HIGH SPIRITS “Unstoppable” 

By Dr. Abner Mality

It’s no secret that Professor Chris Black is one of the busiest and most creative minds in heavy metal and hard rock. The former journalist has input in many bands like DAWNBRINGER, AKTOR, PHARAOH and his own PROF. BLACK project. But the most visible and the most accessible of all his bands would be HIGH SPIRITS.

Described as “high energy rock n roll”, this band taps into a musical vein where commercial hard rock meets melodic heavy metal. It’s also a band that deals with real life tales of demons and warriors here. Prof. Black is the mastermind here and has now put out four albums of increasing power and visibility, the newest of which is aptly titled “Hard To Stop”.

I had a very pleasant chat with the good Professor speaking about not just HIGH SPIRITS but all of the projects he’s had his hand in. I think you will enjoy reading the following interview as much I did conducting it...

WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: Is it fair to say that with all the musical projects you’re involved with, that HIGH SPIRITS is the predominant one?

PROFESSOR BLACK: Yes, certainly at this time it is. Now when HIGH SPIRITS first came together in 2009, it was kind of a side project to all the other things I was doing at the time and it was certainly a side project for the guys in the live band at that time. But with the passage of time, we’ve had very good response to what we’re doing, both as HIGH SPIRITS the recording artists and HIGH SPIRITS the live show. Yes, it is fair to say that, it’s the one that’s most out in front.

WC: It also seems that you were ahead of the curve with the type of music you were doing. It’s now become fashionable to have the 80’s and 70’s influenced heavy metal, but at the time you started, that wasn’t quite the case, would you agree?

PB: I would agree, I guess. From my own personal point of view, I think its always been rather fashionable to incorporate those vintage influences, the foundation of this whole genre. My favorite period of this kind of rock and metal music is around the late 70’s and early 80’s when the metamorphosis was taking place and hard rock was kind of evolving or transforming into heavy metal. It was that kind of purgatory, the transitional period...that’s always been the sound that I was looking for. I was a little kid in the 80’s and a teenager in the 90’s. As a little kid in the 80’s, I kind of liked all music, if that makes sense. Everything kind of gave me a kick because everything was new. A couple of years pass and I realize that this radio music wasn’t exactly the kind of sound I was looking for. As I got older, I got to be a little more discerning, a little more selective. Hair metal was popular then and I was exposed to some of those bands. It was in the right direction but it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. I was 10 or 11 when I started to get into those early English metal bands. That’s when it started to click. Yes, thank you! This was the sound I was looking for. Never mind that it was the mid-90’s by the time I discovered this. It was almost 20 years out of date! (laughs) For me personally, this was always in my comfort zone as a song writer and a listener. I do agree with you that nowadays there are more and more bands kind of catching on to that sound in their own way.

WC: One of the differences is that it’s now a lot easier to get product out…

PB: Well, that’s very, very true. Every step of the way is easier now. It’s easier to record yourself without burning through 200 bucks an hour at a professional recording studio. And then you’d have to pay a producer another 100 bucks an hour on top of that. CDs are also pretty cheap to make and it’s easier to be heard, as well. You can put your tracks on Bandcamp or Youtube...there are dozens if not hundreds of these outlets. As you said, it’s easy to get the product out there. The trick is driving people to that, making people want to hear you above the other hundred, two hundred, five thousand options that they have.

WC: As a music reviewer, the amount of digital promos I get sent is just ridiculous.

PB: Oh, it must be brutal! It’s like, where do I start?

WC: I have to do triage on it. I feel kind of bad because not only are there bands that I can’t get to, there are entire labels that I can’t get to. I go back quite a way in the music scene. I was there for that transformation you spoke of, when things moved from kind of AOR hard rock like QUEEN and KANSAS to metal like JUDAS PRIEST and ANGELWITCH. I would say the period of about ‘77 to ‘83 was what you were honed in on.

PB: I would definitely agree. That music was already way out of date by the time I was getting into it. It was weird to go record shopping with my friends and come back with everything from DEATH’s “Leprosy” to “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” to a VENOM tape to a Bay Area thrash band. That stuff was accessible to us all at the same time. We really weren’t paying attention to what came out when or what was the latest. We were just kind absorbing as much as we could. We were looking for the right sound for us. It was a whole new world to us.

