Kenn Nardi - Dancing With the Past - (8.5/10)
Published on November 18, 2014
Cast your minds back to the late 1980s/early 1990s – traditional speed-based thrash metal had pretty much run its (creative) course, with bands like Metallica, Anthrax and Testament seemingly abandoning their thrash roots entirely, opting instead for streamlined rock, groove and proto-death metal as the 90s wore on. It was during this critical juncture that a host of forward-thinking and increasingly progressively-inclined bands like Watchtower and Toxik started making a dent in the scene, combining the ferocity of thrash with the nimble approach of progressive music. Missouri’s Anacrusis was no exception, gradually evolving from a crude thrash band (the Suffering Hour era) into one of the leading lights of the then fledgling prog/tech thrash scene, releasing genre classics like 1991’s Manic Impressions and 1993’s Screams and Whispers. As critically acclaimed as these albums were (and continue to be), metal of course took a massive commercial knock with the advent of grunge and soon enough Anacrusis, Watchtower and Toxik were all put to pasture. The so-called retro-thrash revival movement gave the genre a newfound lease on life and visibility however, and by the mid to late 2000s said bands were at it again, with Anacrusis arguably the most productive of the lot, playing a few reunion shows as well as re-recording their first two albums. Frustratingly though, with the exception of a digitally released track (“This Killer in My House”) no new material saw the light of day, and many fans were understandably left bemused at the state of affairs (Toxik’s forthcoming album is taking forever to reach completion and God only knows when the perpetually active again/inactive again Watchtower will grace us with new music (though a new track, the spectacular “The Size of Matter,” did surface around 2010)).
As we all know, patience is a virtue and one can’t keep a good man down, and so here we are—five years after the initial Anacrusis reunion—with band mastermind (and multi-instrumentalist) Kenn Nardi’s first proper solo album, Dancing With the Past. No, it doesn’t carry the official Anacrusis moniker but there is a good case to be made that it is, for all intents and purposes, an Anacrusis album seeing as how some of these tracks date back to the period immediately following the band’s first dissolution back in 1994, and Anacrusis members Mike Owen (drums) and John Emery (bass) contributing to the song-writing and arrangement processes on a number of tracks. Not to take anything away from any of the other members (past and present) but Nardi has always been the lynchpin of the band, and he’s brought with him a wealth of riffs, melodies and creative ideas that simply smack of classic Anacrusis (there are at least eight songs on here that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on either Manic Impressions or Screams and Whispers). Naturally, my inner fanboy went into overdrive upon hearing that trademark ‘dry’ riffing style, clean/harsh vocal interplay and pronounced tempo shifts that made those albums such a joy to behold, with numbers like “The Telling Skies,” Blinding Lies,” “Ordinary” and “One World” essentially being the best Anacrusis-songs-by-way-of-Kenn Nardi. The riffs chug when need be, blitz along at other times and Nardi’s uncanny ability to mesh heavy moments with more uplifting ones (that often assume a strangely distant and abstract vibe) remains unblemished. This ‘detached’ thrash approach was first heard on 1990’s Reason, and it’s brought back to life here – afforded extra gravitas by the forces of time, change and technology.
It has to be said, though, that Dancing With the Past is not a ‘retro’ album (even if the title implies otherwise). A double-album packing 28 songs—and clocking in at a whopping two hours and 40 minutes—this is a damn hefty affair that will take multiple sittings to digest and appreciate fully. It’s scope also means that a lot of decidedly non-metal/non-Anacrusis moments abound, with some of the mellow and more experimental progressive rock numbers recalling Nardi’s material released under the Cruel April banner back in 2006. Many of the more off-kilter songs are found on the first disc, with a track like “Submerged” rocking out with a vaguely New Wave sound somewhat reminiscent of mid-1980s Rush or Queensrÿche (think Rage For Order), while something like “Straining the Frayed” pushes back the guitar in favor of boisterous vocal harmonies that, if heavier, wouldn’t sound far off from Blind Guardian. Disc Two features more ‘linear’ material, if you will, with the heavy tracks being heavier than those on the first disc and the more introspective numbers relying less on erratic tempos and more on accentuated vocal harmonies (the title track and “Dead Men’s Bones” are excellent examples of this approach and even feature some delicate keyboard embellishments). Truth be told, there are some songs that completely miss the mark—with “Beside Myself” and “The Runt” rounding out the album on an off note—but with 28 tracks it stands to reasons that at least a few would be less than thrilling.
All in all, however, Dancing With the Past is a triumphant return for Nardi. Like the press release states, the album is intended to “remain true to the avant-garde spirit that made Kenn Nardi’s former band so thrilling, while pushing the songwriting and compositional boundaries even further,” and in this regard he succeeded with flying colors. Both his clean and harsh vocals sound as good, if not better than ever before, his distinctive riffing style is all over this thing and the full-on metal songs are all brilliant (while the majority of the more prog/avant-garde songs are simply a joy to listen to). Top it off with another great Eliran Kantor (Testament, Atheist, Iced Earth etc) cover, a lush fold-out digipack and 36-page booklet and you have nothing but a winner in your hands. Welcome back, Mr. Nardi!