notes from the coast: Sanctuary. Club Nokia 01.07.12

Happy New Year metalheads! 2011 was a good year for the underground, with lots of solid and promising releases by newer and unknown bands, but for the old guard it wasn’t such a hot year. Lots of disappointments for me personally (Morbid Angel, Anthrax, Mastodon, Opeth etc….) but one of the sadder announcements last year was hearing of the departure of Jeff Loomis from heavyweights Nevermore. Personally I love Nevermore, and while Loomis will continue on releasing solo albums that I’m sure will be fantastic, the chemistry that he had with them will sorely be missed.

However, one of the more interesting developments that arose from that departure was singer Warrel Dane’s decision to resurrect ancient metal outfit Sanctuary. Technically the bulk of Sanctuary broke away to form Nevermore, but what I never knew was that Loomis never wrote any of the material for Sanctuary, he replaced original guitarist Sean Blosl after Into the Mirror Black was released and the rest is history. The reason I always loved Nevermore over Sanctuary was because I always felt the songwriting improved with the band change, but now I realize that was a wrong conclusion. They were actually two very distinct entities. Sanctuary’s music was written more in the vein of traditional metal like Judas Priest or old Queensryche unlike the more modern, thrashier leanings of Nevermore. And though the album Refuge Denied never struck a huge chord with me back then, being neck deep into thrash by that point, it did lead me eventually to Nevermore around the Dreaming Neon Black era. Needless to say, in this day and age where Black/Death/Grind and every other metal subgenre rules, I find myself always constantly on the search for great traditional metal, so upon hearing that I would be seeing Sanctuary Saturday night, I was really interested in hearing what a modern day version would sound like.

I didn’t really know what kind of crowd to expect, as I felt like they might be too obscure to generate a huge audience despite their ties with Nevermore. Sanctuary simply never made much of a splash when they originally came out, at least to the masses. Sometimes I hate when I’m right. The crowd that showed up Saturday night was sparse to put it mildly. I would say by the end of the night there were maybe 150 people but for the 3 opening bands there was considerably less which was really too bad because they all put on spirited performances despite no crowd. Whoever booked this venue for this show obviously didn’t do their homework as they should’ve been in a much smaller venue. Mercifully, the opening sets were very short.

First band up was a female-fronted traditional metal band called Huntress. Lead singer Jill Janus is very striking, both in appearance and with her voice. She’s certainly easy on the eyes, but like a lot of the current crop of female fronted bands, she has some serious pipes that really give the band an interesting sound, one which I’d like to hear more of. Her piercing eyes match a piercing shriek that’s not unlike Dawn Crosby from early 80’s thrashers Detente, while looking like Angela Gossow’s sister. But this band have more to offer than just a good looking singer. Huntress played 3 songs of good, mid-paced, traditional power metal with a dual guitar attack that was pretty tight while the riffs drew me in. They have a more modern sound than my current faves, the excellent Christian Mistress, but from the 3 songs I heard, I’d be curious to hear what they might sound like with some more experience and polish behind them. Since they’re a local band I have a feeling I will be seeing them again.

Next band up were Pomona, California thrashers Bonded By Blood. For those of you familiar with the new generation of thrashers, Bonded By Blood should be a familiar name. While I’ve always felt BBB could be bigger than they are, they need to work on finding their own sound a bit more. One thing they’ve always been though is a good live band. After seeing them perform in last year’s Scion Rock Fest, which they killed, they proved they can get just about any crowd riled up.

This Saturday however, was a different story. Apparently since the last time I saw them, they lost founding guitarist Alex Lee and are now a four piece. With only one guitar, their riff heavy approach certainly seemed to lack some punch and while sole guitarist Juan Juarez did an admirable job with all the guitar duties. it dealt a serious blow to their power. But the most significant blow was the lack of a big crowd. Their energy was still as good as I’ve seen them and the short selection of mostly newer songs from their latest album Exiled to Earth were heavy and riff-tastic, but the lack of people simply sucked the life out of their performance, which was a huge disappointment to those of us in attendance and had to be a huge downer for the band as well. I think that Bonded By Blood are a very good live band, but without a rabid audience for them to feed off of, this performance was as empty as Club Nokia and i really felt bad for them as they deserved a much better turnout.

I could almost write the exact same words and just replace Bonded By Blood with Warbringer because their performance was identical. Warbringer are another new wave thrash band that suffer from the same problems as BBB. They have the talent and the chops to become bigger than they are but they choose to mimic their influences a bit too much which in the end will surely stunt their growth. However, one area they’ve also progressed in, is definitely as a live band. The last time I saw them they were fresh faced kids pushing their first album and looking every bit the part of over-excited noobs just happy to be playing in front of a crowd. This time around you could tell they’ve been around the block a few times and looked much more confident and were much tighter than before. Unfortunately for them their set also suffered from a lack of an audience. They too played a shortened set, consisting mostly of songs from their newest and best album Worlds Torn Asunder. The riffs were a-flying and they got some heads banging and even a few moshers in the pit moving around briefly, but it simply wasn’t enough to overcome the lackluster crowd.

I have to say both of these bands deserved so much better than they got. They handled the lack of an audience very graciously and played like it was a full house with energy and passion, a true sign of professionals. Despite my criticisms of both, I feel I have to preface my opinions by saying they are far from the only bands I feel lack a true identity. There are so many Black/Death/Thrash bands I feel the exact same way about, and I realize that not every band can have a Paul Baloff or Chuck Billy fronting them, I just think both these bands have the talent to carve out their own sound and with all the hard work they’ve put forth to become great live bands, I would like to see them be recognized on their own merits and not as sound-alikes, because they deserve it.

Anyways, after Warbringer’s set, the place finally started to fill up for Sanctuary. Honestly I hadn’t listened to Sanctuary probably since their debut came out, so it’s been a couple of decades, but it didn’t deter me from getting excited to see Warrel Dane and his golden pipes once again, the last time being with Nevermore. Playing songs from both Refuge Denied and Into the Mirror Black, the difference in styles between the two bands immediately jumped out at me once they started to shower the crowd with evil riffs. Hearing slower, pounding metal beats fronted by Warrel’s melodic, higher register wailing is like heavy metal bliss to fans like me. And though the delivery is very familiar, the songs just give off a completely different vibe than I’m used to hearing with him. Instead of the intricate and dizzying pace of a typical Nevermore song, Sanctuary are much more deliberate in their worship of Judas Priest, with Dane’s vocals soaring a lot more on the songs than they ever really did with Nevermore. And although live he doesn’t really hit the high range anymore like he did on the albums, the songs just sounded a whole lot better than i remember them being. Songs like “Die For My Sins”, “Termination Force” and “Sanctuary” really blistered with metal fury and reminded me just how far away we metalheads have gotten from good old traditional heavy metal. Throughout the set technical problems kept popping up every once in a while which unfortunately subjected us to some of Dane’s “excellent” jokes, but despite that, their performance was really heavy and crisp and the songs sounded surprisingly fresh for being almost 20 years old.

Though the future of Nevermore is up in the air, I’m really looking forward to some new material from Sanctuary. I feel that without Jeff Loomis, I’d prefer to hear Warrel Dane doing more with Sanctuary anyways, as we need more excellent traditional metal bands around. And this style just really suits him. What I realized after seeing them perform Saturday night was that with Nevermore put on hold, there’s now a real opportunity for Sanctuary to make their own mark and really come up with some great new music in a new era and I’m really excited at the possibilities of what they can do. Here’s to a very metal new year!!