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Kenn Nardi on 25 Years of Anacrusis’s “Screams and Whispers”

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Ask the right metalhead about Anacrusis, and mountains of enthusiasm will greet you in return. In an era when most heavy bands concentrated on escalating their brutality, this St. Louis quartet prodded the boundaries of metal to the delight of a small but dedicated fanbase. They were known for balancing technical proficiency that dodged the self-indulgent with memorable songwriting inspired by more than distortion.

Guitarist, vocalist, and main songwriter Kenn Nardi sang within a dynamic spectrum, employing his voice as more than mindless grunts necessary to round out a track. These approaches allowed them to develop their own aesthetic free from trends, a trait that culminated on their magnum opus, 1993’s Screams & Whispers. While brimming with classic bangers, their final release increased the use of keyboards and cinematic sentiments that stepped away from traditional metal. Ultimately, it may not have made headlines, but its impact continues to resonate in the progressive thrash and metal community.

The original members reformed in 2009 for a series of shows before officially retiring the Anacrusis name in 2013. Kenn Nardi soldiered on with Dancing With the Past, an epic double album released in 2015 that captures and expands upon their signature sound. Screams & Whispers celebrates its 25th anniversary today, May 11th, and I e-mailed Kenn for his insights on its creation.

If you’d like to revisit or introduce yourself to the album, the Anacrusis homepage, operated by Kenn, includes all their albums, demos, and rarities available as a free download.

Fans of Screams & Whispers often lament its lack of recognition in the canon of great progressive metal albums. Do you agree that it deserved more attention and would that have impacted the direction of Anacrusis?

I think most bands feel that they deserved more attention that their labels gave them. It is only natural to want the biggest push and most attention possible. I would say that in light of the overwhelmingly positive reviews Anacrusis generally received, we certainly might have gone a little further with a bigger push. We were very fortunate to do a couple tours with some really great bands which certainly helped get our name out there, but unfortunately distribution for our albums was poor. Often people would see us live, never having heard of us before, and then they’d go into their local record shops looking for Anacrusis product only to be unable to find anything on the shelves. People are pretty fickle and in the days before the internet, they’d just move on to something else.

By the time we finished the European Tour with Death, late in 1993, we were pretty unhappy as a band. By then, we had spent seven long years full of many disappointments and those frustrations were beginning to turn us on each other. I can’t speak for the rest of the guys, but I know I really had no intention on continuing with another album at that point. For the first time, I had not even thought about writing any new material, whereas before that, I was always thinking of new ideas and planning new material. I was just burned out on the whole thing and with dealing with management, the label, etc.

What are you most proud of about the album and would you have approached anything different in retrospect?

Well, being a hopeless perfectionist, I am never completely happy with most things. Definitely, Screams & Whispers is easily my favorite Anacrusis sound-wise. It was the first time we really had complete control over the process and I think we were finally able to capture the sound of the band.

For the last album, I wanted to approach recording and the arrangements more like a live setting. I believe this is why we were so able to pull off that material on stage. Everything was arranged with bass, drums, and two guitars in mind. I believe the songs are well-represented on the album, which is great. There are always things that could sound better, but I really wouldn’t change a thing about our performances on those recordings.

You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you first compose melodies and harmonies and later add lyrics to best fit the cadence. Looking back, do you find any lyrical themes or harmonic ideas that tie you to that time and place?

Depending on the song, the music and lyrics can come about in very different ways. If it is a song like “Sound the Alarm” or “Release” for example, where I am the sole writer, I often put together the arrangement and then “sing” over that to find the melodies and phrasing I want first. Then I will begin to replace those rough ideas with real lyrics. Other times, I might be using lyrics written by John or Kevin and in those cases, I found myself trying to fit them into music that was written separately. In the early days of the band, this was tough and didn’t always have great results. Later, I would work with the other guys and often change or add to their lyrics to make things fit better or in some cases we’d begin with a verse and then write the rest together.

Your vocal delivery is one of the more memorable within all modern metal. Who were some of your greatest vocal inspirations and how did you achieve your delivery?

Unfortunately, I was never blessed with a very good singing voice. I have a very limited range, which was always very frustrating for me. I really couldn’t sing anyone else’s material at all. Eventually, I figured out what I could and couldn’t do well and tried to hone all of the elements I liked into something somewhat unique. I knew raw talent wouldn’t set me apart, so I hoped originality might. I also tried to use my voice as another instrument, rather than just “the voice” on top of the band. I liked using different vocal styles to either fit or in some cases totally contrast the music.

I had many of the usual influences like the Beatles, KISS, Halford, Dio, etc., but as for our style of music, David Wayne from Metal Church and Jon Oliva from Savatage were definitely major influences. I was basically trying to impersonate them in the very early days until I sort of found my own style. There were many odd ones too like Neil Diamond, for example. He had a baritone range like me and my mom was a huge fan. I really learned to respect him as a singer and especially a songwriter. I also was a big Stevie Nicks fan and some of my phrasing and delivery is similar to hers if you really break it down. There is a sadness in her voice that I love and I tried to bring that to our music. I was also a huge Pink Floyd fan and always loved the contrast between Roger’s and Dave’s voices. I wanted to create that same effect, only with just my voice.

