Reviewed: July, 2020
Released: 2020, High Roller Records
Reviewer: Jack Merry
Chris Black might be the busiest musician in Chicago’s heavy metal scene. The multi-instrumentalist fronts three Chicago bands: Dawnbringer, Superchrist, and High Spirits. He’s also a former bassist for Nachtmystium and has worked with the band in both production and creative roles on their past four albums and a handful of EPs.
Just like the title of the fourth full-length High Spirits album, he really is hard to stop. Chris records all of the instruments and vocals himself, then it’s off to Dan Swanö at Unisound Studio for mixing and mastering to its full heavy metal glory. During my first listen through, I was convinced it was recorded by a full band playing together in one room. All nine songs on Hard To Stop have a ‘live’ feel to them and it became harder and harder to believe that this was the work of one man. During live performances, High Spirits are a band of five people, but in a studio environment, it’s all Chris Black.
Kicking off with an intricate guitar part reminiscent of Maiden’s ‘Wasted Years,’ opening track ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ bursts full-throttle onto the scene, providing the perfect shot of adrenaline needed to start a hard rock album. I would be lying if I said I saw the title and didn’t expect a cover of Rainbow’s classic track, but any thoughts I had about that were immediately quashed once the machine gun style drumming and explosive guitar parts went into overdrive. Chris’ anthemic vocals fit perfectly for this style of custom-built arena rock, as his voice soars over the hard-hitting music.
Lead single ‘Restless’ is probably my favourite track on Hard To Stop, drenched in 80’s classic rock stylings and panache. Big-haired riffs from days gone by interact with the rumbling bass and drums as Chris passionately sings “So you wanna be a runaway? Try to keep up, ‘cos I’m restless.” I always get a little restless when there’s some fist-pumping rock involved, and this album delivers in spades. ‘Voice in the Wind’ has delightful punk energy, yearning after a lost love set to gorgeous melodies and power chords. It’s a ridiculously catchy and the hook will be stuck firmly in my head for weeks to come, and ‘Midnight Sun’ hits that late-night drive with the top down feeling quite nicely. A solid mid-tempo riff permeates the song throughout and a fiery solo elevates it to excellence.
‘All Night Long’ is a typically unsubtle hard rock track about lust and sex, and while the guitar work is excellent, the lyrics are very on the nose (to the point I’d say it sounds a little like a scrapped Steel Panther track) and there’s something about the vocals during the chorus that seems rushed. The way Chris sings the chorus is just a little bit jarring, but ultimately that’s a nitpick. It’s still a solid, albeit silly, song. Another track where the chorus is particularly weak is ‘Hearts Will Burn.’ The song has a great hard-edged riff and some nice vocals during the verses, then hits an anti-climactic chorus. Normally it wouldn’t be overly noticeable, but where everything else on Hard To Stop is really, really good, the weaker things show up easier.
There are no ballads here, this is a hard rock album from beginning to end. High flying vocals, razor-sharp riffs, explosive guitar solos, and chunky rhythm sections fill out this entire record. Closing track ‘We Are Everywhere’ sees Chris try out a little Judas Priest style, almost as a homage to the band. There’s definitely a Firepower era Rob Halford type delivery to his vocal tone, and when it’s set against the backdrop of chugging riffs, it’s hard not to notice. It’s very reminiscent of Priest, and I may be alone in thinking that, but plays out like a homage rather than a rip-off and doesn’t take away from the song’s quality.
Every track here is an anthemic slice of the 80’s hard rock nostalgia pie, topped with some delicious modern rock cream that helps Hard To Stop bridge the gap between older and younger audiences, and it works. It’s a near-perfect album besides a couple of choruses that don’t quite land for me personally. Everything else is stellar, and as the album cover shows, during these uncertain times, a light from the darkness is what we all need right now; a jolt of hard rock energy to keep us in high spirits.