Another Night in the City: The Return of Chicago’s High Spirits
Longtime readers of the blog will have by now taken note of just how much the seasons tend to shift my listening habits around, and they’ll also note just how much I dislike summer in general. If you think that’s an unusual attitude to have, I’ll remind you that I live in Houston, Texas —- but there are silver linings to the oppressive heat and humidity of a Texan summer. One of which is just how well wild, classic styled hard rock pairs with the rising mercury, case in point being the timely arrival of You Are Here, a new album by the Chicago based rock band High Spirits. Okay, they’re in a band in that they play live, but in reality High Spirits is the work of one highly motivated musician in Chris Black. You may have heard his other work before as well —- he moonlights as the drummer for Pharaoh, whose 2012 album Bury the Light came in second on that year’s best of list, and he’s also the sole mastermind behind Dawnbringer, whose excellent Into the Lair of the Sun God placed eighth on that very same list! I guess you can say that I’m a fan of the guy. I was enthralled by the last High Spirits album, Another Night, as much by the music as well as the throwback album cover featuring a very eighties logo design slapped on top of a neon splashed portrait of nighttime Chicago. All of that combined was the very essence of the “Big City Night” that one Klaus Meine once sang about, and if you’re not getting a serious Scorpions vibe when you listen to High Spirits, you’re hopeless. The German greats, alongside a heady dose of Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden, radio ready Rush, and classic NWOBHM spice make up the ingredients of Chris Black’s rock n’ roll cocktail.
In the past half decade, retro metal has seemingly come and gone en vogue, and from my point of view, very few of those bands managed to stamp their own identity on their music. What separates High Spirits from the pack is that while the music has sonic touchstones to classic bands and eras bygone, there is no attempt at emulation —- in other words, Black is making music for today, not in a vain attempt to recreate 1982. I think that one of the aspects of Black’s musical design here that most vividly brings to mind the past is his complete lack of irony, and his utter disregard for what happened to rock music in the 1990s (you know, when a great deal of joy was sucked out of it). Hipsters be wary, this is genuine rock music made with honest intentions —- Black has stated his desire to see High Spirits grow, for them to be able to tour longer and more extensively. Again I’m reminded of the Scorpions, a band born of a time when there was no shame in hoping to play bigger venues, to have more intricate staging, to play wild rock n’ roll in the manner it was meant to be played in. I’ve read that High Spirits live shows are unabashed in their sincerity, both from band and audience alike, they are an active experience, not an event to be afraid of publicly showing your love for a style of music that a lot of unwitting people think is dead.
Whats utterly bananas about Chris Black and his work in High Spirits is that he is everything that you hear on the albums: All instruments, all vocals (including harmonies and overdubs). As I mentioned above, he has a band that he takes out live for small runs of select dates, but on album High Spirits is an entirely one man show. It doesn’t sound like it, and that’s testament to Black’s songwriting skills and overall artistry in understanding band dynamics in aspects of rock music —- as in the interplay between rhythm and lead guitars. Take the album opener “When the Lights Go Down”, with its loose yet tight riffing complemented by scorching lead fragments at the tail end of choruses. The songwriting here is razor sharp, Black has a wonderful and rare ability to pen adrenaline soaked, speedy choruses that outpace their verse section anchors (for further proof, check out “Full Power” on the band’s debut album). These are the kinds of songs that cause speeding tickets. Black slows down the tempo a touch on the next track, “I Need Your Love”, where the swinging rhythm guitar and the amped up speed in the pre-chorus bridge just smacks of the classic riffing of Rudolf Schenker. Black’s vocals are unusual for this type of music, while he’s skilled enough to carry melodies and hold notes, his tone is raw, punky even, and his delivery is borderline laid back. If I can provide some adequate frame of reference, its basically the exact opposite of Sebastian Bach’s histrionics —- Black’s approach to singing is workmanlike in serving the song only (I mean that in a positive way).
There’s plenty more in the way of good songs on offer as well, most notably the eponymous “High Spirits”, an infectious high speed rocker with crunchy riffs and a propulsive rhythm bed, and a chorus that lives up to its name. Its a jubilant song, like much of the material on You Are Here. The closest thing to a ballad on the album is the slightly moody “I Will Run”, with its juxtaposition of lonely solo guitar patterns in the intro followed immediately by a slamming riff bed upon which Black paints a bleakly romantic picture of gritting one’s teeth in the face of adversity, to “take to the stars and the streetlights”. Of course all this praise isn’t to suggest that the band has no critics or its share of criticism, the biggest being Black’s tendency to live in worlds of relatively lo-fi production. If you’re expecting booming bass, thundering drums, and intense dynamics you’ll be disappointed. Black tends to like his guitars compressed and a tad fuzzy, with the lead parts mixed up top while the vocals at times seem to sink beneath everything else. There are moments when a chorus could be made to “pop” more if it was simply mixed to be more up front, but this is a production choice that benefits the album in particular moments as well. If you’re used to listening to fuzzy alt-rock, or indie dream-pop or even old school early proto metal bands of the 70s, you’ll be able to handle High Spirits’ production. This is great summer music, evocative of the sound of car tires and beer bottles clinking, the dirty, mucky feel of hot concert venues, and of walking out of those venues to smell the nighttime rain on steaming pavement. My associations of this band’s music with this time of the year are so strong that to be honest… I’m not sure if I’ll be listening to it come November, but for right now its pretty much perfect.