The first time I ever heard Warrel Dane sing was at a friend’s place sometime around 1994 in Würzburg, Germany. My mom was stationed at the US Army Base there and over the course of two formidable years I first picked up the bass guitar and formed my first metal band (Fatal Legend!). I formed the band with a couple of older G.I.’s and we wrote a couple of songs. The guitarist and I became pretty good friends and he turned me onto a lot of great music like Napalm Death and this band from Seattle that was playing powered-thrash metal: Sanctuary. It was the boom of grunge music (which I was also into) and bands like this one and their singer, Warrel Dane, were going out of fashion in the mainstream. But me and my friends loved this band. In fact, my friend claimed to have been a member of this band. But that was clearly not true. This was before the internet so it was hard to follow up on his story. But eventually, it all comes out in the wash. That’s a story for another time…
I had never heard a singer sing like Warrel, with such a tormented anguish that was both painful and moving at times. He also sang about stuff I was starting to get into as a 14 year old. Politics. But mostly just the anti-capitalist wall-street kind of stuff that I was really digging with Rage Against the Machines. Anyhow, I jammed the cassette tape I had from Sanctuary, Into the Mirror Black, to pieces I loved it so much. I would later finally get a copy of their debut, Refuge Denied, but ITMB still holds a special place in my heart. Besides Jason Newsted and later, John Myung, Sanctuary’s Jim Sheppard was one of my first influences and my first bass lines sounded like JS rip-offs.
Unfortunately, the band had broken up in 1992 and there didn’t seem to be any chance to hear any of these guys back in action. Especially, their enigmatic singer, Warrell Dane.
The years flew by and around 1997 I got a copy of Martin Popoff’s excellent book of reviews, The Collector’s Guide to Heavy Metal. I don’t think I have ever loved a CD reviewer’s writing as much as Mr. Popoff’s. I didn’t always agree with his reviews but taste is in the ear of the beholder.
Anyhow, in the back of this book was a “19 Track Heavy Metal CD Sampler!” from a label who I was just learning about: Century Media.
I threw the CD in my HiFi and spun it a million times. I discoverd a lot of great bands on there (like Strapping Young Lad). But track six came on and my head whipped around to the speaker. That voice. I know that voice! There is only one singer who could possibly sound like that. Warrel Dane. I quickly looked at the tracklisting because I was sure I had not seen Sanctuary on there. Indeed, this was a new band called Nevermore and this was a track called, “This Sacrament”, off of an album called The Politics of Ecstasy.
Nevermore quickly became one of my favorite bands of the late 90’s (including Opeth, Dream Theater and Pain of Salvation). Nevermore, to me, was a long way forward from Sanctuary. Where Sanctuary had some elements that were still rooted in the 80’s thrash and power metal scenes, Nevermore was like a genre all it’s own. There were tons of nu-metal bands dominating the mainstream during this time and I was not a fan of most popular metal bands in this era. Somehow, Jeff Loomis, Warrel Dane and Jim Sheppard, Pat O’Brien and Van Williams were making something new.
I went back and picked up the self-titled debut and the EP, In Memory. First off, I was really taken by the production. It was a wall of sound I had not heard before and would soon learn that legendary producer Neil Kernon (Kansas, Queensryche) was behind the desk. In fact, NK dominated the recordings of a lot of albums in this era that I liked.
But with the release of 1999’s Dreaming Neon Black, my connection to the music became even stronger. In short, DNB got me through some dark, personal times in a cathartic way. It’s one of my favorite albums of all time, but also one that I can’t listen to all the time, because I used it to work out personal struggles. Although it helped me sort through those uncertainties, I also attached those memories to the tracks. Hearing them again sometimes takes me back to that place. Hearing Warrel sing “Forever”, haunts me to this day. Nevertheless, it is a great album and the last one they would do with Neil Kernon. I don’t believe they recorded a music video for this record, but would later capture the title track on their live album, The Year of the Voyager (2008).
In 2000, their most monumental record would drop. Dead Heart in a Dead World. With a blistering modern metal production by Andy Sneap, the band came into their own with more melodic and accessible songs, including a
relentless 7-string attack. The title track is still one of my favorite Nevermore songs of all time. But it was the beauty in Warrell’s performance on tracks like Believe in Nothing that will stay with me the most.
