I’ve been looking forward to a new Sanctuary album for a long time.
It’s been twenty-five years since the last one, since 1989’s Into The Mirror Black. Mirror and its predecessor, the Dave Mustaine-produced Refuge Denied, remain too-often-unheralded greats of 1980s power metal, all thrash-tinted riffing and Warrel Dane’s uber-dramatic octave-spanning snarlscreamcroon. The word “cerebral” is frequently attached to both discs, and rightfully so, because Sanctuary exhibits both the moody atmosphere of the Prog and the forward-thinking intelligence of the progressive. Though never overly musically intricate or self-indulgent, Sanctuary’s brand of power always feels deep and dark and daring, poetic and philosophical. And through it all, they remain a band that’s very much accessible, their component parts expertly assembled into an entity equally engaging and enigmatic.
In the interim between Sanctuary’s initial dissolution and now, Dane and bassist Jim Sheppard famously founded Nevermore. That newer band was a logical continuation of Mirror Black’s moody Prog-power. Dane’s vocal style meshed perfectly with newcomer Jeff Loomis’ shredding, and through seven quality full-lengths, Nevermore occupied a similar space to Sanctuary, between the thrashing, the melodic, the gothic, all while upping the ante on the technical. But now Nevermore is no more, broken apart by intra-band upheaval, and Sheppard and Dane are back with two-thirds of the rest of Sanctuary. (Original guitarist Sean Blosl did not return, replaced by Brad Hull of the also-underrated Forced Entry.)
Some two years or so afterward, now we’ve got the next Sanctuary record firmly in our grubby little mitts.
And how does it hold up?
In a word: brilliantly.
As much as Nevermore felt like a logical jump from the direction laid out on Into The Mirror Black, The Day The Sun Died feels like a section of the bridge between the two. Whereas Nevermore’s basic formula was the combination of chunky riff, instrumental flash, and vocal pomp, Sanctuary’s is a more traditional power/thrash approach, one that has ultimately always really been about the vocal, about Warrel’s operatics and piercing shriek. Though they’re certainly good at what they do, guitarists Lenny Rutledge and Hull don’t possess the head-spinning technique of Loomis. Still, in the context of Sanctuary, that’s no detriment – with fewer notes but appropriate skill, they provide a rock-solid base for Dane’s melodrama. And here, Dane is in godlike form, his voice as strong as ever, although he does sidestep the super-highs in favor of the more Nevermore-ish baritone. He’s one of metal’s finest vocalists, and on top of his game still.
Of course, Warrel Dane alone doesn’t make a record great –The Year The Sun Died ultimately succeeds in the time-honored tradition of being a collection of stellar material performed by stellar musicians. Although some are naturally better than others, there really isn’t a bad track on The Year The Sun Died. At the top of the heap sits the gothic stomp of “Exitium (Anthem Of The Living),” an absolutely killer mid-tempo tune that features a great wah-wah riff beneath some of Warrel’s winningest warbling. (Keep your ears open for the brilliantly subtle, almost chanted bass-register vocalization atop the post-chorus turnarounds.) Other knockouts include the title track, a massive goth-dark moment that sits only a hair’s breadth second to “Exitium”; the album-opening “Arise & Purify,” wherein alongside equally solid follow-up “Let The Serpent Follow Me” sit the most noticeable appearances of Dane’s falsetto scream, here relegated entirely to the background; and “Frozen,” with its fleet-fingered soloing as close as the band comes to Loomis-ian prog-shred.
By comparison to the high points, “I Am Low” drags a bit, the ballad and the moodiest of the moody, respectable but overshadowed by those around it. I suppose it’s truly a testament to the band’s songwriting skills that the relative worst track on the album is a cover: The Year The Sun Died closes with a version of the Doors’ “Waiting For The Sun.” Dane does his best Morrison, to an acceptable but less fiery result. Still, though it’s not bad (and certainly better than their earlier interpretation of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”), “Waiting” feels tacked on, especially unnecessary coming off the masterstroke of the title track before it, almost like a b-side appended as a bonus. (Plus, dudes, the sun died, so you may as well stop waiting.)
Longtime Sanctuary fans hoping for a return to Refuge’s more straightforward power metal approach will be suitably denied such, and some may find that a shame. Still, as great as that record is, and as much as I’d also love another album full of “Battle Angels,” Sanctuary’s direction was always focused forward, their power quite literally shown in future tense, and here is where they ended up, exactly where they should be.
Though it’s a step into the past by nature, as reformations always are, The Year The Sun Died is also a logical progression for Sanctuary. Most importantly, it’s easily one of the best records I’ve heard all year, one that has seen almost daily repeats since it landed in my promo inbox a few weeks back. It’s as good a comeback as I could have ever expected, the next step in Sanctuary’s evolution, with more than enough Nevermore vibe to satisfy fans of Warrel’s more recent (godless) endeavors.
It took us a quarter century to find out where Sanctuary was going next, but regardless, I’m still on board. This one’s a killer, kids…