More than a chic aura of mystery
Sanctuary’s self-titled debut is one of those albums that’s appealing not just in its music but because of the mystery that surrounds it as well. The group’s online presence is sparse, with just a bare-bones Bandcamp page and a website with some cryptic imagery and diagrams. They offer little information about themselves—Sanctuary is a collective of composers and visual artists based in Los Angeles. Their debut (divided into two separate volumes) features contributions from composers Jose A. Parody, Grayson Sanders and Leviticus Penner, all of whom have worked on scores for major films. Their music draws heavily from neoclassicism, with influences like Nils Frahm, Ólafur Arnalds and Johann Johannsson.
That’s it. Other than those essential details, there’s nothing else out there about the group. They seem to revel in anonymity—even their profile picture on Bandcamp is a masked figure. In 2021, when every artist under the sun obsessively tries to establish themselves with a bevy of social media accounts, a mystery like this is novel. But whether the music can elicit the same level of interest is another story.
Fittingly, these tracks are as minimal as the group’s online presence. “Monachopsis” is built on just one piano figure, repeated ad nauseum until the listener is hypnotized into submission. “In Absolute” does something similar, with lush strings repeating the same melody throughout the piece’s runtime. It develops just enough to stay interesting, with a bleepy industrial synth becoming increasingly prominent as the strings also grow in intensity. The melody on “Agathokalogical” is also stuck on repeat, this time sung by a choir. But the best part of this cut is the juxtaposition of their crystalline voices with a low, subterranean rumble deep in the mix.
These tracks are surprisingly short, never exceeding three minutes. This, combined with their frequent use of repetition, makes them sound less like fully-fledged compositions and more like impressions, evocations of a particular mood—these are background hums, dull glows, penumbrae. Sanctuary doesn’t cite ambient music as an influence, but the connection is undeniable. “Interlude Abyss” is the most glaring example, a dense, shimmering whirlpool of jittery strings and ethereal synths.
Thanks to its short track lengths, the album almost never wears down. The only exception is “Mendacious,” which flaunts some interesting textures but otherwise doesn’t leave much of an impression, never quite immersing the listener as the other tracks do.
“Masks” is the only track with vocals, and it happens to be the best one. Keeping with the group’s image (or lack thereof), the vocalist is unnamed. Whoever he is, he serves up something bizarre and difficult to classify. His seductive croon sounds otherworldly against the churning organs and strings, which threaten to completely drown him as they edge toward a crescendo.
This is how Sanctuary sounds at its best: like it came out of nowhere, beaming down to Earth from another dimension. But this isn’t the case—beneath the group’s cryptic veneer are at least three very real, very talented individuals. Indeed, with these hypnotic, ambient-tinged neoclassical pieces, Sanctuary proves there’s more to them than a chic aura of mystery.