Like all of us here at Last Rites — and like most all of you, I would guess — I’ve spent a large part of my life exploring this beast called Heavy Metal. Since my first exposure at age 11 or so, I’ve dedicated the subsequent More Years Than I Care To Admit to looking under every rock, around every corner, turning down every side road and digging through every dusty record crate to discover new bands and new albums to feed this insatiable hunger for the fast, the loud, and the heavy.
One of the most fun aspects of this continuing exploration is precisely that it is continuing, that it’s perpetual, unending. No matter how many bands I learn about, I can’t seem to know them all. No matter how many records I buy, there are always other records to discover. By nature, I tend to be the historian type, so more often than not in my explorations, I find myself looking backwards in this eternal quest. Thus, a significant portion of any “new” bands that I stumble into aren’t really new at all, but rather ones I somehow managed to overlook the first (or fiftieth) time I combed the Golden Years for hidden treasures.
One of those bands is St. Louis’ Anacrusis. I remember reading about them in the hallowed pages of some metal magazine three decades ago, RIP or Metal Edge or some other; I remember that they were described then as succinctly as I could describe them now, as “thinking man’s thrash.” But for whatever reason, I never delved far into their catalog. I picked up a used copy of Screams And Whispers somewhere along the way, and at one point, their entire catalog was graciously available for download through their website, so I grabbed Manic Impressions there, but aside from a quick listen, I never dug any further.
Looking back now, my indifference after those casual exposures is somewhat justifiable because Anacrusis is not a band for halfhearted listening. Their particular brand of oft-somber ever-intricate progressive thrash — and it is a very particular brand, one that knew few, if any, contemporary analogs — is one that demands dedicated attention, with each listen revealing new twists and turns, new emotions, new layers. It turns out that one does not halfway approach Anacrusis, at least not their best records — you’re in or you’re out; you’re actively listening or you’re passively missing the point.
Across the fall of 2019, Metal Blade graciously saw fit to reissue all four Anacrusis albums, so some thirty years later, I’m getting the chance to approach something old as though it were something new, the chance to correct my oversights, to listen, and to finally catch up. If, like me, you waited too long for Anacrusis, or even if you were cool enough to say you were into them from the days of yore… either way, feel free to come along for a quick trip to the Way Back When…
Our story begins here…
Recorded for a mere $1200 and released on a small European label named Active Records, Suffering Hour is both an impressive debut and, knowing now where Anacrusis would end up, very much a portrait of the artists as a young band. The progressive thrash leanings that would characterize later albums are here, but the blend isn’t as seamless, the product still unfinished, and overall, the whole of Suffering Hour is far more feral and less cerebral than what would come.
Partly to blame for the album’s shortcomings is a production that leaves everything feeling rough and slightly out-of-focus. (Some poor sonic choices would plague Anacrusis throughout, though later albums sported at least a different version of an imperfect sound.) Though it’s definitely not optimal, given the band’s tendency towards complexity, the production isn’t as much of a deal-breaker as it is just an unfortunate choice likely forced by time and financial constraints. Plenty of thrash records of the day suffered a similar fate, and Suffering Hour’s amateurish sonics are arguably no worse than those of Endless Pain or Schizophrenia.
Ranging from a morose croon to a throat-aching helium shriek, Kenn Nardi’s vocals are also noticeably rawer here, and at times, they come off a little hesitant, particularly in those cleans. Most egregiously of all, the band’s signature, then-novel downtuned guitars (from E to B) lack the clarity of later recordings when they’re mired in a fuzzy midrange. The intricacies of Nardi’s twisting riffs get lost in that mess. Drummer Mike Owen turns in a killer performance, but he’s competing for sonic space with Nardi and Kevin Heidbreder’s guitars. Bassist John Emery plays a large part in Anacrusis’ arrangements, here and after, his melodic underpinnings often a compositional counterpoint to the riffs, an approach that borrows heavily from the band’s post-punk influences. On Suffering Hour, he’s generally the only band member whose work escapes the production pitfalls.
Still, the general lack of polish aside, the project is redeemed by the undeniable fact that there are some great songs on Suffering Hour. Album opener “Present Tense” best exhibits Anacrusis’ mix of the melodic and the progressive and the thrashing, with a strong vocal hook and plenty of intense riffing. Follow-up “Imprisoned” pushes further towards the thrash side of that formula, sporting some killer guitar interplay and a gang-shouted chorus custom-made for feet in the pit and fists in the air. Later entries like the eminently catchy “Fighting Evil” and the seven-minute “Twisted Cross” deftly foreshadow the greatness to come, with the latter as the album’s most intricate and most impressive track, even if the power in its riffing is often swallowed by the fuzzy sound. (Witness the gallops and the turns in the main riff, where the individual guitars are completely washed into a blur and Emery’s bass is all that’s left to define the actual notes.) Compositionally, the only real stumbling point is also the album’s heaviest moment, the Kreator-leaning speedfest of “Frigid Bitch,” a holdover from the Annihilation Complete demo that balances ferocity against some regrettably dumb lyrics. It’s not that it’s a truly terrible track, but it’s certainly one that doesn’t play to any of Anacrusis’ many strengths.
