The Professor appears on the horizon, clutching a new long-play for the ages.
Words by Jake Sanders (@themetalscholar):
The idea of keeping a genre pure is about as novel and pointless as any other Sisyphean task. With age comes the mixing and progressive nature of evolutionary change, and along with it — the hundreds of innovations and adaptations that make Metal such a broad, and widely beloved genre of modern music.
One such keeper of the faith, however, is the irreplaceable, and versatile Chris Black; as unstoppable as the coming tides, it's essentially a law of nature that anything the Professor touches is destined to be a masterful work. From DAWNBRINGER to his self-titled project, AKTOR, to SUPERCHRIST, it's no surprise at this point that class is always in session, and today's album is precisely the kind of crash course in heavy metal listeners everywhere deserve. It's called Hard To Stop, and like its name suggests — IT IS.
Since You've Been Gone blasts off with a set of scales not unlike the tunes of the Professor's past. Ascending a mid-octave staircase, it trills off into an upbeat riff that provides the stage for the vocals audiences know so well. Devilishly harmonic, layered to produce the a choral version of Chris that is a signature of his catalogue. Another such signature are the smooth as silk frets that make up the majority of this. The liquid "duggaduggaduggadugga" can be felt seamlessly from measure-to-measure, abruptly ending only to slide down the neck as the process is repeated, only to be replaced by a set of satisfying chords that make up the chorus, a method that cleverly reverses the scales in the beginning on the low end of the sound spectrum.
Hitting with all of the strength of what could be considered a single, Restless switch hits right off the bat with a quick burst-fire drum fill that makes an appearance sporadically throughout the track. It should be noted that it has been years since a kit has sounded so magnificent on an album, a courtesy fans undoubtedly owe to the legendary Dan Swanö, the man behind the mix. This song is so much fun. Catchy lines around every corner, a chorus that deserves a live belting, and the riff-rock charm that Chris has flaunted for years takes a turn for the big leagues. This isn't just a party trick for heavy metal fans to show off. This is a legitimate conversion tactic for people to use on unsuspecting listeners. Foot-tappingly, head-bangingly, devil-horn wieldingly powerful with the kind of appeal that takes people decades to master.
A gallop-pace with a set of rapids for riffs comes tumbling down the hill on Face-To-Face, a love song that much like the theme of other tracks here — rings hopeful and entranced by a faceless siren that traps herself in the heart and mind of the Professor. Light and dark, night and day, dawn and dusk; common themes of the HIGH SPIRITS catalogue make another such appearance. It's a formula that seemingly works, though. It's not a stale pattern and with how profoundly brief and alluring the words are when they do appear, the constant major chord battering makes this chemical composition the work of a minimalist, and maybe an alchemist. A sailing solo takes listeners away before the two-minute marker, tapering only to allow an interruption from dual harmonies that ride atop crashing cymbals through a climax riff that carries onward towards the final verse and chorus.
A growling guitar tosses quadruplets fast and loose at the listener, broken by the abrupt crash and thump that drops the curtain on a first verse, an unsyncopated, chanted, passionate track called Hearts Will Burn. The tone, the ride into the upper octaves, the falsettos, the dramatic and cannon-esque sound of the cymbals make this one a war-cry for those who are facing adversity in times of uncertainty and constant fear. Breaking into the mix at two minutes in, a liquid riff takes a half step down then up, only to be dropped for drum fill that takes a high-flying solo into the clouds on a speeding bullet. Trill for chirp, it's just one more skill that gets shown off. Falling away into a melancholic break, a voice on the wind sings the war-cry like a sad ballad for the fallen, being taken once more into the skies on a big finish.
Voice in the Wind, another catchy song that fits the profile of a single takes center-stage at the halfway marker of this journey. Isolated rhythm for singular vocal, this one feels like a song of summer that tells the tale of a man reminiscing over a love lost; an age gone and a connection severed by the passing of time and distance. This love song is both fleeting and festive. Cheerful and longing, Chris takes hefty notes from 70's and 80's hits to craft this throwback that nods at everyone from JOURNEY, to QUEEN, to BLUE OYSTER CULT, and RAINBOW. A sweet solo picks up the pace, leading into a victory lap chorus that plays into a fade to black as the high-end melody joins in for once more round the track.
Midnight Sun takes on a slightly more serious tone at track seven, a choppy riff filling staccato segments to the brim between lines of eleventh-hour finality. The catchy chorus steps out onto the stage, stealing the spotlight with an addictive little ditty that shines through like the rest of the album's theme.
"On, and on —
The midnight sun is burnin' for you!
This stage is yours tonight,
to sing the world its lullaby!"
It's a wonderfully empowering track that lets people know their greatest moments are ahead of them, and that capturing the spirit of accomplishment and adventure will lead to memorable outcomes. This reviewer couldn't help but sing this chorus for a week straight after hearing the track for the first time.
Always one to end with a bang, the Professor pins the pedal down on the closer known as We Are Everywhere, a speed-trap that features a performance out of every part, competing instrumentals all running in unison, so deep that it will take multiple listens to flesh out the depth of each part, let alone the stack of vocals that are separated leading into the pre-chorus. Staggered by a beat apart, the three separate sounds of Chris himself come out like a barbershop quartet one after the other, dogpiling into one after breaking to allow a single voice to speak for all. Falling triplets descend between the legs of the chorus from the lead guitar, stepping into the back only as the shifting rhythm takes on a chord that bleeds away into each new measure. The sound of sliding fingers on string are evident and unhidden, simply because the man is on fire as he tears off through each movement. Right before three minutes, the Professor decides to let loose, and to the call of "GO! GO! GO!" he fluidly slips into a miniature solo that steps up and down the board, a precursory teaser to the grand finale to come. Building up the tension with a single question aimed solely at the listeners — Chris Black brings it home in a way he does so well: FULL CIRCLE. Shooting in like a comet, the ascending scales from the first moment of the album come back with a vengeance. This reviewer can only say... it's a stunning conclusion that will send goosebumps up the arms of anyone paying attention.
Hard To Stop is fun. But it's not only fun. It's HIGH SPIRITS lending some energy to the world in a time when we desperately need it. It's an optimistic, wholly entertaining, skillful and pure piece of art that proves once again that not only can Chris Black still play circles around his competitors — he can do it while having a blast. This album should be on everyones' radar for the year. It has something for all, including the uninitiated. It's a warm reminder that the Professor is a timeless treasure for our grim world, and we should be so lucky that someone is keeping the fire burning bright... straight on to morning.
Hard To Stop is available now, courtesy of High Roller Records. Run away with a copy of it, available HERE.