Sometimes, I funereally bemoan the way in which technology has made the world a smaller place. A world where everyone is seemingly aware of everything that’s happening everywhere all the time. Bands that remember how difficult the struggle to rise above obscurity used to be won’t agree with this sentiment, neither will the post-it-and-it’s-instant-news-and-knowledge bands of today. But, some probably remember, and maybe even miss, the days of saying, "No, tell me about 'em" when a dumb friend asked, “Have you heard of so-and-so?” This is a microscopic quibble in the grand scheme of things and topics, but seeing as my previous knowledge of Japan’s Solitude was zilch, I took perverse pleasure in being able to go into this with blinders on. I’m also quite happy to report that Reach for the Sky is rather good.
Ironically, despite being familiar with all the bands they’ve shared stages, studios and members with – even obscure Japanese and Canadian acts like United, Casbah, Rip Ride, Midnight Malice and Skullfist – that are mentioned in their bio/namedropping document, Solitude is new to these ears. Whether it’s because Reach for the Sky is only the band’s second full-length of their 20+ year history, or because previous releases have been issued exclusively by Japan-centric Spiritual Beast Records, this band is the opposite of prolific in every sense of the word. Seriously, it took them three years after initially forming in 1996 to write, record and release a two-song demo. This album was initially released on home turf four years ago and they’re only now getting around to securing a release outside of their home territory.
Maybe the delay between 2009’s Brave the Storm and Reach for the Sky came at the behest of busy time on the festival and touring circuit, member changes, other bands/side projects, and that pesky life stuff that gets in the way of rockin’ and rollin’—yes, those are contributing factors. But the core original members of bassist Toru Nishida and vocalist Akira Sugiuchi (both also of Sacrifice) appear to write material for Solitude carefully, deliberately and at a molasses pace. Plus, being children of the ‘70s and ‘80s, they enjoy engaging in arcane, time-consuming activities like finding, moving into, occupying and recording in an abandoned movie theater because Deep Purple and Rainbow did something similar back in the day.
Whatever the case, when opening track “Venom’s Prison” rides in on its streamlined, power chord chugging horse with classic Priest’s soaring melodies and a vintage Metallica/Anthrax down-picked soiree—all clock watching and complaining discarded. Even if the clean-picked intro is out-of-place, unnecessary and only there because that’s how too many metal records from 1981-89 began.
So, now that you have a handle on where Solitude is coming from, you won’t be surprised to know there are no surprises to be had here. Their skill isn’t used to invent a new wheel. What they put on display is a very deliberate approach to referencing different sonic swathes of a specific era of metal—the ‘80s. Their collective talent is executed to faithfully traverse the decade without sounding forced, phony or like they’re doing it for chicks and/or beer. Tendrils worm back to classic Tank, Motorhead and Venom on “Blow.” There’s a bit of Breaking the Chains-era Dokken, Thunder in the East-era Loudness and other ozone layer killers in the title track. A combination of US speed metal and first album Mercyful Fate pump the pistons on “Don’t Need Mercy.”
What’s also interesting about Reach for the Sky is how the album gets better as it goes on. As engaging as the record’s first half, come the turnaround point—the Maiden-flecked and Wolf-inspired instrumental “Escape for the Crime”—the pace is picked up, the riffs become more invigorating, the melodies wring out more darkness and Sugichi’s voice wanders further into Lemmy territory. Imagine if fellow Japanese miscreants Abigail had never discovered black metal and that scenario becomes “You Got My Mind.” “On the Edge of Sorrow” makes use of Arabian/Middle Eastern scales as an addendum to its fist-pumping British pub metal riff and album closer “Virtual Image” is a seven-minute power metal distillation of all of the above (and appears to have recorded at a different time and place than the rest of the album).
Taking more than half-a-decade between albums can result in either: 1) a jumbled mess when a band tries to cram the entirety of its growth and maturation in one place or, 2) a virtual carbon copy of the past, whether at the hand of success or a lack of vision. Reach for the Sky falls somewhere in the middle. It’s a scattered outpouring of a wide range of metal, but strict borders established by its adherence to an ‘80s blueprint rein it in while allowing for the talents of Nishida, Suguchi, six-string slinger Shingo Ida and drummer Takamasa Ohuchi to shine through. They might occasionally get flashy and showy, but they do so appropriately and the album never crosses that line into unlistenable craziness. And, it’s an album with a stronger ‘B-side’ which is a rarity, as unintended as it may be.