With the benefit of retrospect, it’s evident now that, like many debuts, Suffering Hour feels like just that, like a starting point. It certainly shows that this is a band with great ideas, though many of them aren’t yet fully realized, and history would prove that there’s much better to come…
In some ways our story actually begins here…
Most immediately noticeable, Anacrusis’ sophomore effort corrects the fuzzy production of the debut, affording the band’s riffing the sharper edge it demanded and greatly aiding the rhythmic tightness required by the intricacy of their compositions. In fact, that correction might’ve honestly gone even a bit too far, as Reason’s tone is sharp, dry, clinical, though not as much of any of that as Manic Impressions. (But we’re not there yet…) Like their prog-thrash brethren in Voivod, Anacrusis’ metal exudes a definite modernity (or what would’ve been that, thirty years ago), and the crisp and clear production certainly bolsters that tendency. Unlike Voivod, Anacrusis eschews science fiction themes in favor of real-world darkness, very here-and-now concerns and a post-punk realism, and perhaps a little more grit in the sonics would have augmented those emotions. Regardless, evaluated now against thirty more years of thrashing, Reason suffers from a bit of over-compression and a lack of low-end, which is lamentable given the remarkable interplay between both Emery and Owen’s rhythm section and Nardi and Heidbreder’s downtuned guitars.
Also, Reason better showcases Anacrusis’ compositional ambition, and here, it’s both markedly improved over Suffering Hour’s earlier and already interesting efforts and yet still a bit unfocused. The band’s sound is coalescing — with Reason, Anacrusis begins to really sound like Anacrusis — but their reach is expanding still, even as they’re coming together, so it’s not quite fully there… yet. Emery remains the band’s by-now-not-so-secret weapon — his bass roils and rolls beneath the riffing, buoyant and spongy as it drives “Not Forgotten” forward, filthy and gnarly and grinding beneath the moody “Afraid To Feel.” Even as the original mix feels dry and crisp, the improved sonic clarity shows the true depth of the Emery-Owen musical connection, as well as the entwined perfection of the guitars.
Here, Nardi’s voice sounds more confident, and his signature goblin-squeal shriek remains intact, punctuating the melodies with pinpointed intensity. The closing screams of “Terrified” bring a dry-thoated, almost Schuldiner-esque intensity, perhaps even ones borrowed from the man himself, as Anacrusis and Death toured together several times. The goth-tinged minor-key vocal lines of “Terrified” or “Not Forgotten” balance nicely on the sharp riffs, and it’s between that darkened melody and the instrumental intensity that Anacrusis’ overall sound is forged. Reason is a much stronger record than its oldest brother, but it’s still a transitional one, leading the way to…
[Metal Blade, 1991]
Our story reaches critical mass here…
With Reason having been picked up by major indie Metal Blade, Anacrusis was on a roll in the early 90s. Now with a bigger label behind them, they released Manic Impressions, the first of their twin peaks in 1991. This point is where I first remember seeing their name popping up in the metal rags at the supermarket, and yet, I somehow avoided hearing any of this record for decades…
From the album’s outset, the band is completely firing on all cylinders. There’s a nearly palpable sense of confidence present as our four intrepid heroes rip through ten of Nardi’s finest compositions. Opening salvo “Paint A Picture” sports more of the razor-sharp riffage of Reason, but now sharpened even further, with a near-perfect vocal-and-riff hook. Add to those the continued presence of Emery’s standout bass-work and killer rhythmic displays from new drummer Chad “Not A Red Hot Chili Pepper” Smith, and you’ve got the perfect formula for Manic Impressions’ overall slam-dunk success. (Creative success, at least. As for commercially, well… that’s likely another story.) Here, as throughout the album’s fifty-two-minute run, oddball thrash fits snugly against jazzy breakdowns and twisted timings, underpinned with that blurble-ing lead bass, all beneath Nardi’s now-signature blend of somber clean croons, harsher biting snarls, and those goblin-scream shrieks.
Like that of Reason, the production on Manic Impressions is dry and sharp, clinical and precise, with every instrument given clarity, every sound pristine and sparkling clean. That near-surgical sterility would ordinarily be a detriment — thin tone is one of my least favorite attributes of many 80s thrash classics — but here, it works to add an otherworldly futurism to Anacrusis’ forward-thinking metal, just as every science fiction film depicts a world that’s clean, white, shiny.
