Local metal soldiers Anacrusis were ahead of their time, and now they're back

Apr 14, 2010 at 4:00 am

In the late '80s and early '90s, Anacrusis was the St. Louis ambassador for the golden age of heavy metal. The quartet had already hit the road with acts such as Mercyful Fate, D.R.I. and Overkill when Chuck Schuldiner, the late mastermind of legends Death, personally invited the group on tour in 1993. That same year, legendary producer Bill Metoyer, who'd worked with Slayer and Trouble, polished up the group's last album, the Metal Blade release Screams and Whispers.

Then, suddenly, Anacrusis was history — until now. This weekend, the band's playing its first show in sixteen years, in conjunction with a double-CD set of new versions of two old albums.

"According to what other people say, we tended to be ahead of our time in a lot of ways, kind of cutting edge," says singer/guitarist Kenn Nardi. "People started to appreciate certain elements of our music ten, fifteen years down the road."

The band's melodic metal and personal lyrics sound surprisingly contemporary seventeen years later. Nardi could hit hellion highs and wielded a good growl, although he never trusted his vocal range — which is why he talked the band into downtuning to B, nearly a decade before it was common practice. Anacrusis had thrash roots, but it added midtempo breaks, juxtaposing clean melodies and rougher rhythmic outbursts. Late in the band's career, inspired by Celtic Frost, it started adding pseudo-symphonic flourishes that Nardi played on keyboards. The group always had a technical edge that bordered on prog and effortlessly made the transition when thrash started to wane and death metal and proto-black metal rose in popularity.

"If you're not on the east or west coast, it's hard to be in anybody's spotlight," says Nardi. "We always had a fairly decent underground following — of course, we're much bigger in Europe."

"We're big in Europe" is one of the great metal clichés, but in this case, it's true. Anacrusis came together in late 1986 in north county, when sworn rivals united as one in the name of metal. Nardi attended Ritenour and grew up just two miles away from guitarist Kevin Heidbreder, who attended nemesis high school Pattonville with drummer Mike Owen. The Pattonville duo recruited bassist John Emery, a Canadian immigrant who was five years older than the teenagers. This trio happened to need a singer right when Nardi's band, Heaven's Flame, split. Nardi stepped in, and the band began recording four-track demos in Heidbreder's parents' Bridgeton basement.

Before long, the quartet had an international following. In 1987 UK headbanger journal Metal Forces raved about the Annihilation Complete demo in its Demolition column. The tape-trading community agreed and voted it "Demo of the Year" in the magazine's readers' poll. Editor Bernard Doe signed the band to a two-album deal with his Axis (later Active) label. The American label Metal Blade, which released the first tracks by Metallica and Slayer, distributed the band's second album, 1990's Reason LP, and then signed the group to a seven-album deal. By then, cracks were appearing in the lineup. After a tour with crossover kings D.R.I., Owen — a former baseball player and swimmer — left the band and landed in the Navy.

"You're in high school, you start playing shows, and you don't think, 'Do I want to do this with my life?'" Nardi explains. "Mike never necessarily had his mind set on living in a van, traveling around, playing crummy clubs. He was engaged to be married, and he may have been slightly prompted to think about the future."

The new drummer was Chad Smith, Nardi's former bandmate in Heaven's Flame (and not the Red Hot Chili Peppers percussionist, contrary to many an Internet bio). The group went back to work and recorded the Manic Impressions album at Wisconsin's Royal Recorders studio, where Queensryche recorded the Empire album and Skid Row tracked its debut. The disc featured a track that many fans consider Anacrusis' signature song, a cover of "I Love the World" by New Model Army. The British post-punk band wasn't exactly a common reference point among metal dudes at the time, but it had long been one of Nardi's favorites. And still is.

"There was something about their lyrics and music that struck a chord with me," says Nardi. "I wanted to make it our own song. Most people, to this day, don't know it's not our song. They say, 'That's your best song.' I'm not insulted. It's great. That's why we recorded it."

Supporting Manic Impressions, the band played ten shows with Megadeth when Alice in Chains dropped off the tour. They followed with 38 shows supporting Overkill. The Overkill trek was Anacrusis' longest tour, though it was typically uneventful.

"We weren't big partiers," Nardi recalls. "We were one step from straight edge. We were all married or in relationships. We were probably the lamest, most boring band in metal. We were easy to work with. We knew our place, and I think that was important."

In 1993 drummer Paul Miles joined. The band recorded the Screams and Whispers album in the local basement studio 48K Audio. The final mixes made the band queasy; Metal Blade concurred. The label flew producer Bill Metoyer in, and the crew spent an extra week at Royal Recorders. Nardi is ambivalent about the final product but still considers it the band's high point. Anacrusis toured the country with Mercyful Fate then gigged across Europe with death-metal icons Death. When they returned home, they stayed home. The band was done.

"We weren't making any money," Nardi says. "There was no big fistfight onstage or anything. We all basically had grown tired. We were getting frustrated with what we felt was a lack of support from our label. We just called it quits, quietly walked away. We never made a big official announcement. We went out on top — but at the same time, it's like there was a plane crash or something. Back before the Internet was around, word didn't really get around instantly. People had no idea what happened to us."

As the band fell apart, so did Nardi's marriage. He played live with alt-rock band Tribes With Knives then walked away from music entirely. In 1998 he became a born-again Christian — but given the band's positive lyrics and conduct, he didn't have much to recant. In 2004 Heidbreder and Emery reunited in local cover band Johnny Rock-Itt & the Double Wide Symphony. Nardi went to a show; it looked like they were having fun. He says now, "We all started coming out of our shells and getting the itch."

In 2006 Nardi recorded an album of atmospheric rock under the name Cruel April. The Bulgarian microlabel StormSpell tracked him down and asked him if he'd consider re-releasing the Annihilation demo. The project led to last year's CD/DVD set Annihilation Complete: The Early Years Anthology, a collection of the first demo, live tracks and VHS-era gigs.

This year the promoters of Germany's annual Keep It True festival (which takes place April 23 and 24) asked Nardi if Anacrusis would play. Owen had recently returned to St. Louis, and the band got back together. While the relapse is in session, the lineup has rerecorded its first two albums, giving them the sonic polish Nardi always wanted them to have. Eliran Kantor, the big-time metal artist whose work includes Testament's The Formation of Damnation LP, created the cover art. The band will play a local show to release the double CD Hindsight: Suffering Hour and Reason Revisited. And, if all goes according to plan, Anacrusis will finally have its proper burial.

"We're not reuniting as a band, really," says Nardi. "We're doing this for the festival and this gig. We knew we wanted to do one more show here in town, because we never got to say goodbye."