High Spirits – Hard To Stop Review

Often times, I believe we are the architects of our own discontent. In a world that so often engrains in our minds that nothing worth having comes without effort, pain, and struggle, we find ourselves actively seeking these things in an effort to achieve some sort of growth and fulfillment in our own lives. This isn’t to say that bettering ourselves is an easy task – quite the contrary. It’s difficult to just let go and accept that disappointment, pain, hardship, and heartbreak are a part of the human experience. One need not seek them out; these experiences will present themselves and it is on us to accept them as a part of life and soldier on, ideally learning something about ourselves and the world around us in the process. We often perceive ourselves as complex creatures, and I think we project these self-imposed complexities on our perceptions of the experiences that shape us. When it’s all boiled down, we really only operate around the four base motivators: happiness, sadness, fear, and anger.

Release date: July 31st, 2020. Label: High Roller Records
It’s this skill of stripping down the bullshit that makes High Spirits such an effective band, prospering more in the emotion behind the music than forcing growth. The Chicago band is a bit of a passion project for Professor Chris Black of, amongst many others, Dawnbringer, Pharaoh (a Last Rites favorite), Superchrist, and Aktor. Across four albums, including the upcoming Hard To Stop, Black has shown a consistent and infectious knack for tapping into the sheer honesty of heartbreak and loss and transforming those painful emotions into something positive: fun, hooky, hard rockin’ heavy metal charged with the powerful, uplifting, infectious spirit of new beginnings and cherished, if at times painful, memories. In short, he doesn’t fall prey to overcomplicating or over analyzing things, each album is precisely what it is: nothing more, nothing less.

Hard To Stop wastes no time hitting that triumphant stride of overcoming with the intro to “Since You’ve Been Gone.” A touch of speed kicks things into high gear and those familiar, comforting Black vocals take the listener by the hand and guide them through the tormenting agony of loneliness with a firm, reassuring hand. The poppy infection of the guitar melodies squeeze the palms in an affirming show of strength, as if to say, “You aren’t alone here, I’ve got you, we can get through this together.” It may sound corny in description, but it’s the feeling behind the music that really gets under the skin and feels pure and genuine.

“Reckless” – the first previewed track/teaser/whatever passes for a single these days – hits that classic Tooth & Nail style that blurs the lines between poppy, radio-friendly hard rock and riffing, guitar-charged heavy metal that High Spirits have built their identity around. The lead work plays a crucial role in its success as they cry out a few notes in the pre-chorus, adding just the right touches of warmth to the chord patterns beneath them. Black’s playful, layered vocals invoke a sense of bandanas and teased hair and flirty winks at the crowd – god, there’s so much Dokken in High Spirits it almost demands to be listened to in a pair of skintight striped pantaloons. The casual “hahaha” dropped in adds to the freewheelin’ spirit of the song – an old trick that Black employs sparingly throughout the album (the “Hey! I’ve got somethin’ on my mind, maybe you can help me, can you tell me this?” dialogue with the “audience” pulling back the slingshot before the release into the final chorus on the title track being a peak example). It’s difficult to pull off this sort of banter into a studio album and retain the same impact it would have when delivered unexpectedly in a live scenario, yet this only strengthens the honesty in Black’s approach. It feels spontaneous and inspired because Black truly believes in the music he’s creating, and it enhances the confidence factor in the album itself.

While all the elements of the band work together to serve the songs, the rhythm section gets a bit more spotlight on songs like “Hearts Will Burn,” with the driving pace and spunky bass, with more than just a dash of that early Maiden bounce taking the forefront. The tom work on the pre-chorus adds an essential, yet subtle factor toward pushing the track forward. The harmonized “fly like an eagle, ride like the wind” lyrics pluck more than a few nostalgic heartstrings in those versed in the heavy metal classics, enhancing the anthemic spirit of the song. Conversely, and this may come across as blasphemy in a heavy metal review, the following song, “Voice In The Wind” hits the near-ballad aspects of a pop-punk band that wouldn’t be entirely out of place alongside The Bouncing Souls on a mid-nineties Epitaph compilation. Yet there’s no denying the virulent hope and desire for one more conversation with an individual whose presence is lacking in the life of the narrator – the loss felt in the vocals is sharply contrasted with the uplifting hope in the music itself which only solidifies High Spirits’ ability to abjectly contradict the feelings of despair and regret with the realizations of growth and hope. It is this juxtaposition that makes the band so amazing and memorable. To take emotions that seem so complex and strip them down to a few memorable melodies that inspire while still retaining that lyrical element of sadness is the product of true inspiration.

Of all the tracks across the album, “Midnight Sun” hits closest to home in regards to summarizing the sound of both the album and the band’s spirit in general. The sustain of the chords ringing out over the chorus as a riff constructs itself with Black delivering more wisdom on matters of grabbing life by the horns and capturing the essence of releasing emotions onstage in a mad grab for the light of tranquility. It washes away the everyday struggles in a moment of bliss most explicitly captured when the instruments drop for a harmonized vocal moment of zen. The solos never feel forced or overly performative; as with all elements of High Spirits, their primary duty is in service of the songs and to add that extra “umph” factor that never throws off the carefully constructed balance of the scales.

But I think my explanation of the record has become convoluted – here I am overcomplicating things and searching for complexities in something that is created to simply be enjoyed and, hopefully, inspire a lift in the emotional forefront of the listener. High Spirits’ music isn’t  created to be deconstructed and overanalyzed, their music is made to be felt and connected to on an emotional level and nothing more than feeling the pure, unadulterated, and undiluted natural approach to their songwriting can describe it accurately. This is precisely what the band thrive on, and to access that feeling so consistently across not only Hard To Stop but the entirety of their discography is alone worth the price of admission. At the end of the day, Hard To Stop is a catchy, melodic, rockin’ heavy metal record, and that’s really all it needs to be: and all that makes it so exceptional.

Posted by Ryan Tysinger

I listen to music, then I write about it. On Twitter @d00mfr0gg (Outro: The Winds Of Mayhem)

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