It was during this tour cycle that I would see Nevermore for the first and only time, live, at the now defunct L’Amour club in Brooklyn. I wrote about it before as it was in support of Opeth on their Blackwater Park tour in the USA.
Nevermore followed up with a record that was hit with criticism over the production quality. I have to admit, the first time I heard the opening track (which was pre-released online), I thought that the audio file was incredibly low quality. But it turned out to be the album. This is one of the few albums that I know of to be remixed within a few years of it’s production. You can read more about the why’s over on Wiki. It wasn’t my favorite album by the band, and it was clear something was amiss behind-the-scenes, but nevertheless, I still spin this record (the remix from Andy Sneap) regularly. The single from the album, “I, Voyager”, is a terrific track but the radio edit that made the video is terrible. I hate radio edits! Let me say that again. I HATE RADIO EDITS!!
Even worse, is the radio edit and video for the killer title track, “Enemies of Reality”. I mean, except for the worms, which are a clear tie to the lyrics and albums cover art, what are the girls doing there? This is a perfect example of my “least favorite kind of metal videos”. But once you know about the budget constraints of even making the record, it’s clear there was nothing left over to make music videos. However, this song absolutely rules and Warrel’s performance in the video is, as usual, the highlight.
But then after making two fairly accessible records, Nevermore drops their most progressive album to date, This Godless Endeavor. Easily, their most challenging record it is one of their most complex, layered, brutal and majestic works.
From the opener, “Born”, to the closing self-titled track that feels like a movie soundtrack, this album is absolutely relentless. On that note, let me state something which I think is true of Nevermore. They really know how to structure an album. The albums always begin and end amazingly.
After This Godless Endeavor, there was few years of silence from Nevermore. During which, Warrel Dane released his only solo album (his was working on the follow up when he passed). With members of Soilwork, he created a fantastic solo record which imbued so much of Nevermore, but was more song focused and allowed him to really shine. Also some of the tracks seemed deeply personal to me.
In this time, he also guested on a track from Behemoth’s The Apostasy album, “Inner Sanctum.
And then, after nearly 5 years, Nevermore returned with an absolutely killer record, The Obsidian Conspiracy. This was a return to the DHIADW days, in my opinion. Stripped-down, straightforward, melodic, heavy and memorable. I loved this album immediately and enjoyed the room that Warrel had to sing throughout the album.
After Nevermore went on an indefinite hiatus in 2011, there were rumours that Warrel was reuniting with Sanctuary. 14-year-old-Randy was overly-thrilled! I broke out my old Sanctuary CDs and got back into my early metal days. But then, the album was released. The Year the Sun Died (such an awesome title), dropped in 2014. I caught some of the early singles and the video for Question Existence Fading.
But somehow, I wasn’t swept away. It was Warrel Dane. It was the original lineup from Sanctuary. It was very close to the original sound they had. But what changed was me. I had grown musically with Warrel and with Nevermore. The new Sanctuary felt very retro to me. I didn’t dislike it, but it wasn’t the kind of music that I was listening to these days. It didn’t challenge me like the best of Nevermore.
On December 13th, 2017, our art director, Kris, wrote in our Facebook group some devastating words:
I knew that he had suffered in the past from illness. But this couldn’t be. He was much too young.
Revisiting his life and his music, and remembering what it meant to me, made me want to run out and buy the last Sanctuary record. This is the one album by him that I do not own. But then, that made me feel guilt. Like the death of a person warrants a purchase of his work. As if it wasn’t good enough for me before. But then I realized that the reaction came from another place. This might be the last piece of art that Warrel left us. A piece of work that would forever be frozen in time.
So over the last two days, as I have cranked Warrel Dane’s music in my car and once again attempted to sing those melodies with the same torment and delicateness that he did, knowing that other people in their cars watching and hearing my pathetic display may not understand. But this guy’s music and melodies touched my life, carried me through dark times, played in the background while I slept, pushed me to carry on when times got tough and pushed me to question belief, authority and the nature of being human. I never knew him, but I knew his art and his art became a part of my life. So, thank you, Warrel Dane, for the metal and the music and the meaning.