
As that was happening, there was also the thrash movement going on. As powerful and heavy as Armored Saint was at times, we were never really a thrash band either. We were stuck in an identity crisis. We had "hair" but we didn't sound like a hair metal band. We were super powerful and energetic live, but we were not as heavy as Metallica and Slayer.
Sometimes the identity issues probably messed with what we wanted to accomplish, and what we felt we should accomplish. It was only around Symbol of Salvation that we started to not really worry about fitting in with a scene. We just said, “Let's be us.” I really think Symbol of Salvation is the perfect example of that.
After everything Armored Saint had endured to record Symbol of Salvation, what led to the breakup after its release?
We did a tour with Wrathchild America and Last Crack. We always look back on that tour. We had put out Symbol of Salvation. We loved the record. Metal Blade was totally behind it. Then we went out on this tour, and we were back in a van, and not only was the band in the van but the crew was in the van, too. It was like 10 guys in a van.
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There was a mutiny that was developing with the crew. It was probably the most miserable tour I've ever been a part of, and I think the other guys can agree on that. There was maybe this delusion that after everything we had been through, that we were finally going to make it big. And then it didn't happen. It created this turmoil and tension that may have been just a natural response to everything that had happened to make the record. I think that miserable time — coupled with Anthrax calling me — I do really think, though, in retrospect that was the right time.
What are your thoughts on Symbol of Salvation's legacy as the years since have passed?
It's probably the most important Armored Saint record. Its legacy is probably enhanced by it being the last record where Dave Prichard was part of the songwriting. You can still feel the emotion of us just trying to hold on. It has a lot of mystique to it.
Armored Saint play with Act of Defiance at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 18, at the Regent Theater.