Iced Earth / Sanctuary @ Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto – 26 March 2018
Tonight is a more solemn affair for melodic metal fans. US heavy metal battalion Sanctuary were confronted by sudden tragedy. In December last year, the metal world was struck with the devastating news that vocalist Warrel Dane had died of a heart attack. The band agreed to continue the scheduled tour with stand-in vocalist Joseph Michael from Witherfall to honour Dane’s memory as part of a farewell. Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre is respectfully busy for a much needed dose of power metal with Iced Earth back on the road armed new album Incorruptible.
Dane’s contribution to the metal scene can never be overstated. Frequently considered one of the genre’s best singers, he is most known for his oeuvre in progressive thrash metal act Nevermore, who called it quits in 2011. The split was not the most disastrous in metal’s history and what’s even more gutting is that last year, Dane stated a Nevermore reunion is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’. Now the book is closed on one of metal’s best bands who made an impressive name for themselves throughout the ‘90s – when melodic metal really struggled – and during the 2000s.
As if a rallying cry to the impressive nature of Dane’s vocals, Sanctuary open with ‘Die For My Sins’ from 1988’s Refuge Denied album. Michael’s vocals are heart-stopping, perfectly shrill and acrobatic like Rob Halford. Dane’s higher register vocals were not so sturdy in his final years but Michael’s shrieks are actually flawless and he is a damn fine stand in. Unfortunately, the low end of the sound is disappointing in this venue but the show remains thoroughly enjoyable. The music of these Seattle favourites explores the duality between American power metal and heavy metal. Echoing the likes of Judas Priest, early Queensryche and early Fates Warning, their music sounds even more refreshing than other similar acts from the ‘80s, almost espousing what is now contemporary metal strains. Their take on melodic metal possesses biting fangs with a subtle thrash edge that sets them apart. Michael’s skills as a frontman are engaging, to the point where someone who was unaware of Sanctuary’s story would assume this was his band. He’s constantly on the move and interacts with the punters on a personal level.
Plenty of songs from the first two albums, Refuge Denied and Into the Mirror Black electrify the Phoenix. The best of these has to be one of Sanctuary’s most beloved compositions, ‘Battle Angels’, with Michael’s falsetto making the audience’s collective spine shiver. ‘Future Tense’, ‘Soldiers of Steel’ and ‘The Mirror Black’ bolster the classic material and are met with elated reactions. Three selections from reunion album ‘The Day the Sun Died’ are unleashed, differing from the band’s eldest material with the probably unavoidable prog/thrash sceptre of Nevermore leaving an indent. Compared to the better known tracks, songs like ‘Arise and Purify’ and ‘Frozen’ feel less special tonight but the audience gleans some satisfaction from them. Guitarist Lenny Rutledge commendably says a few words about Dane and his importance to the metal scene and is met with thick ovation. Closer ‘Taste Revenge’ is the last time Sanctuary will witness Toronto and Michael makes it memorable by climbing down into the audience. This was a fitting live tribute for such a metal icon and throughout this dynamic set, there was admittedly a sombre air. You will be missed heavily, Warrel Dane.
Not only is this tour celebrating Warrel Dane but it also celebrates a fantastic milestone for Iced Earth – 2018 is the year of their 30th anniversary. Last year, the American power metallers released album number thirteen, Incorruptible, and ‘Great Heathen Army’ begins their performance with the band’s signature galloping guitars. The audience reaction quickly turns frenetic when the classic ‘Burning Times’ follows with a sizeable portion of the crowd singing the chorus. Singer Stu Block controls the song masterfully while guitarist Jon Schaffer orchestrates unavoidable headbanging from the viewers. What leaves Iced Earth a consistently enduring band throughout their trio of decades if their skilful deployment of melody and thrash metal riffs, carving a unique sound in their Priest/Maiden-inspired power metal. They are also adept at combining a bevy of emotive elements into their power metal, making it more multi-dimensional.
Fittingly decked in pirate-inspired denim jackets, the band crusade on with pirate-inspired ‘Black Flag’, its marauding nature making it a favourite from the latest release. The new ‘Seven Headed Whore’ features rollicking guitar and hits strongly in a concise three-minute assault. The mood turns sombre with the popular ‘I Died for You’, juxtaposed with the crunchy ‘Vengeance is Mine’. The Phoenix’s geographic coordinates are producing so much energy as the band headbang on stage while Block climbs and balances precariously on the drum rack. The centre of the venue morphs into a boisterous mosh pit for most of the headliner’s set. The intensity accelerates with the heated ‘Dracula’, and then Schaffer takes over vocal duties for ‘Stormrider’. ‘Angels Holocaust’ is one of the highlights of the night with its ecclesiastical rage and is trailed off by the wild ‘Travel in Stygian’, concluding a triple of ‘Night of the Storm Rider’ selections, arguably one of their greatest albums.
The band leave the stage promptly and are lured back by the audience’s applause for an encore that begins with ‘Clear the Way (December 13th, 1862)’, an example of the historical epic that Iced Earth write so well. Block tells the venue that the final track of the night was written for Schaffer’s friend who was removed from this planet too soon via a motorcycle incident but the song also goes out to metal legend Warrel Dane and anyone else lost by someone in the audience. The song of course is ‘Watching Over Me’, culminating in a venue-wide sing along. This more solemn closer was an honourable way to wrap up tonight and the racket the spectators make when the band drops their instruments is testament to how excellent the evening has been. After 30 years, Iced Earth can still deliver an enrapturing live show. Don’t miss them when they hit your city.