WC: I loved going down to the record store and pawing through the import bin to see what would catch my eye. There are still places to do that, but nowhere near as many now.

DB: And the success rate isn’t what it used to be, buying something on a whim and getting it home and having a true gem. I’m sure that happens less and less with time.

WC: It still happens. I still find bands that surprise me. But you hear so much, even the good stuff kind of falls into a mush after a while.

DB:  Well, it’s that bell shaped curve. What stands out is the really great stuff and then the really horrible stuff. That leaves a huge mass of stuff in the middle. How do you sort through it? You’ve been doing your thing for a while, just like I have, so I’ll bet you’ve developed a kind of sixth sense or intuition for where to begin.

WC: HIGH SPIRITS has a very consistent sound from album to album. How hard is it to stay consistent without falling into a rut?

DB: Well, there’s some give and take there. That’s kind of a universal curse for being a band that’s on it’s third, fourth, fifth, or whatever album. How much do you try to change versus how much you try to stay the same so you don’t alienate the fans you already have. You want to be loyal to your fans, obviously, because they’re going to support you, buy your records and come to your gigs. But you don’t want to lose their attention by not being interesting enough. You want to keep that spark that brought them to you in the first place. It’s a gut thing, right? There’s not a rubric that you can apply to it that’s going to succeed every time. The tolerances for change are different in ever case for different bands and different fans. A progressive rock band probably has a lot more leeway with their fans. Those fans want that band to stretch their wings, they want that band to evolve and experiment. Now maybe your more straight ahead rock band such as HIGH SPIRITS or maybe MOTORHEAD or AC/DC, their appeal is that they don’t change that much. You know exactly what you’re going to get. So I think for us, particularly with the new album, what it came down to...and this will sound not trying too hard for it to sound one way or another. I think on our prior album “Motivator” and even more so for the album before it “You Are Here”, when I listen back to those, it sounds a bit confined. Whether it was on purpose or more subconscious, I can hear myself trying to steer those songs a certain way and not stretch those boundaries too much. With the new album, it sounds weird to say it, but I didn’t try too hard. I just let the songs happen on their own. And then they’ll automatically and naturally sound like HIGH SPIRITS songs.

WC: You can always “overthink” just about anything…

PB: Oh,, it’s very easy. Especially since I work by myself in the studio and there’s no feedback coming back to me from another band member, it’s very easy to try something 20 different ways. And you know what happens more often than not? It winds up being the same way it sounded in the first place. Turns out my instinct was right!

WC: As a creative writer, I used to come up with ideas that were too epic, too involved. Just in the last year, I’m starting to realize that short stories based on just one or two ideas might be a better way to go.

PB: Just scale things back a bit, yeah. And it’s hard, it’s hard to do. If you love what you do, and obviously you’re writing these stories because you enjoy it, and I take a genuine enjoyment in working on these evening spent working on a 10 second guitar solo, I don’t consider that as wasted time. 

WC: On your new album, the sound was again consistent but you did throw a couple of curve balls in. Is it fair to say the song “Hearts Will Burn” is one of the heaviest, if not the heaviest, HIGH SPIRITS song? 

PB: It could be,  it could be! You’re not the first to mention that. I don’t disagree, I think it might be the heaviest one. I think the opening track “Since You’ve Been Gone” is also pretty heavy but maybe a little more melodic, a little more tuneful. “Hearts Will Burn” is definitely a headbanger. There’s a song on “Another Night” called “Demons At The Door” that has kind of a similar step to it. Part of the heaviness comes from the mix. The production is a lot heavier this time around, which also emphasizes the heaviness in the riffs.

WC: Now almost in deliberate contrast is the song that comes right after that, “Voice In The Wind”. To me, I would say that’s the closest you’ve come to pure American rock n roll?

