Sunday, 9 November 2014

Sanctuary's 'The Year the Sun Died' - Album Review

Most people in the metal world will be familiar with Nevermore, but not everyone is probably familiar with Sanctuary who are, in many ways, Nevermore's prequel. They were formed in 1985 by future Nevermore members Warrel Dane and Jim Sheppard, along with guitarists Lenny Rutledge and Sean Blosl, and drummer Dave Budbill. They released two albums on Epic Records: Refuge Denied in 1987 and Into the Mirror Black in 1989; and saw a relative amount of success until they split up in 1992. By this point, Blosl had left the band, and a young Jeff Loomis was touring with the band in his stead. Of course, after the break-up of Sanctuary, Dane, Loomis, and Sheppard formed the band Nevermore and had huge and genre-pushing success with their unique brand of progressive/alternative metal. In 2010 however, Dane announced that Sanctuary were reforming to play some shows and, eventually, record a new album. The final line-up of Dane, Rutledge, Loomis, Sheppard, and Budbill was originally intended to be 'Sanctuary' moving forward, as Blosl decided to continue on with his career in film music. However, when Nevermore spectacularly collapsed in 2011, Loomis also left Sanctuary and a replacement had to be found. Brad Hull (Forced Entry) was chosen to be Loomis' replacement, and this line-up of the band has been touring ever since. Last month, the band's long-awaited third album The Year the Sun Died was released and it seems to have been welcomed by the metal community. Sound-wise, the album certainly has more in common with Nevermore's recent sound than that of Sanctuary's early records. Much of this can be put down to the lack of high-pitched vocals from Dane. Early Sanctuary records were full of them, as was common in the US power metal scene at the time. In Nevermore he developed a much lower vocal register, and that is what he uses here, apart from during a few vocal harmony sections. That being said, this does not just sound like watered-down Nevermore. The songs are much more immediate and catchy, and the guitar riffs are heavily inspired by 1980s thrash and US power metal, as the original Sanctuary records were. Comparisons can also be drawn to Dane's 2008 solo album Praises to the War Machine which also features a much simpler, albeit more modern, sound.

The album gets off to the good start with the strident Arise and Purify which has been available on Youtube for sometime before the album's release. It was a good track to kick off the album with, as it contains everything that is great about what is to come. The opening guitar work is excellent with Rutledge and Hull teaming up together well with a great lead/rhythm combination, and Dane's distinctive vocals are present in the verses. He is one of those vocalists that has a natural 'howl' vocal style, and that is used to great effect in the song's chorus. He backs himself up with layers of high-pitched vocals which creates a huge, melodramatic sound. Let the Serpent Follow Me is a similar song and keeps up the pace set by Arise and Purify. Budbill's driving, percussive drumming really drives the heavy verses which sees Dane sounding his most deranged - something which he has always done like no-one else. The choruses however are a much different affair, with a slower, darker vibe which mixes heavy power chords with mournful clean guitars to create something interesting. There is a great guitar solo mid-way through the song too that makes great use of melody. Exitium (Anthem of the Living) is a different beast altogether. Opening with some really odd spoken word, the song is a slow, doomy masterpiece that takes a few listens to really get to grips with. While there are some fast riffs, the song never really picks up the pace, and is a vehicle for Dane's sorrowful crooning. When I first hear this song on Youtube - as it was another one posted before the album's release - I found it difficult to get into, but now I really love it and consider it to be one of the best songs on the album. No-one else besides Dane can really pull off a song like this and make it the stand-out that it is. After the catchy, but less remarkable, Question Existence Fading, the next highlight is the semi-ballad I am Low. It opens with a clean guitar riff that sounds like it came straight out of the songwriting sessions for the next Iced Earth album, and this riff forms the basis of the song's verse. Despite the fact this song reminds me a lot of another band, it is still really enjoyable and that sort of guitar playing works well behind Dane's vocals. It does get heavier during certain parts with some excellent, dissonant guitar playing, as well as some great duel lead playing towards the song's end.

Frozen is another fast, thrashy number and was the song that the band chose to make a video for. Budbill's punchy drumming opens the song before a great 1980s guitar riff takes over. This song is a real guitarists treat, with Rutledge and Hull trading leads and solos throughout the song, and there are plenty of great riffs to get your head around. Dane's vocal performance is much more straightforward here too, but no less powerful for it. There is nothing fancy about this song, it is just pure heavy metal - pure and simple! Those enjoy a good headbang are sure to get a lot out of this. One Final Day (Sworn to Believe) is another strange song. It opens with some rather jarring acoustic guitar chords, and then opens out into a rather staccato acoustic-led verse with some odd vocal melodies from Dane and gentle drumming from Budbill. The choruses are heavier, with Dane letting rip with his trademark howl, but it is the acoustic guitars that stand out here. The little classical flourishes that appear occasionally are a real treat. It is quite a short song, but it stands out by doing something a little different to what has gone before, and it shows the band's willingness to experiment. The World is Wired (not 'weird' as I first thought it said when I saw it..) gets back to the more traditional heavy metal of previous songs. It is a real riff-fest, with plenty of different catchy passages of excellent guitar work from Rutledge and Hull. There is even a section where Sheppard's bass guitar stands out, which is nice to hear. The bass is quite buried on this album, and holds the foundation rather than showing off - which only adds to the heaviness of some of the riffs here. The Dying Age is probably the only song on the album that I do not really get. I cannot put my finger on why that it is, but to me it just does not seem as inspired as some of the rest of the material here. It is quite slow, and never really builds up to anything, which is probably one of the reasons it leaves me slightly cold. It does have an excellent guitar solo though, which redeems it from being a true dud. The penultimate track here is a short acoustic instrumental, Ad Vitam Aeternam, that acts as an intro for the album's final song which also happens to be the title track. The title track is another really strong piece that works well to bring the album to a close. It mixes clean guitars in the verses with heavier, melodic choruses and sees Dane really put in an excellent performance. The way his voice mirrors the lead guitar lines during the choruses is great, and only enhances the melodic nature of the piece. Overall, this album is a winner. While some people might be disappointed that it is not more like Sanctuary's original two albums, those who like powerful, emotional metal will really enjoy this. Well over twenty years have passed since Into the Mirror Black was released, and this is a Sanctuary record for the 21st Century and, hopefully, it will not be their last!

The album was released on 6th October 2014 via Century Media Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Frozen.

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