Ever dreamt about quitting your day job? To gather fame by contributing to several metal and rock projects, to play shows whenever it suits you, and all of that without major label pressure? Well one man from Chicago is living your dream. His name is Chris Black, a.k.a. “Professor Black”, the alias he adopted when writing for the legendary American music magazine Metal Maniacs. Earning acclaim as a drummer and songwriter for the high quality US power metal band Pharaoh, he is perhaps most known as the frontman of blackened heavy/doom act Dawnbringer. Apart from playing in these (and a host of smaller) projects, he is also the sole proprietor of the Midwestern hard rock bonanza called High Spirits. If rock is not exactly a rare commodity, Black turns it into a rewarding business by cranking out records at regular intervals. A few months after Dawnbringer served up a nice little EP as a starter, High Spirits goes straight for dessert with Motivator, album number three since its foundation in 2009.
If you allow me to use a stuffy New Age metaphor, High Spirits is the yang to Dawnbringer’s yin. While the latter sounds overwhelmingly depressive and morbid, the former is more optimistic and life-affirming. It’s got that uplifting, inspirational flair also found in many power metal bands. Other than these aesthetical differences, the music is more or less the same. Both projects are rooted in the hard rock and heavy metal of the late 70s and early 80s. Another common feature is Black’s distinctive voice, which is expressive and melodic, but rather unaccomplished from a technical point of view. On certain Dawnbringer or High Spirits songs, even the vocals lines are similar. Only a few tweaks prevent them from blurring together. This is not so much an act of self-plagiarism as Black making the best of what his limited register has to offer. So don’t get me wrong. I like what he does. In an age of hyper-polished releases, his amateur charm is half the appeal. Combined with savvy songwriting and solid instrumental performances, we have all the ingredients for a rockin’ good time.
Motivator starts out with a smoothly flowing guitar figure designed to build up excitement. To borrow imagery from the record’s cover art, it sounds like an airliner taxying confidently across the runway. All of a sudden, the pilot punches the throttle and the aircraft shoots forward towards the sky. This happens on Motivator’s second track, appropriately titled Flying High. A kinetic NWOBHM riff mimics the propulsion, while rocking chords and gentle hooks accompany the enthusiastic vocals in the verses. The song glides and soars as if there is no tomorrow. All you have to do is “close your eyes and let your spirits rise”.
Black repeats this simple formula of rocking verses and metallic sidesteps many times throughout the album. Clear highlights are the rumbling This Is the Night with its descending/ascending lead patterns, the catchy vocals of Do You Wanna Be Famous and the bouncy rhythms of Take me Home. The latter contains more than a few nods to the Kiss classic Detroit Rock City. Many other references pop up in my head while listing to these eight songs. I won’t spoil the fun by listing them all here. But it is safe to say that originality is not High Spirits’ main concern. Fortunately for Black, he is mining such a time-honored sound his borrowings can easily be passed off as tributes.
All things considered, Motivator is a fine addition to Black’s lengthy catalogue. While not exactly mandatory listening, it is definitely an entertaining record to play on occasions when your inspiration is utterly lacking. This is music for working people who need a dreamer to convince them of all the glories life has to offer. Throw in a couple of Dawnbringer tunes and you have a balanced picture of where you might be heading.
Release date: September 16th, 2016
Label: High Roller Records
1. Up and Overture
2. Flying High
3. This Is the Night
4. Reach for the Glory
5. Do You Wanna Be Famous
6. Haunted by Love
7. Down the Endless Road
8. Take Me Home
9. Thank You