Running searches on the vast database that is the Metal Archives can be a fascinating – and sometimes hilarious – way of looking at the genre at a whole. For example, filtering for “lyrical themes”, unsurprisingly, finds that “nihilism” and “national socialism” trump out “rock”, “rocking” and “fun” in the heavy metal thematic lexicon. We sure are a cynical bunch, aren’t we?
I’d like to think that Chicago-based traditional metal champion Chris Black (fellow music journalist and leader of a number of lauded traditional heavy metal groups such as Dawnbringer and Pharaoh, both of which I’ve unfortunately managed to neglect) himself went on a sojourn into these nether reaches of the Archives and decided that enough was enough. Black clearly has no time for modern metal cynicism, and his one-man throwback project High Spirits, with lyrical themes tagged in the Archives with “rocking” and “being in high spirits,” is about as light-hearted and easily palatable as modern metal gets.
His sophomore effort underneath the High Spirits moniker, You Are Here clearly wants to be a free-wheeling, hard-rocking heavy metal record, but the mood is largely sabotaged by poor execution. I don’t doubt Black’s earnest enthusiasm for what he does, but the record’s self-conscious, uncommitted instrumental performance articulates very little of the spirited zeal one might expect from this project. There’s something to be said about musicians who tackle something as daunting as a one-man-band project, but Black’s lead guitar does little more than hit the right notes. The lack of bends, slides and vibrato that give teeth and character to a lead part are absent in favor of a style that feels robotic and rehearsed. It sabotages Black’s obvious ear for hooks, best exemplified by the truly catchy “When the Lights Go Down” and “Reminding You of Me.” Catchy, punchy tracks that lose a great deal of their immediacy through a compressed, sheeny production.
Admittedly, some of these more immediate tracks slice right through the production woes with some tasty hooks. “I Need Your Love”, self-consciously simple as it is, manages to hit the spot like a tray of microwavable mac and cheese with four big, dumb power chords and a catchy chorus, even though it shamelessly apes British Steel. The aforementioned “When the Lights Go Down” and “Reminding You of Me,” as well as “The Last Night” also manage to be somewhat engaging and memorable. Unfortunately, these little instances of decently rollicking song-writing serve not to fully articulate You Are Here’s hard-rocking, life-affirming MO.
You Are Here communicates such an air of childproofed benignity that it almost feels wrong. Perhaps that’s because Black’s production style is completely de-clawed, sanding down every little piece of grit into a soft, compressed sound – none of the heavy reverb one might have expected from a project so heavily indebted to the 80s is present here. It particularly deadens the palm-muted verse bits of “One Thousand Nights” and the self-titled closing track, both of which arguably feature rather cookie-cutter song-writing that could have used some assistance from a sound that wasn’t so sterilized.
Earnestly light-hearted and easily palatable as You Are Here is, 2014 still belongs to the misanthropes and the nihilists (but thankfully not the national socialists). That being said, I think Black’s throwback to a simpler time in metal history will appeal to many who can look past the record’s flaws and indulge in good, old fashioned hard rock optimism.