Retro-Review: ‘Refuge Denied’ by Sanctuary

Sanctuary is probably best remembered as the band that Warrel Dane and Jim Sheppard were in before they founded Nevermore.

There’s a world of difference between the two bands, which is obvious when one listens to Refuge Denied, Sanctuary’s 1988 debut album. Whereas Nevermore bordered on the verge of doom metal with its gut wrenching power hits, Sanctuary is pretty much straight-forward thrash.

Sanctuary are a Seattle-area band, but are in no way grunge. But, according to the stories from today and in the metal press at the time, it was grunge that led to Sanctuary’s undoing. Apparently, the label wanted them to sound “more grunge.” Dane and Sheppard weren’t on board with that and left, forming Nevermore while the rest of the members of Sanctuary faded into obscurity until Sheppard and Dane once again joined the band, with other original members David Budbill and Lenny Rutledge.

Anyway, the lineup for Refuge Denied is Dane on vocals, Sheppard on bass, Budbill on drums, Rutledge and Sean Blosl on guitar.

The album

Refuge Denied sounds a lot like other thrash albums from the 1980s production wise. I’m not sure how to describe it, just that it sounds like it’s not as sharp and loud as it should be. It’s not a knock to Sanctuary, but just acknowledging something that seemed to be a fact of life at the time.

Music wise, you’ll find a lot of similarities to other thrash bands from the same period, particularly Mercyful Fate and Megadeth, with a little Judas Priest thrown in. It’s not to say that Sanctuary sounds like those bands, but they definitely share elements.

Interestingly, when I looked at the credits of the album, I noticed that Dave Mustaine, lead singer and guitarist of Megadeth, is on the album as a guest vocalist, guitar soloist and producer. His guest spot is on “White Rabbit,” which interestingly isn’t one of the songs that sounds the least like Megadeth. “White Rabbit” also is the best sounding song on the album, almost like it had a different producer than all the other songs on the album.

Outside of “White Rabbit,” there’s not a lot that breaks the thrash mold at the time. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

With the opening track “Battle Angels,” you’ll hear what I mean. An aggressive and steady rhythm guitar, Dane hitting the falsetto and a few strong guitar solos. “Battle Angels” is a good song, but it’s not particularly memorable, which is pretty much the same that can be said for much of Refuge Denied.

Of course, it’s Dane that leaves the biggest impression when it comes to hearing the album. While he had yet to break away from the flock of the countless other vocalists on Refuge Denied, he definitely has that something that makes you want to hear him more. That something you just can’t precisely hit on.

With the second track, “Termination Force,” the speed is brought down a notch and the distortion is put aside for much of the song for a clean guitar and bass, which works pretty well. As it enters the chorus, though, the distortion and speed kick in, taking things up a notch before falling back into the slower bits before closing on a fast note. ”Soldiers of Steel” is in the same vein, with a simple rhythm driving the song, giving breaks for clean guitar here and there. It’s a good large sounding song and definitely sets a mood.

Much of the mood is built on Rutledge and Blosl’s performances. Their rhythms and melodies compliment Dane’s vocals well and are able to stand on their own. While they’re still interchangeable with the big number of thrash guitarists at the time, it’s not hard to hear the potential that there and that they would build upon in the future.

Interestingly, the song “Sanctuary” is one of the slower and less thrashy numbers, staring with a “Stairway to Heaven” vibe. It opens slow, with a clean guitar and a gentle drumming, possibly with brushes. Of course, slow and gentle doesn’t last long as the song explodes into an outright thrash number. Dane’s vocal chords definitely get a workout here, going from his falsetto to a near growl. It works pretty well and, of course, climaxes with some great guitar soloing.

Throughout the album, Sheppard and Budbill help keep things solidly grounded. To its credit, despite some of its flaws, you can hear Sheppard’s bass guitar, an instrument that often gets buried in early thrash albums. He and Budbill complement each other well, with both being standouts above their instrumental contemporaries here.

The verdict

While Refuge Denied is in no way a terrible or bad album, there’s a reason why it isn’t talked about much 30 years later. There’s nothing particularly innovative on it and it has the misfortune of being one of those albums where when you listen to it, you say “hey, that sounds like …”

Let me be clear, though, there is no problem with the performances here. The entire band does a great job. It’s just that their writing process hadn’t caught up to their potential.

Will I listen to other Sanctuary albums in the future?

Definitely. After all, this is the band who would see two of its members go on to form the very awesome Nevermore. Plus, what little I’ve heard since their reunion sounds great, which makes me wonder if Refuge Denied suffered more from its production than its songwriting.

Refuge Denied showcases a young band with high ambitions. While Sanctuary doesn’t break any new ground on the album, it’s pretty solid. It also gives you the impression that the best is yet to come as Sanctuary works to find itself.

Anyway, check out “White Rabbit” for sure and if you’re a fan of latter day Sanctuary or Nevermore, then I’d check out the entire thing to hear the sound they would evolve from.

 

Australian Amazon shoppers, click here to purchase Refuge Denied

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