Sanctuary: The Thing That Could Not Be

In the late 80s, a young mob from Seattle were poised to become the biggest band to hit thrash since Slayer. So where did it all go wrong for Sanctuary?

“Thrash? You really think we’re a thrash band?!”

Sanctuary frontman Warrel Dane sounds surprised when their sound is described as thrash. He also gets agitated when it’s suggested that his band might be power metal. Genres, it seems, are not in vogue here.

“We’re as much power metal as we are thrash,” he chortles. “I really don’t know how best you can categorise what we do. All I know is we don’t do happy music. There’s no place for cheerfulness in metal. It should be dark and depressing, at least as far as we are concerned. It’s cathartic talking about fucked-up stuff – it cleans out my brain.”

While we’ll perhaps disagree with Warrel’s de-thrashification of his band, what is without doubt is that the veteran metalheads’ hometown, Seattle, was hardly renowned in the 1980s as being a haven for young metal talent. At a time when a grunge-shaped monster was beginning to emerge from the deep, Sanctuary were a band poised to continue thrash’s reign of terror into the next decade. What happened next is a fascinating tale of one band’s potential and a moment in time that came to define the perception of metal itself at that point.

“Metal Church are also from Seattle,” protests Warrel of his homeland’s scene at that time. “So are Queensrÿche, and they were definitely a metal band in their early days. So it wasn’t too bad. However, I take the point, because I recall working in a bar in 1991, when this beautiful girl walked in. I got chatting to her and bought her a cocktail. Then she commented on my long hair. ‘You don’t like that ‘metal music’, do you?’ she sneered. I threw her out and got her banned for life.”

Formed in 1985 when metal in America was going through a boom, Sanctuary got their break thanks to grabbing the attention of a certain Dave Mustaine. It seemed that the Seattle crew were about to become thrash’s Next Big Thing.

“We’d just done our demo in 1986, when Megadeth came to Seattle with King Diamond,” he recalls. “Our guitarist, Lenny Rutledge, partied with Dave after the gig and gave him our demo.”

Megadave was hugely impressed, and not only put them in touch with his own management, who in 1987 secured the band a deal with Epic, but produced their debut album, Refuge Denied. A tidy few months for the band ended with a monstrous tour with Megadeth and Warlock; a state-of-the-art heavy package that put Warrel et al on the perfect platform on which to shine.

“I have nothing but the utmost respect for Dave,” insists Warrel. “As a producer, he never let us settle for something that was merely OK. He pushed me hard, which I needed. He got performances from me that I didn’t think I could deliver, and if people believe the album is good, then a lot of the credit has to go to Dave.”

But, despite the support of a major label and Mustaine’s backing, the album didn’t sell as well as those of many of Sanctuary’s peers. Warrel now looks back and believes a lot of this is down to the attitude at the label themselves.

“They signed a lot of metal bands around the same time,” offers Warrel, and it’s fair to say that it was not a policy totally alien to big labels around metal’s mid- to late-80s boom. However, the singer isn’t convinced that everyone’s heart was in it, adding, “They had no clue what we were about.”

By the time second album _Into _The Mirror Black came out in 1989, the metal scene was on the edge of turmoil. Grunge was starting to gain a toehold, poking a sharp stick into the bulbous gut of the established music hierarchy, and Sanctuary – a band poised to do great things for heavy music – were to feel the ramifications of this growing phenomenon. Howard Benson, a more eclectic producer than Mustaine, was brought in to work with the band, and Warrel is quick to insist that their failure to meet expectations was not the fault of their then-new studio bod.

“He was fine to us in the studio,” asserts the singer. “A cool guy who liked my weird lyrics. The trouble was at the label. They didn’t make a big deal about trying to change the way we sounded, but there were suggestions that we might want to adapt a little to what was happening around us.”

However, the commercial misfire of Into The Mirror Black meant that Sanctuary were suddenly faced with a harsh reality: change what they did, or else get dropped.

“There were new people at Epic by the early 90s, and they’d never worked with us before,” Warrel reveals. “They didn’t care about metal. Grunge was all that mattered. They put us under pressure to ditch everything we believed in, and go with what was selling. But that wasn’t who we were. How could we make a grunge album and look at ourselves in the mirror? This brought internal problems within the band to the surface, and we ended up splitting in ’92. We were disillusioned. All of us were very young when we got signed, and things didn’t turn out the way we’d hoped.”

So then, another tale of a band destined for big things that never came to be. Warrel and bassist Jim Sheppard went on to form Nevermore, one of the most seminal, acclaimed and ferociously intelligent metal bands of the last two decades, overshadowing Sanctuary’s thwarted career in the process. Luckily, though, this is a story with a happy ending. In 2010, Sanctuary reconvened for a number of well-received shows, and now, with third album The Year The Sun Died finally out, things are once again looking rosy for a band with plenty left in the tank.

“What can people expect from the album? It’s Sanctuary, but updated,” states Warrel. “We don’t sound like we belong in the 1980s, but we’re definitely still metal. Just don’t call us thrash!”

The Year The Sun Died is out now via Century Media

Malcolm Dome

Malcolm Dome had an illustrious and celebrated career which stretched back to working for Record Mirror magazine in the late 70s and Metal Fury in the early 80s before joining Kerrang! at its launch in 1981. His first book, Encyclopedia Metallica, published in 1981, may have been the inspiration for the name of a certain band formed that same year. Dome is also credited with inventing the term "thrash metal" while writing about the Anthrax song Metal Thrashing Mad in 1984. With the launch of Classic Rock magazine in 1998 he became involved with that title, sister magazine Metal Hammer, and was a contributor to Prog magazine since its inception in 2009. He died in 2021