PB: I hope so! That’s kind of what I was thinking. When I was a little kid, I listened to everything and the stuff on American Top 40 radio had a certain atmospheric quality being used. I think there was a lot of reverb being used in the studio then. Obviously this is a very commercial song and probably the most radio-oriented song that we’ve done. I think that one’s going to be one of those “love it or hate it” tracks and I’m fine with that. Our publicist in Germany said that was one of the best HIGH SPIRITS songs he’s heard and he thinks it’s going to be a total crowd-pleaser when we play over there.(laughs) And then there’s someone in the band...maybe more than one in the band...who’s not looking forward to playing it live. He’ll only do so under protest! (laughs)

WC:  I thought the placement of those two songs on the album right next to each other was very telling. It was like you were saying “here’s our range”.

PB: Right. That is right where you would flip the record, if you have it on vinyl. “Hearts Will Burn” would be the end of Side A and “Voice In the Wind” the beginning of Side B. You get a little breather after “Hearts Will Burn”. But on the CD, you wouldn’t get that. The “back to back” effect would be a lot more prominent.

WC: Your previous album “Motivator” had a lot of songs that were described as “autobiographical”. Is it the same on “Hard To Stop”?

PB: No, it’s a little more spread out. And when we say “Motivator” was autobiographical, that doesn’t necessarily relate to me so much as our experience as a band.  “Motivator” in some ways is kind of the story of the band to that point. And after that album, it took me a couple of years for me to see where I might go next not musically but lyrically. It’s like after you’ve told your own story, what’s left after that? You’re going to start just making a copy of a copy of something if you’re not careful. So it took me a couple of years to see why the lyrics might end up on “Hard To Stop”. And again it comes back to not trying too hard, not putting up any boundaries around my process and around what my inspirations might be. I just had to lie back and let things come to me. So yeah, there’s a little more variety this time around. Some of the same themes, like lost loves and lost dreams, do get covered.

WC: It’s more a case of writing with your heart than your head.

PB: It can be! It’s always a balance of both, because it has to rhyme in a certain way, but you’re exactly right. This time it shifted a bit more back to the “heart” side of the scale.

WC: Is there an influence on the band that maybe would not be that obvious when you listen to it?

PB: There are a lot. This is always one of those questions that’s hard for me to answer, because the reality is that there are so many influences being poured into HIGH SPIRITS. It could just be the little kernel of some song I heard in the background. It can really come from anywhere. It could be a song in a movie. To give a better answer, I think that the German power metal influences are a little overlooked. A lot of 90’s Scandinavian rock influences haven’t been picked up on or discussed as much. Obviously it’s the New Wave of British Heavy Metal influences that most people pick up on. But it’s a difficult question to answer because influences come from all over the place. That’s kind of what makes HIGH SPIRITS what it is. We don’t define ourselves by one particular sound.

WC: I would not have picked up on some of the things you mentioned. When I listened to the record the other day, I thought one band this kind of reminds me of is APRIL WINE. Is that something you’ve drawn influence from?

PB: Not especially. I’ve got a couple of their records. I like the band, but it’s never a band I’ve gone out of my way for. I think it’s more of a particular era and a particular way of recording songs. In a lot of the 70’s hard rock, what you hear is that the singer and the lead guitarist are equals. It’s almost like the singer tells some of the story and then the guitar player is there to fill in the gaps. I think that’s been the HIGH SPIRITS approach. It’s a single melody line through the whole song, but it’s split up between the vocals and the guitars.

WC: You don’t hear much of that approach anymore.

PB: No, I don’t think so. I think during the 90’s guitars became more of a percussion instrument almost and melodic singers almost went out of style at the same time. There’s a lot more melody going around now and I’m grateful for that.  It was like the bass drum became the kick drum and then all the guitars tuned down as low as they could. If that’s your thing, great, but it didn’t move me much at all.

WC: I remember Mark Shelton from MANILLA ROAD telling me how he hated modern bands all tuning their guitars to one really low pitch. There are certain times when you want that real low sound, but not all the time.

PB: I agree. Those kind of sounds and guitar playing techniques naturally lend themselves to a different kind of songwriting. If I hand you an eight string guitar that’s tuned to Z Flat, it’s going to result in a different song than one made for a guitar in standard tuning.

