25 long years after their last recorded output (damn, that makes me feel old), four-fifths of the classic Sanctuary lineup reunite to write an album that sounds exactly like vintage…Nevermore. Yes, I suppose we could have seen that coming, being that lead man Warrel Dane and bassist Jim Shepard founded that particular power-prog act after leaving Sanctuary, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one hoping The Year the Sun Died would be a glorious return to the traditional American power metal of Refuge Denied rather than a retread of their better known project. Naturally, that doesn’t mean the material here is a miss, and fans of Nevermore‘s sound and general style will surely find something to love, close as it is to their trademark sound. Lovers of those original Sanctuary platters, well they might not be as enthused and may even feel a tad cheated by this unsanctumonious reunion album.
Even though they opted for a Nevermore-esque approach to the material here, it would all work out if it was strong Nevermore material, which unfortunately, some of this stuff isn’t. A few songs are respectable but somewhat flat and feel like B-sides (“Arise and Purify,” and especially “The World is Wired”) and some are better, but aren’t what you’d call top-shelf Dane output (“Let the Serpent Follow”). For better or worse, these all follow the classic Nevermore template: big crunching riffs, thunderous drums and Dane’s increasingly limited, but always interesting, usually commanding vocals providing the ambiance and mood.
Unsurprising, the best songs are those that come closest to Sanctuary, like the dark, Edgar Allen Poe approved “Exitium (Anthem of the Living)” which has real emotional resonance in the vocals and is as close as things get to the classic Sanctuary sound; and album stand out, “Frozen,” which fuses a forlorn, gripping and very memorable chorus on a thrashy and bruising number with slight traces of the Into the Mirror Black era. The title track is an equally impressive number that plays like a mash up of Dane’s career mixed with epic doom and it drips sadness and lost hope. The chorus is bleak but beautiful and the fretwork is particularly inspired and mournful. Also worth noting is the much simpler and rocking “The Dying Age,” which is like something off Dane’s solo album mixed with psychedelic rock.
This is a talented bunch, and they can clearly play their collective asses off when they care to. That said, Dane obviously cant do the things he once did vocally and those high pitched wails of the late 80s / early 90s are beyond him. He never even comes close to attempting them, sticking firmly in his mid-range and low range shout/sing style he adopted as the Nevermore catalog unspooled. It works, but begins to feel one dimensional after a while, which was my issue with some of the later Nevermore albums too. Lenny Rutledge and Brad Hull’s guitar work is slick and dynamic, their riffing is sharp and heavy and the solos are noodle-rich, but emotional enough to have legitimate impact. They impress even on the weaker tunes and they’re adroit at creating atmosphere and mood. When paired with Dane’s always brooding vocals, they definitely keep things interesting if not always captivating.
The album itself is a bit long, as seemingly all albums are these days, and they could’ve should’ve chopped it down to eight solid tunes. The production is big and modern sounding. The guitars are loud and imposing and Dane sounds larger than life. In short, it sounds like the typical Nevermore album.
The Year the Sun Died isn’t the album I was hoping for after waiting for new Sanctuary material since my college days a quarter century ago (fuck, I’m old). Even though I’m somewhat disappointed by it, I can’t deny it’s more good than bad and has a few impressive moments scattered about. Considering no one expected to hear anything new from Sanctuary, how much can one really bitch when actually getting something, even if it’s unlike their old stuff? Not much it seems. Add a point if you’re a big ole Nevermore weenie.