The really high screechy scream that I do was mostly copied from Manowar. Sometimes Eric Adams would just screech an entire line or short phrase in the middle of a lyric, which I thought was cool. I was just able to do the scream without too much effort and so I used it to build other dimensions into my vocal delivery. There was no range between the middle register and that scream, but it gave the impression of a really huge range. Mark from Death Angel has a similar scream and though I am a big DA fan, I was already doing that even before we ever heard of them.

Who were some of your strongest influences during the album’s creation and who did you see as contemporaries? What other genres or artists outside of metal were influences at the time of recording?

By the time we were writing and recording the album, it was no secret that I was listening to lots of non-metal stuff. We had covered New Model Army’s “I Love the World” on the previous album and they were big favorites of mine for many years. Disintegration-era Cure were also a huge influence. Bands like Joy Division were also very influential on me and there was definitely a lot of alternative, new-wave-ish influence that had crept into our sound.

Celtic Frost’s Into the Pandemonium was also a favorite album of mine. I loved the way they mixed the classical/orchestral sounds in with heavy music to give it a “timeless” feel. This was obviously something I borrowed heavily from on Screams & Whispers. I wanted to try something similar, but in a much more melodic way. I began messing around with a cheap keyboard my friend had. I had always arranged our music in a similar way to some classical music, which each instrument playing against the other instruments or building chords and harmony using them together. I liked to have the bass prominent instead of just following the guitars, which is often the case with metal bands. So, when I began to come up with some pieces of music and then played them using string or brass instruments, I loved the sound. “Brotherhood?” was the first thing I recorded this way. Later I took an old song called “Vulture’s Prey” and combined it with a keyboard demo and turned them into one song using brand new lyrics. The verse section on “Grateful” was something else I wrote using a keyboard. Rather than just having these orchestral sounds stacked on top of the riffs, I wanted to use them like completely separate instruments to broaden our sound.

What are some of your strongest or fondest memories associated with the production of the album?

For the last album, we decided to stay in St. Louis, hoping we would be less distracted and more comfortable being able to go home to sleep at night. We rented a guy’s basement studio for two months. Aside from Thanksgiving Day, I was actually at the studio every single day for the entire two months. The record went well, but we were really pushing the ability of the equipment we had to work with. Some of the arrangements had a lot going on and the mixing board had no automation or anything. This made it a real challenge and we ended up going back to Royal Recorders for a few days to remix it. Bill Metoyer who did lots of classic metal albums came in just to help out. He was really cool and we heard lots of great stories about the Mentors and other bands he had worked with. Ultimately, I re-mixed the album with Bill just kind of “overseeing” things. I already knew what I was trying to do and the material was completely tracked and “produced,” but at Royal Recorders we had the ability to make it work using the tools we needed.

One of the highlights from the actual recording was when Brian Slagel flew to St. Louis to check on us. He hung out in the studio and heard some rough mixes, which was cool. It was nice to feel like Metal Blade were paying attention to us. Being stranded in the Midwest with the label out on the West Coast can make it seem like you’ve been forgotten, so it was cool to have him come and visit us.

How did the front cover and album title come into being?

I came up with the title because I thought it fit our sound. Not just my vocals, but our music in general. The dynamics between the heavy and the softer elements of our music was something we always stressed. I probably had Icicle Works’ “Whisper To a Scream” in my head at some point and then realized that it described Anacrusis pretty well.

We always had horrible luck with our album covers. Even the dark, mysterious cover of Suffering Hour was a happy accident and was not supposed to look that way.

This time we asked a local photographer to take some “obscure” photos of just “whatever.” We told her the name of the album and what our lyrics were about and asked her to try to just do some things that might depict those things. She did a bunch of photos with a person in body paint using slow exposures and this dramatic blurred affect. We liked several of them and decided to use them in the layout. The front cover literally is someone screaming and whispering, all at the same time.

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I absolutely worship “Division.” For my own personal indulgence, I’d love any stories or background related to that track.

“Division” is a song that I pieces together from a couple riffs Kevin had written and some that I had been playing around with. I definitely wanted a predominantly “thrash” song on the album, but I always try to do something that is not typical. There are a million thrash tunes that basically do the same exact things. I was messing around with a thrash beat on a cheap drum machine I had at the time and came up with the clean guitar part that worked completely against and with the drum beat and frantic, distorted bassline.

The lyrics were from some things Kevin had written and he was supposed to finish them for me so I could work out some melodies. He kept putting it off forever and I demoed the song without any vocals. By the time we got in the studio I had no idea what I wanted to sing, so I decided to just speak the verses. I think he and I finally dragged out a second verse right in the studio. He did the exact same thing for “Still Black” on Manic Impressions, haha. He was such a procrastinator when it came to lyrics. Anyhow. I liked how it sounded and I thought it worked well with the dissonant music. So, I guess you could say that was another happy accident that turned out well.

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