The house lights dimmed – it went dark. We all waited for the start of the inevitable intro tape – there’s ALWAYS an intro tape, and just who were this ‘Sanctuary’ lot anyway? Looks from the name like a bunch of Maiden fans who had got themselves the Megadeth support just cos Dave Mustaine had produced their album! This intro tape’s taking ages to start as well, bloody amateurs, probably forgot to…BANG!!! What I later learned to be ‘Battle Angels’ exploded into life, stage lights flashing in time with the unified head-banging band members and Sanctuary had arrived. What an entrance, what a look, what a sound – I was immediately hooked. I stood transfixed for more than half an hour as they pelted me with one Metal gem after another. I have a vague memory that Megadeth played that night too… “Refuge Denied” was in my possession the very next day and I vowed to all that would listen that I would keep growing my hair until it was as long as Warrel Dane’s.
That was 1988. It was 1991 before their excellent, slightly more honed and mature follow-up saw the light of day, but as the pox of grunge took it’s foetid, grimy hold over Metal, Sanctuary vanished. Vocalist Warrel Dane and bassist Jim Sheppard carried on admirably with Nevermore, a shining Metal light throughout the grim 90’s and onwards. But now, 23 years after Sanctuary’s last record, they have returned with the original line-up (other than Brad Hull replacing original 2nd guitarist Sean Blosl. Dane and Sheppard are in fabulous form, lead guitarist Lenny Rutlidge is still shredding like he’s never been away, and Dave Budbill is once more pounding the skins with precision and power) Now, lets get it straight – I was not expecting another “Refuge Denied”, or for that matter another “Into The Mirror Black” – it’s 2014 fergodsake, but I was also hoping it wasn’t going to be basically ‘a new Nevermore album’ either. I just wanted to hear if the magic is still there. What made Sanctuary who they were and is it still audible? Oh yes…
One major factor to Sanctuary’s sound was how the drums, bass, guitar and vocals all seemed to bounce of each-other, whilst at the same time working in total harmony. And here it is, straight away on the opener ‘Arise and Purify’. It’s got a great main riff, brought in with accented drum and bass stabs…but in completely unexpected places! Within two minutes we’ve had two fabulous guitar solos, framing either side of Dane’s trademark not-quite-the-notes-you-normally-expect-but-somehow-it-really-works vocal parts. To be quite honest, this couldn’t be anyone other than Sanctuary! It couldn’t even be Nevermore, there are slight similarities, but that’s only down to the production and some of the vocals – the guitar style and song-writing is markedly different to Jeff Loomis – It’s just a different kind of Heavy! And we even get a hint of a Sanctuary-style vocal high note right at the end of the song! No wonder Warrel Dane has put Nevermore on hold – Sanctuary sound so full of energy, so utterly at ease with themselves – and musically, this really does seem to be the ideal follow up to “Into The Mirror Black”.
I know this album is highly anticipated and indeed, has had plenty of people at Noctum HQ vying for it to review, but I was the lucky recipient (the reviewing equivalent of shouting “Pass me the ball, pass it to me, I’m over here, pass me the ball, pass it to me” over and over, then upon receiving said Sanctuary shaped ball, picking it up and running off over the fields with it so no-one else could play. Yes, I felt THAT popular…), so with that in mind I won’t analyse the crap out of it or spoil the prospective listener’s own personal moments of discovery. I’ll just say, that the album as a whole, as well as in individual parts, is a triumph. There are no fillers – energy, intelligence and intensity is on display throughout. Even when the band briefly tone it down, like on parts of the stunning ‘I Am Low’ or ‘One Final Day’, the heaviness is always still there, simmering, lurking, and eventually emerging once more, to make the more powerful sections sound utterly immense. This is something Sanctuary always excelled at and something they have totally recaptured. There are so many elements of the band that created “Into The Mirror Black” (and to a lesser extent, there’s plenty of “Refuge Denied” too if you can cancel out it’s rather out-dated thrashy production) that it genuinely feels like that album came out maybe 5, 10 years ago – not 23! This album is so current, so at home in 2014 that it messes with my memory! Were Sanctuary so far ahead of their time by 1991 that it’s easy for this album to tie in so well with their previous release, or have they just managed to completely capture and update the sound, vibe and artistry that they created themselves so long ago?
Time to sum up then (I really have gone on a bit – sorry!). The songs are fabulous – expertly crafted and executed. The musicianship on display is exemplary. I expected it of Dane and Sheppard, but Budbill and Rutlidge are fantastic (Brad Hull fits in nicely too), it’s like they’ve never been away – except, luckily they have, because that comes through in the freshness of their contributions. There are wonderful hooks, rhythms, lead-work and riffs littered everywhere on “The Year The Sun Died” – it really is a testament to the guys involved and sets a really high standard for any band reforming after so long. Nostalgia is not enough, you have to be relevant to today’s climate as well as the fans that remember you fondly from back in the day. It’s a difficult thing to nail – but Sanctuary have got it just about perfect.
(9/10 Andy Barker)