Chris Black has been one of the busiest musicians in US heavy metal over the past two decades, making a name for himself with bands like Dawnbringer, Pharaoh, and Superchrist. In 2009 Black started High Spirits, a heavy metal and hard rock band that pulls equally from NWOBHM and classic rock ‘n roll while displaying more pop sensibilities than some of his other projects. While High Spirits utilizes quite a bit of Chicago talent for its live shows, on record Black handles everything himself and this has allowed all his nuances as a songwriter to shine through. For the project’s fourth full length Hard to Stop, the formula hasn’t changed significantly but the recording has a slightly more modern and polished sound compared to some of High Spirit’s past work.
What has always made me gravitate towards this band is its ability to merge the boundless energy and grit of NWOBHM with pop hooks that recall some of the best rock of the 70s and 80s. Opener “Since You’ve Been Gone” is a perfect example of this for those new to High Spirits, as it has some of the galloping riffs and grittier tonality that defined this type of heavy metal but there are layers of melody over top of it and a chorus that proves infectious enough to get stuck in your head quickly. Compared to Dawnbringer or some of Chris Black’s other bands, the writing is a bit more straightforward but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of variety to be found on Hard to Stop. There’s a lot of ground covered here, with songs like “Face to Face” coming in somewhere between heavy metal and 80s bar rock, while “Voice in the Wind” goes for 90s punk circa its mainstream radio era. Admittedly with all of these stylistic shifts there are some tracks that come and go without truly sinking their hooks in, but when Hard to Stop hits its mark with the likes of “Restless”, “Since You’ve Been Gone”, and “All Night Long” you’ll find yourself wanting to crank the volume up and give this another spin. One of the biggest differences between this album and some of High Spirits’ past discography is the increased clarity between the instruments and the fullness of the sound. Where the vocals and instrumentals sometimes bled together a bit, here they’re both given equal focus and the way the guitars boom out of your speakers makes a big difference.
Over the years I’ve become a big fan of Black’s singing, especially when it comes to how different it sounds depending on which of his bands you’re listening to. Where Superchrist and Dawnbringer often saw him going for a gruffer and slightly lower pitch, with High Spirits his performance has always lived up to the group’s name and offered cleaner and high energy singing that had plenty of catchy choruses that would stick with you. This remains true on Hard to Stop, as right from the first track his voice soars over the recording and reminds me just as much of 80s and 90s radio rock as much as heavy metal and some of the grittier hard rock. The singing is often layered into harmonies that keep things as high energy as possible, and with the added separation between the instrumentals and vocals this time around they have even greater opportunity to shine. Having seen High Spirits live in the past, it’s exciting to find that this album captures that same high-flying performance you’ll get from Black on-stage.
There are a few songs that don’t quite hit the mark for me, but this is still another solid collection of material from High Spirits that covers a lot of ground and touches upon three decades worth of rock and heavy metal. But no matter your tastes, there should be something here that will appeal to your inner rocker and have you belting out some of the choruses after only a few times through, and as long as Chris Black continues to achieve that with this band I’ll keep coming back for more. Here’s hoping to hear some of these cuts in a live setting whenever that can finally happen again, as there are definitely some prime candidates. Hard to Stop is available from High Roller Records.
-Review by Chris Dahlberg
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