WC: Where do some of your other projects stand right now?

PB:  Well, the two that are buried and are not coming back are SUPERCHRIST and DAWNBRINGER.   Those are bands that kind of ran their course. For SUPERCHRIST, it’s been about 7 years and for DAWNBRINGER, it’s been about 4. Those are pretty much capped. The PROFESSOR BLACK solo thing is pretty open-ended. There have been a a lot of recordings coming out under that name. Since SUPERCHRIST and DAWNBRINGER have been laid to rest, the PROFESSOR BLACK name has kind of been my “one size fits all” container. It’s my free zone where I can kind of do as I please. It’s catching on slowly. The fact that the PROFESSOR BLACK releases all sound so different from each other has kind of slowed down how they get to their audience. And I don’t mind that. I’m playing the long game at this point. They’ll find their homes eventually. There’s also AKTOR, which is a band that’s only been a recording project. We’ve done two albums with AKTOR. It’s myself and two guys from Finland. It’s basically just a studio project. It’s a bit hard to define. Between the three of us, we’ve never really had a conversation about what we want to sound like. We just kind of go for it. (laughs) Which sounds really weird. When we first talked about doing music together, I was the one asking what is it going to sound like? What’s the subject matter for the lyrics? How many strings are our guitars going to have? (laughs) People from Finland can be very reserved. The conversation never really progressed. It was just “here’s the songs”. I guess we didn’t need to waste any time talking about what we were going to sound like.

WC: It almost sounds like random chance takes a part in it.

PB: Kinda, kinda! It’s also true with AKTOR that we build those songs from the ground up. We start them with just a guitar and a drumbeat. Then we just add layers and layers and layers. It’s sounds goofy  to say we make it up as we go along, but in a sense that’s exactly what we’re doing. So that’s AKTOR. I’ve done some other collaborative things with different groups, but nothing that’s really taken up too much of my time. Oh! I just remembered PHARAOH! PHARAOH is an album that’s done four albums at this point and we’re slowly grinding out a fifth album for later in the year.

WC: That’s a band I’m really interested in hearing again. I’ve enjoyed their output so far.

PB: Thank you! A lot of people have. It’s been pretty frustrating that it’s taken us so long to come back with something new. We are grinding it out. Incidentally, I play drums for this band. I finished my drum tracks almost a year ago and we’re just waiting for everybody else to finish up.

WC: Current times are not very conducive for band work.

PB: It’s weird, man! You think you’d have all this free time now to work on all these creative projects but everybody’s in a bubble. Everybody’s affected in a different way. It’s hard to get synched up. 

WC: The virus has sure played havoc with the live situation. I always ask bands what their tour plans are but this year it doesn’t seem to be worth asking.

PB: We’re on the bench for this year for sure. The HIGH SPIRITS album comes out on July 31st.  The plan was for us to do a 10 day tour in Europe. We were going to be in Belgium on the day the record came out. We were going to play in Belgium, France and maybe Germany. For us, that would be big. It wasn’t going to be a massive arena tour or anything, We hadn’t booked our flights yet so we didn’t lose any money there. What we lost was the excitement of a tour. Well, the record is still coming out. There’s no reason not to release that.

WC: I talked earlier in the year with a guy that had to cancel three tours of Europe this year…

PB: Ouch! That really hurts. We make decent money when we tour Europe. If we could go for two or three months at a time, we’d have a real shot at more. In America, it’s different, the turnout is erratic. We like playing the dive bars as much as playing festivals. Maybe money-wise it’s not the same, but we’ve had some great shows at dive bars. It’s better than a night off. Even if it’s a low brow DIY kind of punk rock garage kind of show, it’s way better than a night off.  We’re still waiting to see how we’re going to handle next year. We’ve been lucky enough to reschedule our plans. I’m not buying plane tickets for a while.

WC: Any last words for the folks out there?

PB: I know you’ve been doing Wormwood for quite a while and I appreciate you having us on and allowing us to surface above all the noise and chaos of the present moment. My last words would just be to say thank you.