This is rock 'n' roll as much as it is metal. It says so on the back: "100% high energy rock music." So you know what you're in for: choruses from parched throats, striving libido, weatherbeaten misery and some perserverance to wash it down. The metal tag isn't inappropriate, but the most prominent influences come from the genre's nascent days, when borders were fuzzier. Think of '80s Judas Priest or Scorpions, or the first Exciter record.

High Spirits is the side project of Chris Black, bassist and vocalist of Superchrist, a great band with a mean sense of humor. I only know that because I checked the High Spirits metal-archives profile. There's nothing on the band's MySpace or in the packaging to indicate a connection between the two. I'm guessing that's partly because Superchrist isn't extremely well known, but also because even a drop of irony would freeze this like ice-nine.

Wings of Fire/Don't Look Down

Walloping sincerity is the byword here. A plain white digipak leaves the tunes to speak for themselves: catchy riffs, leads and vocals that grab you by the collar. The music and its lyrics are cheerful, but it's a cheerfulness that fights encroaching darkness and acknowledges the consequences of despair. Suicide and drug addiction are never mentioned, but they haunt these songs as possibilities. "Wings of Fire/Don't Look Down" opens with "Made up my mind, I'm leaving today / Can't go on living this way." Halfway through, it becomes apparent that the narrator has died: "I never tell no lies / Up here in paradise / Everything is what it seems/ Just like in your dreams." These aren't songs about partying — although they are good to drink to — but about the difficulty of getting by.

The relentlessness of High Spirits' mission also keeps it from falling into retro-revivalism. '80s metal was no stranger to hope, but I can't think of any bands that worked the territory with this kind of dedication. As a result, there are clichés here, but the genre study isn't forced. It feels like music made by metal fans who have lived, rather than music made by kids who contrived to start a metal band.

These are technically the band's demos, re-released with two bonus tracks. The sound quality is right where I want it, though. It's grainy, but I can still hear everything, and if the performance is a little sloppy in places, it only adds to the music's appeal. The basic structure is pretty simple, and the concepts are hardly intellectual. This is for rocking, not contemplating. But it's brilliantly heartening: good music for dark times.

— Anthony Abboreno