Thrash reigned supreme in 1985. Classics were made by Exodus, Testament, Possessed, Anthrax, Kreator, S.O.D., Slayer, Celtic Frost, Megadeth, and many more. It was a vicious time as well. Ronald Reagan was sworn in for the second time as president, Mikhail Gorbachev hooked his way into Chief Communist of the Soviet Union, wicked weather ruined the large swaths of the Midwest, airlines suffered a brutal year of seemingly endless crashes, and Microsoft released Windows 1.0. To the youth of the day, the end of the world was near. They needed a voice, a flag of their own to wave, a form of sonic violence to quell unquestionable inner and outer turmoil. Thrash sated their hunger, gave them sustenance.
Little known fact: Sanctuary also formed in 1985. While the rest of the world reeled in tumultuous uncertainty, five twenty year-olds from Seattle felt they had something to offer. “It was hard to find a decent vocalist,” laughs guitarist Lenny Rutledge, looking back on the Sanctuary’s early days. “We looked pretty hard in 1985. We eventually found Warrel [Dane]. He was in another band called Serpent's Knight. We kind of stole Warrel from Serpent's Knight. We basically invited him out to see what we had going on. Back in the day, we were super-ambitious. We had a warehouse with a huge stage that could never possibly be moved by any sane person. It was huge. I remember the look on Warrel’s face when he saw it. He said, ‘Oh my god! You guys are the real deal!’ We eventually gave him some demo stuff to work on. One of the first songs to come out of that with Warrel was ‘Soldiers of Steel’. We developed immediately from that point.”
Eventually, Sanctuary’s boundless drive took them to Triad Studios, where they recorded 1986 Demo. More than competent musically and compositionally—a cross between American and British heavy metal—the highlight of demo was Dane, however. His banshee-like cries froze metal warriors in their tracks. “We gave those early demos to the local college radio guy named Jeff Gilbert,” recalls Rutledge, “who had a show called Brain Pain on every Sunday. He played it every Sunday, really pushing us.” Sanctuary’s aspirations became reality when Rutledge attended a King Diamond/Megadeth show in 1986. Determined to have his hero Mustaine hear Sanctuary, the guitarist played it cool, couching at the back of the venue with a few friends. He didn’t get to meet Mustaine. Not at the venue anyway. “I had a friend with me. He was with two girls,” Rutledge remembers. “Somebody said, ‘Hey, Dave is staying at a hotel down the street.’ So we walked every floor of the hotel until we found the loudest room. The door just happened to be slightly open. I pushed the two girls in first to create a distraction and luckily we were all welcomed with open arms. I saw Dave was sitting in the back of the room at a table. I knew he had a bit of a salty reputation and he locked eyes with me and said, ‘You! Come here!’ I thought he was going to throw me out. He was drinking Courvoisier and to my surprise was offering to share his bottle. From that point on we hit it off. He was super-cool. We got to talking about music. Eventually, I said, ‘I got this tape. You gotta hear it! I gotta play it for you!’ It took a lot of convincing, but I eventually got him down to my buddy’s car. We listened to the tape and he really liked it. He gave me his phone number and I thought, ‘This isn’t his real number. Dave Mustaine doesn’t give out his real number.’ Sure enough, I called it and on the voicemail was Dave. He called me back a few weeks later, saying he loved the tape and that he wanted to produce us. The rest is history.”
With Mustaine backing Sanctuary, the five-piece signed a deal with Epic Records. The Megadeth helmsman agreed to produce Sanctuary’s debut, Refuge Denied, as well as guest solo on Jefferson Airplane cover ‘White Rabbit’. Megadeth even brought Sanctuary on tour, mentoring the group on the trials and tribulations of the road. But Refuge Denied itself was furious and hair-raising. Pinned at the front by the galloping might of ‘Battle Angels’ and in the rear by heart stopper ‘Veil of Disguise’, the album displayed surprising maturity for such a young act. Well received by fans and the press alike, Refuge Denied served as a platform from which Sanctuary would expand exponentially. “The first record was a little more of angry young men just going for it,” says Rutledge. “The second record was a little more thought out. It was more cerebral. When we did the first album we were caught up in the thrash metal movement. The second record, even the cover, was more conceptual. We were trying to get away from the monster cartoon image. I still think that album cover is a classic but we wanted to try something different.”
Mustaine had left the supervisor role to regroup Megadeth, but that didn’t stop Sanctuary from refining their craft. It took the better part of two years for the band to write, record, and release sophomore album, Into the Mirror Black. Recorded with Howard Benson at Sound City Studios, Into the Mirror Black benefitted from more focused songwriting—opener “Future Tense” is discomfortingly relevant to this very day—sheer determination, and Benson’s hands-on approach. Sanctuary finally had the album that would compete for precious heavy metal mindshare. Despite Into the Mirror Black garnering rave reviews—UK’s biggest metal magazine Kerrang! gave the album a 4K rating, calling it “engaging from start to finish”—and increasing Sanctuary’s worldwide profile, the timing was off. It wouldn’t be Empire, Impact is Imminent, The American Way, Souls of Black, Cowboys from Hell, or thrash metal pinnacle Rust in Peace that would steal the group’s thunder. Something else was afoot. Vocalist Warrel Dane says, “In ’88, the scene was changing. In ’90, it was transforming very fast. Everybody thought metal was next big deal. A lot of bands in Seattle had record deals by that point. We had a record deal. Soundgarden had a deal. Alice in Chains had just gotten a record deal.”
During that time, Seattle bands were garnering major attention from record labels, the record-buying public, and Hollywood. While grunge didn’t hit critical mass until the mid-‘90s, the sheer sales force of fellow Seattleites put top-down record label pressure on Sanctuary. “Grunge didn’t affect us on Into the Mirror Black,” corrects Rutledge. “It affected us after. About the time we were supposed to write our third record, we got pressure from the record label. Everybody was changing to grunge. I never saw Sanctuary taking that kind of right turn. We do like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, but trying to sound like them would be insanity.”