Seattle, Washington may have given birth to grunge as we know it, but years before the flannel set booted good old heavy metal from the mid-nineties' American airwaves, a brooding beast of pure metal goodness had already given the world the gift of two seminal and top notch albums. Sanctuary, the band formed by musical visionaries Warrel Dane (vocals), Jim Sheppard (bass), Lenny Rutledge (guitars), and Dave Budbill (drums), soon added Jeff Loomis and his stunning guitar talents to the fold in 1990. Despite this strong beginning, the band would call it a day just two years later. It would be nearly two decades before Sanctuary reformed and got down to the business of writing their third studio album. Entitled The Year the Sun Died, it comes to life twenty-five years after the release of their second long player, Into the Mirror Black. When the space between albums encompasses the entire career of Nevermore, one can rest assured that rust or a lack of chemistry will not even remotely factor into the equation here.
Fans who were distraught at Warrel Dane's decision to disband Nevermore will spin the new Sanctuary album and be overjoyed at the results. That much is apparent the instant opening song 'Arise and Purify' erupts from the speakers.
The music of Sanctuary on the new album lacks the falsetto highs and power metal histrionics that might otherwise lock their sound into a particular decade, say . . . the eighties. There is power metal that apes and perpetuates those old school tropes, and then there is the brooding, doom-edged metal of Sanctuary. The Year The Sun Died is a musical tour de force in that the solos and riffs are amazing, but the songs will stay in your head and simply take root there.
After the adrenaline of the first slew of songs, through the slower, muscly 'Let the Serpent Follow Me' to the chunky, almost Dimmu Borgir-like cadence of 'Exitium – (Anthem of the Living),' we come to 'I Am Low.' I am hesitant to call the song a ballad, as that would not do justice to the quality and originality Sanctuary is peddling here. Warrel Dane's voice sounds amazing, especially in the bridge at about 1:30 on when the riffs come strong and solid, before the song comes back down to the Testament cum classic Metallica ballad-y goodness. It will come down to the preferences of the listener, but 'I Am Low' may just be the strongest song on a very strong album. Dire in lyric, but uplifting in spirit, the repeated 'nothing can stand in our way' makes the song quite the opposite of low in any sense of the word.
Sanctuary keeps things fairly mind-blowing with the awesome 'Frozen.' Full of verve, speed, and the panache that this serious group of songwriters brings to the table, it is reminiscent of something latter day Testament might write. If you are a fan of good honest heavy metal music, where melody and leads and riffs come together to fire the blood, then 'Frozen' is truly going to push all the right buttons. Again Warrel Dane sounds commanding, like a baritone field general marching his riffs into war.
'One Final Day (Sworn to Believe)' has the power of a Bruce Dickinson (solo) ballad but with the lower register Warrel Dane once again runs away with. It is short, introspective yet ballsy, and takes us right into the back half of the album. Whether its the machine gun riffs of 'The World is Wired' or the Alice In Chains meets (of course, what else?) Nevermore broodiness of the title track, Sanctuary knows their way around a great song, and with The Year The Sun Died they've given us twelve superior tales of existential longing and dark overtones. Sanctuary in 2014 has certainly absorbed the journey undertaken by Nevermore, but the results are absolutely titillating to behold. Make room at the top Iced Earth, because America has just thrust a classic metal monster into the forefront, and we would all do well to heed the call.