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Meet Chicago's Metal Savior Chris Black and Stream a Track From His High Spirits Project

By Andy O'Connor

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Chicago's High Spirits are one of the few instances of truth in advertising in music -- they play some of the most thrilling, exuberant, straight-up life affirming metal out there. Many bands take from 70s and early 80s metal in sound, but they are one of the few groups who capture the timeless spirit of just being alive that artists like Thin Lizzy and Diamond Head so aptly harnessed. If you wish Torche sounded more like NWOBHM, High Spirits are your new favorite group. 
 
And it all stems from Chris Black, a Chicago metal institution who also dedicates himself to Dawnbringer and Superchrist. Not only is he a metal scholar, he's also a much better songwriter than some of his burnt-out peers and revivalist suitors. Try not to hum or scream anything from You Are Here, High Spirits' second full-length out later this month on Hells Headbangers. While it is a solo project, Black makes High Spirits sound like a full group effortlessly, especially when it comes to the absolutely badass vocal harmonies. With all the division surrounding metal -- the subgenres, the infighting, the constant cred tests -- High Spirits are a band that can actually bring people together with their sunniness that isn't sappy. Check out "When the Lights Go Down" and an interview with Black below.

NOISEY: What contributes to the exuberance of the music? Is High Spirits a way of life?
Chris Black: I don’t know, but it changed me.  Creatively speaking, my whole world expanded.  A new realm of possibility opened up.  Exuberant is a good way to put it.
 
High Spirits is highly influenced by 70s metal and NWOBHM, but is not “retro.” Where do you get it right, and where do they get it wrong?
I don’t know what’s right or wrong for any other bands.  What’s right for High Spirits is to nurture our connections to the music that we love, to sustain and dignify those bonds with great care and affection.  The only authenticity that matters to us is being authentic to ourselves.
 
How do you get the warm sound on the record?
It was recorded with vintage equipment from the future.
 
There’s quite a few love (or at least, sentimental) songs on the record. What sort of emotions were you mining for this record?
I think you’re right about the sentimentality.  I was also trying to get away from the straight-up heartbreakers, since “One Last Chance” and “If I’m Gone” from the ‘2013’ demos are still fresh, but I also wanted to let the songs direct themselves to the greatest extent possible, since this has worked well before.  
 
“High Spirits” features some badass vocal harmonies. Where does that element come from come from?
Thank you very much.  I have always been interested in vocal harmonies, but I think the biggest lesson I got was during the recording of the ‘Headbanger’ album by Superchrist.  I mostly sang high harmonies to that point, but the recording engineer on that album encouraged me to try singing below the melody line.  It was hit-and-miss at the time, but in the years since then, I have become a lot more comfortable in that space.  Now I sing most of my harmonies in a lower register than the melody.  That said, “High Spirits” has harmonies all over the place, high and low.
 
Both covers for the full-lengths have been a tribute to Chicago - the last one the skyline, this time the L. What led to the choice of cover?
Actually the cover for ‘You Are Here’ isn’t based on any transit system specifically.  I wanted to continue the city imagery but scale it down somehow, bring it to a point.  The idea was to show convergence, the way that human lives will randomly and temporarily combine, and what can happen when they do.  It’s something I’m aware of on tour, and sometimes even while we are performing.
 
Is this in some ways to combat the negativity surrounding Chicago lately?
The only thing surrounding Chicago is more Chicago!  Except to the east, I suppose.  The answer to your question is no.  But I would like it very much if High Spirits was a reminder that in addition to great cruelty, we humans are also capable of great kindness.
 
High Spirits
 
Chicago has a rich metal history, but mostly people talk about the more recent bands that have cropped up on the North Side. What’s the side of Chicago metal most fans don’t see?
I’m not sure what crop of bands you’re referring to, but I do agree there’s a lot of activity here, and I agree that it’s not all visible.  What can I say?  We work hard.  A lot of the work happens in the rehearsal rooms and in the inboxes of local promoters, not to mention at the 9-to-5 jobs of those who sacrifice some of their hard-earned income in order to pick up some LPs or check out a gig.
 
High Spirits has an accessible, almost populist quality, but the music has mostly been released on labels catering to metal diehards. Do you want your music to reach a wider audience?
Yes, definitely.  And our label partners are doing a lot of great promotion to that end, although I think that the initiative also lies with us.  Our label relationships involve a great deal of mutual trust.  They trust us to pace ourselves comfortably, and we trust them to make our albums available to the people who want them.  I think everyone is very satisfied with the progress.
 
Is there a bit of a contradiction between High Spirits’ accessibility and the fact that it’s your only project where you do everything? 
It’s an interesting question, but I couldn’t say.  I’m pretty sure a lot of our accessibility is due to what we do as a live band.
 
The only time I got to see High Spirits was at the Metal Haven farewell show almost four years ago. What did that store mean for you?
It meant the world!  Among other things, it gave me an income and kick-started my social life when I was new to town.  I had only been here for a few months when I started working there, and I got to know a ton of people.  The store was at that time less than two years old, so the interest was still building month to month.  We put a lot of energy into keeping up with what the customers wanted and providing an all-inclusive sort of home base for everyone in Chicago.  It was also a tourist attraction as well as a bit of a frat house at times.  Working there also validated my belief that I was capable of rolling my love of heavy metal music into some kind of profession, and it was valuable experience for what I do now.  I could go on forever, really, but my life today would be very different without Metal Haven and had Mark Weglarz not given me the opportunity to be part of it when he did.  Cool that you saw that show.  I think that night was a bit of a turning point for us as a live band.  We felt the training wheels coming off.  That said, I think we are still getting better all the time.  I hope so, anyway.
 

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