The decision to go straight from such a strong opener into a cover song is an odd one, and one I’d likely second-guess if it didn’t work so damned brilliantly. The thrash-happy “Paint A Picture” dovetails exquisitely into a take on New Model Army’s “I Love The World,” metalized and irresistibly melodic, its inclusion a nod to the band’s post-punk influences even as they mold it into their own sonic image. From there, Manic Impressions twists and turns through a stunning display of perfection, often moody and always intricate, from “Explained Away” and “Something Real” to closing track “Far Too Long,” with its robotic Killing Joke-indebted stomp. It’s difficult to pin down highlights from Manic Impressions because each listen, each experience, each impression is… well, manic… ever-changing, evolving. Every spin brings a new feeling, every immersion pulls back a different curtain, peels off a different layer, and something that was always present reveals itself in a new manner, becoming my new favorite second of all these three-thousand-plus seconds… at least until the next listen…
So what does all that excessive praise mean? It means Manic Impressions is a brilliant record, tip to toe, and I’m a dummy for not paying attention until now.
SCREAMS AND WHISPERS
[Metal Blade, 1993]
Our story unfortunately ends here… for now, at least.
So what do you do to follow up a masterpiece?
Well, if you’re Anacrusis, you take a little sideways step to further explore different aspects of the sound you’ve laid out and perfected across your three records so far. You add in metal’s least-favorite instruments, the keyboards, and even with that addition, you do your exploration with a bit of subtraction, or at least, the outward appearance of subtraction, of scaling back. Of course, Manic Impressions would be difficult for any band to top, its blend of complex thrash and moody post-punk was in perfect balance. Screams And Whispers greatly tips the scale further toward the latter — it tones down the intricacy without losing Anacrusis’ spirit, and thankfully, it works its wonders brilliantly, adding to the overall whole by pulling back the technicality without betraying the band’s trademark futurism.
Continuing the Killing Joke angle from Manic Impressions’ closing number, “Sound The Alarm” is as straight-forward as Anacrusis has ever been. Emery’s bass work is reined in; now courtesy of Paul Miles, the rhythms are militant, martial, almost dancy, but not as complex; the guitars alternate between metallic chunk and chiming chorused cleans; Nardi keeps mostly to his croon, punctuated with a few fleeting screams. Still, though it’s not as intricate as earlier efforts, “Alarm” remains one of Anacrusis’ coolest tracks, simply because it takes all of their strengths and adds to it an accessibility so often lacking in the technical or the progressive without sacrificing the integrity and the cerebral qualities that keeps this type of music interesting.
Later, keyboard stabs punctuate the stellar “Too Many Prophets,” their presence lending an almost New Wave tint to the thrash-slash-post-punk amalgam beneath, like the keys track from “A View To A Kill” suddenly danced into the fire of a different, much angrier song. The clean guitars of “Division” twist around themselves, the instrumental encapsulation of the emotional instabilities detailed in the lyrics, Nardi shifting between a Jaz Coleman bark and simple spoken-word directness. Further keys emerge in “Tools Of Separation,” again used sparingly but perfectly, adding a certain cold bombast to that track’s stark darkness. Closing with the lush symphonic and cinematic expanse of “Brotherhood,” Screams And Whispers ends on an epic high note, one that just makes it more depressing that, thereafter, the band split apart, reuniting sporadically to the present, but releasing no new music, only repackaging and re-presenting the greatness that was.
Like the album before it, Screams And Whispers is one that I can’t quite pin down, filled with subtleties that reveal themselves over multiple listens, emotional shades and musical layers that make every engagement a slightly different experience. It’s the kind of album that virtually demands its next spin, the kind where you push “play” again as the last seconds fade out before you even realize that you wanted to. Is it a better album than Manic Impressions? Maybe — it depends on what day you ask me, on which one I’ve listened to more recently, on what aspects I’m listening for at that particular moment. Screams And Whispers is a more emotionally complex album, while Manic Impressions is a more outwardly and technically complex album. Which one do you want more, and … well, now we’re just splitting hairs…
And so what did we learn from our excursion into the past?
Well, we learned that I made a mistake in the Way Back When, for waiting this long to dig into Anacrusis’ catalog, and we learned that the whole “better late than never” axiom holds true, at least enough to redeem me now, somewhat. We learned that Metal Blade was right to reissue these records, to bring them back for each of us to enjoy now. Each of the four discs is augmented with a handful of demos as bonus tracks, and each is packaged in a standard digipack and has a booklet containing photos and pretty barebones information. I know this because I purchased all four CDs, even after receiving the digital promo copies, which ultimately says as much about the quality of the Anacrusis catalog as any of the 2500 words above. (Interesting note: The bonus tracks on my previously purchased copy of Screams And Whispers are different than the bonus tracks on this version.)
Buy them, stream them, however you get them: If you’re interested in some killer thrash metal from Back Then that still sounds ahead of its time Right Now, Anacrusis is an absolute must-hear. The catalog has come back around, and don’t make my first mistake and let it slip by you again.