On this day in 1990, power thrash metal band Sanctuary released their sophomore album Into the Mirror Black. At the time of its release, the band consisted of Warrel Dane on vocals and lyrics, Lenny Rutledge and Sean Blosl on guitars, Jim Sheppard on bass, and Dave Budbill on drums. Unfortunately, this was the band’s final effort before their untimely breakup in 1991-1992 when guitarist Lenny Rutledge wanted to take the group into a musical direction that followed the grunge trend at the time. Since they were based in Seattle, it would make sense. This album came out right before Grunge exploded and wiped the floor with metal almost entirely unless you were Pantera or Metallica. However, what caused the falling out was legendary vocalist, lyricist, and songwriter of the band Warrel Dane, bassist Jim Sheppard, and newly acquired guitarist Jeff Loomis (not on this album) had a difference in opinion. They decided they wanted to part ways and continue playing metal, and formed a new band afterward called Nevermore, which would go on to be a legendary band in their own right, releasing music for close to 20 years.
Though with that said, many fans still regarded Sanctuary very highly even long after their breakup, and this was an album that I believe is the band’s magnum opus. Warrel had officially come into his own as a lyricist. He was no longer talking about rather cliché metal topics that were laced throughout their impressive and influential debut album Refuge Denied (1987), and shifted focus towards more political, as well as personal topics that were more relatable and introspective. These lyrical themes would be the center point for his lyrical output throughout his time in Nevermore. Though the lyrical content of opening track “Future Tense” is held back by its clearly laid out timeline reference with lyrics such as “So ends a decade now, what will the 90’s hold?” and dates the song a bit. However, the song is still a classic and one that is chanted and beloved by their hardcore fans.
The music is still very heavy and reminiscent of the debut. But the clear distinction between Into The Mirror Black and Refuge Denied is simply that the band matured as songwriters and the production is, as well as their performances are, a lot tighter. Warrel’s vocals are still in his (at the time) signature higher register, but you could tell he dialed it back a slight bit. The story goes that he pushed himself past his limits on Refuge Denied and ultimately damaged his voice in the process. It’s been said that he never quite recovered the same range from there onward, but ultimately he still sounded great, and I don’t personally feel it held him back on this record. In fact, on Into The Mirror Black is where Warrel begins to sound like himself and what would pave the way for his style, he would carry into the ’90s and early 2000s with Nevermore. This is best represented on a song like “Epitaph.”
Warrel could be compared to Jon Oliva from Savatage in some spots, and I believe I’ve heard this comparison more than once between Savatage and Sanctuary as a whole. However, musically Sanctuary clearly have a distinct style and set themselves apart from a lot of their peers at the time. I’d have a hard time believing most other bands could muster up a similar vibe and atmosphere of sorrow-laced progressions that were on high display on this record with songs such as “Long Since Dark” and “Mirror Black.” They were unique for their time, and perhaps that’s why Sanctuary often gets overlooked.
While being incredibly dynamic as Sanctuary is, they still have their fair share of heavy and pummeling tracks such as crowd-pleasers “Taste Revenge” and “Seasons Of Destruction.” This is ultimately what makes Sanctuary so great is their sheer versatility and depth they have in their music. Each song stands on its own and has its own little story to tell as if there are nine short stories packed into one giant book of storytelling.
It’s interesting because every band has that one album in their catalog that truly sounds special, and you don’t quite know why other than the obvious things. Into The Mirror Black has a certain magic that I feel they were only able to capture on this album. Its distinct character is truly what encompasses Sanctuary at their finest, and I often find it better than Refuge Denied. Most hardcore fans would probably crucify me for saying such a statement, and I certainly would understand. Refuge Denied is seen as the band’s most iconic album, and that I will agree with. However, Into The Mirror Black is the band’s masterpiece, and they’re firing on all cylinders here. The arrangements are a little more complex and often keep the listener on their toes without being a distraction or feeling disjointed. The textures of the melodies with the guitars, as well as the heavier elements are well executed with purpose and truly an array of well crafted heavy metal songwriting that is unique to Sanctuary’s sound. Even on their comeback album The Year the Sun Died (2014), they still carry themselves with that same aura that initially made them great all those years ago. If anyone wants to get into Sanctuary, this is the album that I suggest to get into first. It also happens to be a perfect album to listen to this time of year.