(Century Media Records, 2017)
“Subtlety” isn’t a word one would readily associate with Sanctuary. Rather, the legendary Seattle-based power/speed metal outfit could easily be described as exciting, frenetic, exhilarating, melodramatic, dynamic, and mystifyingly awesome. The band, fronted and co-led by the banshee-throated Warrel Dane of Nevermore fame, recorded some of the most original and memorable metal of all time in Refuge Denied (1988) and Into the Mirror Black (1990). They followed up those two masterpieces, nearly 25 years later, with the outstanding 2014 comeback platter, The Year the Sun Died. Speaking as someone who’s a borderline obsessive fan of Sanctuary, but a non-fan of the more popular and prolific Nevermore, this development felt like my veritable “Ascension to Destiny.”
Enter February 2017, and Sanctuary have returned to the public eye with another “new” release via Century Media Records. Inception, a collection of previously-unreleased demos from 1986, was billed as a sort of lost prequel to Refuge Denied. Now, maybe I misinterpreted the advertising, or simply was feeling overly optimistic about its prospects, but Inception is not really a “new” old album at all. Rather, it is mostly a collection of earlier demo versions of songs previously heard and worshipped on Refuge Denied, enmeshed with a pair of fresh goodies. In that sense, Inception is indeed a subtle album, in that these tracks are only slightly different than those of its predecessor. They feature a different vocal melody here, an alternate guitar harmony there, but there is little here that stands out as a genuine improvement over the RD versions.
For the money, the two new previously-unreleased songs on Inception are beyond superb; in fact, they are worth the price of admission alone. Opening cut “Dream of the Incubus” is a galloping, cascading, rampaging barrage of speed metal -- Sanctuary style. Dane, whose wide-yet-flawless vibrato has never sounded better, screams like a banshee in heat; his extremely high-ranging vocal performance seems even more appropriate given the sexually-explicit nature of the lyrics. Perhaps “...Incubus” didn’t make the initial cut back in 1988 for that reason, but regardless, the song is absolutely ripping. “I Am Insane,” the other “new” song on the album, is a more straight-ahead, and dynamic, Sanctuary rager. The vocal melodies in both the verses and choruses are melodic and rife with emotion, and the riffs and solos here are as memorable as anything the band has ever recorded. Short and oh-so-sweet.
As for the rest of the album, the band’s engineering and re-mastering team did a great job of pumping these crusty demo tracks with new life. The overall mix sounds crisp and punchy, particularly with the invigorating guitar work of Lenny Rutledge and Sean Blosl. Rhythmically, drummer Dave Budbill, alongside bassists Jim Sheppard and Rich Furtner, sound solid, though they are a bit overshadowed in the mix by the vocals and guitars. There are a few notable differences/changes with these tunes, arrangement-wise. “Soldiers of Steel,” for instance, features some alternate harmonies and solos in the instrumental interlude section that distinctly stand out from the RD version. On “White Rabbit,” Dane employs some King Diamond-esque raspy vocals in the intro section that raise the camp level another notch; while the ever-epic “Veil of Disguise” is amplified in intensity through a more extreme vocal performance and a slightly ramped-up solo section and outro.
Still, though, these are primarily the same songs we heard on that gloriously epic classic from 29 years ago. “Die for My Sins” still reminds us in that inimitable crunchy, driving manner that “Your life is not what it seems to be,” and the galloping, shrieking “Battle Angels” is still as eviscerating as ever. Is Inception really a prequel to Refuge Denied, and is hearing seven alternate versions of old songs really essential? Perhaps not, but that doesn’t diminish the quality of this timeless, unique metal. To Sanctuary newbies who’ve never heard RD, add at least 1.5 points to the rating score.
--Review by Jonathan Kollnot
--Tracklisting: 1). Dream of the Incubus 2). Die for My Sins 3). Soldiers of Steel 4). Death Rider/Third War 5). White Rabbit 6). Ascension to Destiny 7). Battle Angels 8). I Am Insane 9). Veil of Disguise