SANCTUARY - The Year The Sun Died
October 13, 2014, 5 years ago
It takes only 29 seconds for the first guitar solo to begin on The Year The Sun Died, which is an important point to consider given that this is Sanctuary’s first record since 1989’s cult classic Into The Mirror Black. Only 29 seconds to exhale the sort of life-affirming clarion call that is one of the hallmarks of the genre we call home - that’s Sanctuary affirming, in the most effective and efficient way it can, that it has indeed been 25 years since Sanctuary’s one-time swansong (though not Swansong), but those years haven’t slowed this group, even if two-plus decades and an entire other band have happened in the interim. 29 seconds... that’s bold.
“What will the ‘90s hold?” Sanctuary vocalist and Seattle resident Warrel Dane roared on Into The Mirror Black’s first and only single, “Future Tense”. Well, with the benefit of hindsight, we can tell Dane’s 1989 incarnation that Into The Mirror Black sold 34,000 copies worldwide in its opening week, but Sanctuary eventually disbanded after a follow-up live EP appeared, sort of, in 1990. 1995 brought a new venture for Dane and Sanctuary bass player Jim Sheppard with Nevermore’s self-titled debut, and that band eventually went on to record the classic triumvirate of The Politics Of Ecstasy (1996), Dreaming Neon Black (1999) and Dead Heart In A Dead World (2000). In 2001, Dane told me backstage at Montreal’s beloved Le Medley venue (RIP - now replaced by high-rise condos) that you could call Nevermore anything as you long you didn’t call it power metal, which was an odd statement from a man whose performance on Sanctuary’s 1987 debut
Refuge Denied was Rob Halford-esque in so many conceivable ways. But that was the kind of self-aware existence Nevermore led: it knew what its past was, and it knew how to separate itself from that previous life. And Nevermore, whether premeditated or not, was far darker and cutting-edge than Sanctuary ever was. Nevermore was grand and eloquent, but always subversive. The band’s narrative always seemed to have been dragged through the dirt. To its great benefit.
The irony is, of course, that as we sit here reminiscing about Nevermore - a collective that messily splintered into disparate pieces in 2011 and has since been on hiatus - it is Sanctuary that was reminisced about during Nevermore’s reign. Make no mistake: Nevermore was a legitimate success, both commercially and critically, and certainly established itself fully on its own terms. But, from time to time during Nevermore’s reign, the unfinished legacy of Sanctuary, through the lens of rose-colored glasses, followed Dane and Sheppard. Like so many previous incarnations of so many past lives, Sanctuary never completely died.
The embers of Sanctuary were remembered fondly. And why not? Sanctuary’s aforementioned debut, Refuge Denied, was released on Epic Records and was produced by Dave Mustaine, which evidently lent credence to the record. And by the time Into The Mirror Black was conceived, Sanctuary was sounding clinical like ...And Justice For All-era Metallica, but performing with a Black Album mindset. Into The Mirror Black is what the Black Album’s demos would have led to had Bob Rock not been around to change Metallica's 1991 dynamic and Sanctuary crafted, truly, one of metal’s lost classics through Into The Mirror Black (listen to that solo on late-album standout “One More Murder” and marvel). And then Nevermore happened. And we rightfully latched on to “This Sacrament”, “The Fault Of The Flesh” and “Narcosynthesis”.
So in the here and now of 2014, it’s slightly surreal to be thinking about, and writing about, a new Sanctuary album. It was the same way with the fantastic Carcass comeback record last year and it will be the same way with the new At The Gates effort in about a month (“new At The Gates”... now there’s surrealism). But The Year The Sun Died exists. And it’s good in all the ways you’d want it to be.
Let’s get that first burning question out of the way: yes, The Year The Sun Died sounds like Nevermore. In fact, if this was released as the new Nevermore album, no one would dispute the claim. The only indication to the contrary would be The Year Of The Sun’s lack of a truly bottom-heavy rhythm section, the kind Nevermore performed with such dissident aggression. Even taking that into consideration, The Year Of The Sun might even be one of Nevermore’s better albums, which is saying a whole helluva lot given that band’s enviable back catalogue.
Now let’s deal with the second burning question: no, Warrel Dane isn't Rob Halford-ing all over the place the way he did on Refuge Denied and, to a lesser extent, on Into The Mirror Black. There are more high-pitched forays here than on anything post-Dreaming Neon Black, but nothing like Sanctuary’s initial run.
And now to the third burning question: this Sanctuary line-up, consisting of four-fifths of its original line-up (Dane, Sheppard, guitar player Lenny Rutledge and drummer Dave Budbill), is the real deal, and not simply a Dane/Sheppard vanity project. Bringing back Rutledge and Budbill was a smart move and lends credibility to Sanctuary’s efforts in 2014. Carting around mercenary-like hired hacks would not have helped Sanctuary’s cause.
You’ve now read exactly 874 words about Sanctuary, but The Year The Sun Died can be distilled to just one: “Frozen”. “Frozen” is, in so many myriads of ways, The Year The Sun Died’s highlight, and the best song Dane and Sheppard have been involved with since Dead Heart In A Dead World. The track is a culmination of what makes metal so perfect: it’s self-assured, immensely full of attitude, proficient, efficient and exactingly demanding of your attention. Elsewhere, album opener “Arise and Purify” is the possessor of a memorable chorus (it’ll be in your head all day if you let it), while “Exitium” harkens back to the ...Justice/Black Album duality of Into The Mirror Black and “Question Existence Fading” is the Nevermore of The Politics of Ecstasy. In sum: The Year The Sun Died is no let down.
This Sanctuary reunion could have very realistically turned out to be just something that Dane and Sheppard did to kill some time until a Nevermore reformation. But, instead of merely putting out a record for shits and giggles, it seems as though Sanctuary has taken the reunion mandate to heart. And when heart and ability meet, you get a masterful ace of spades like “Frozen” and a record that does the Sanctuary legacy proud, without diminishing this band’s past in the least.