The early 1990s were a dismal time to be a fan of traditional heavy metal. So many of my favorite bands were either dying off or releasing disappointing, watered-down, bastardized, “modernized” albums to try to fit in with the trends. Like a beacon of light into the darkness, however, Rage stood strong, steadfast and true. The classic lineup of the German power trio – consisting of Peavy Wagner (bass/vocals), Manni Schmidt (guitars) and Chris Efthimiadis (drums) – had been intact since 1988’s Perfect Man. But they achieved their pinnacle with Trapped! (1992) and The Missing Link (1993), both landmark releases of German heavy metal genius which to this day are among my favorite albums released by anyone ever. Unfortunately, the classic lineup disintegrated after The Missing Link. In the intervening decades, Peavy soldiered on with Rage, faithfully and fearlessly, with varying degrees of success. Schmidt became a family man and largely disappeared from the scene, save for a successful stint in Grave Digger. And I’m not sure what happened to Efthimiadis after XIII (1998).
Then something magical happened. In 2014, the stars aligned and Peavy/Manni/Chris reunited under the banner of Refuge (a famous song from The Missing Link) for occasional festival appearances. The gigs were fantastic, the timeless tunes sounded better than ever, and most importantly the guys really had fun playing together. Somewhere along the way, an idea was hatched to record a new album. Italy’s Frontiers Records inked Refuge to a recording contract and after a long and anxious wait, Solitary Men is finally here. The nods to the past are ubiquitous, not only in the album title (a play on “Solitary Man,” perhaps the greatest Rage song of all time) but also in the Andreas Marschall cover painting (same artist from Trapped! and The Missing Link). Even better, the songs were hammered out in the same rehearsal room that Peavy, Manni and Chris had used in the old days. Most of the tracks are brand-new, but a couple incorporate unused ideas from the past. Also, the album concludes with a welcome remake of “Another Kind of Madness” (the Japanese bonus track from The Missing Link).
Apologies for the lengthy windup, but context is important. What you need to know is that Solitary Men is a celebration of everything great about the classic Rage period. It successfully captures the energy, the vibe, and the spirit of those magnificent albums. It oozes freshness and exuberance. The boys sound like they’re having the time of their lives. Manni Schmidt (always one of my top guitar heroes) delivers a massively inspired performance, putting on a clinic of gargantuan licks, riffs and solos that embody his signature style and distinctive sound without coming across as a mere rehash of what he’s done before. There’s no denying that Peavy Wagner’s venerable pipes are beginning to show signs of wear and tear (hey, aren’t we all?), but he sings his heart out on this album, obviously giving it everything he has. And Chris Efthimidias is the mighty engine that makes the locomotive go, bashing the skins with the hyperactive zeal of a man half his age. How are the songs, you ask? Pretty damned great. Tracks like the brilliant, double-bass driven “From the Ashes,” the gold-plated melodies of “We Owe a Life to Death,” and the crushing “Summer’s Winter” hearken back to the glory days with such fury and conviction that you’ll soon realize you’re living in the golden years now. And the straightahead midtempo anthemic material such as “Man in the Ivory Tower” and the stomping “Living on the Edge of Time” is executed flawlessly. Things get a little odd on the more experimental “Waterfalls,” but the classic Rage lineup always had that streak back in the day, as well (Reflections of a Shadow, anyone?), so this feels authentic and true to form somehow.
Overall, Solitary Men has been extraordinarily well received by the long-term fanbase, and with good reason. Honestly, none of us (band members included) had any right to expect that Peavy, Manni and Chris could piece together an album of this surpassing quality, and this much in keeping with the feel of the old masters. Refuge has given all of us a wonderful gift. The only sour grapes I’ve seen on the Internet are from people who either don’t understand the difference between Refuge and present-day Rage (simple: Refuge has more of an old-school touch and the instantly recognizable guitar playing of Manni Schmidt) or who harbored unreasonable expectations that Solitary Men should be better than Trapped! and The Missing Link. Those albums are timeless, quivering classics for a reason folks, and it’s unfair to evaluate Solitary Men by comparison to them. Viewed on its own merit, Solitary Men is a triumph of German heavy metal and one of the best things I’ve heard in 2018 so far. Can’t wait to hear some of these tracks aired live at the Bang Your Head!!! Festival in Balingen next month. It’s gonna be like a firestorm …
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~