The Emptiness, by Alesana

The Emptiness, by Alesana

Post-hardcore band Alesana have just recently announced an anniversary tour for their third album, The Emptiness, which became a decade old last month. For many fans, this is Alesana’s most beloved album. Generally when it comes to a band’s discography, especially in the post-hardcore genre, it is fairly common that either the debut or sophomore album gets the most attention, but this is definitely an exception. Alesana incorporates literature into their post-hardcore sound. They have previously done this on their debut, On Frail Wings of Vanity and Wax, using Greek and Roman mythology and using stories from The Brothers Grimm on their sophomore album Where Myth Fades to Legend. While those albums generally follow the concepts well, they were primarily a compilation of songs, and generally followed the concepts of the stories. The Emptiness is the first time Alesana decided to do a full concept album and their first time creating an original story.

Alesana’s inspiration for The Emptiness comes from the poet Edgar Allan Poe, primarily from his last complete poem, “Annabel Lee.” The poem itself is about Poe’s grief and enduring love for Annabel even after her death. In Alesana’s story, we are introduced to the main protagonist of The Emptiness, known as the Artist, who discovers the death of his lover Annabel. The Artist then decides to find out who the murderer was. On this journey, the Artist wrestles with his grief, sanity, and whether he really loves Annabel. While “Annabel Lee” is a baseline for The Emptiness, it definitely verges off onto its own path. While the album generally focuses on the Artist’s self-reflection, the elements of mystery, such as the true killer of Annabel, or why the Artist has continuous visions of Annabel throughout this journey, lead us to wonder what the truth is about the events of The Emptiness.

Now, generally, concept albums work the best when all the songs work individually, but are able to fit within the larger narrative of the album. That way, the listener can appreciate each song, but they are also rewarded for listening to the entire album. Alesana manages to do that in perfect strides as shown with the singles they released: “To Be Scared By An Owl” and “The Thespian.” Both songs are major events for the story,  but each are able to stand out as individual songs, which goes for the rest of the songs as well.

That leads to ultimately the most important part for any album: the music. As part of the aforementioned post-hardcore genre, Alesana uses hardcore as a baseline and incorporates 1elements from other genres such as emo, progressive, or metal. This genre tends to have a variety of bands that go in different directions. Alesana’s sound incorporates many different elements, whether it’s the technical guitar from progressive, the hardcore breakdowns, or the emo and death metal vocals. It can be very tough to incorporate all these elements into one song, let alone doing that for an entire album. Sometimes, it can feel disjointed if not done well. However, Alesana manages to create an album in which all of these influences come together and shine. Not every song is going to have a breakdown, needs to have a solo, or a perfect mix of clean and unclean vocals. This can be shown in “A Lunatic’s Lament,” where clean vocalist Shawn Milke primarily does the vocals, or the following “The Murderer,” where the unclean vocalist Dennis Lee takes center stage and we get the first major hardcore breakdown.

Continuing with the vocalists, it is important to pay attention who the messenger(s) of the album are, since it tells us how the song can be presented. Alesana previously used three vocalists, with the main two being Shawn Milke and Dennis Lee. The third vocalist from their previous albums, Adam Ferguson, is not on this album, and while that is a sad departure, it helps create an interesting dynamic between the messengers. Less is definitely more in this case. Shawn Milke is more of the general voice of the Artist, giving us the template to understand his general emotions, but there are also hints throughout the album that that clean voice is a ploy to get us to feel more sympathetic even if the Artist commits deplorable acts. Dennis Lee makes for a great contrast, being able to convey the darker thoughts of the Artist, but can also show his true colors. The combination between Milke and Lee allows for a great duality within the character. Adam Fisher, from Fear Before, narrates as the Artist. His portrayal shows the Artist as a calm and soothing presence, but there is a tragedy behind his words that makes him more relatable, for the Artist is a man that lost what he loved the most. Shawn’s sister, Melissa Milke, is the voice for Annabel. Her voice gives Annabel a sweet yet supernatural presence within the story. There are lyrics within The Emptiness which are sung by both the Artist and Annabel providing different interpretations and meanings for each character. Ultimately, the portrayal by the vocalists allows for an understanding of the characters in The Emptiness.

In order for the Artist to express himself, he needs his canvas and paintbrushes in order to convey his emotions. This is where the instrumentation comes into play. Alesana has three guitarists in the band: Patrick Thompson, Jake Campbell, and the aforementioned clean vocalist, Shawn Milke. The latter generally takes on rhythm, since he also sings, while the other two take on leads and rhythms when necessary. By doing so their sound becomes more transformative live and allows them to be more creative. On the first two tracks, “Curse of the Virgin Canvas” and “The Artist,” they show the importance of the three guitarists  within the band. Bass player Shane Crump not only provides a backbone to the heavier sections of the music, but also provides some creative bass work, such as on “Hymn of the Shameless” and “The Lover.” Drummer Jeremy Bryan also provides solid drumming that is not only tight, but can bring both heaviness and atmosphere when needed. There is also the use of classical instruments, primarily the piano and a string quartet, which are able to fit The Emptiness‘ classic setting. Ultimately, the instrumentation on the album provides the perfect backdrop.

The production also adheres to the backdrop the instrumentalists provide. Kris Crummett is a solid producer in the post-hardcore scene, and while the production may not seem the best by the standards of 2020, it is actually an advantage for The Emptiness. That is because it reflects a simpler time period. The raw energy from the post-hardcore instruments reflects the reality of the Artist’s situation. The classical instrumentation reflects this classic period not only in its inclusion, but shows the supernatural elements. The vocal production also reflects the raw energy, since there are generally little to no effects, unless it is needed in order to reflect a mood or a supernatural element. Ultimately, the production works because it brings out the best elements in each aspect in The Emptiness.

Now, a concept cannot be complete without its lyrics. The writing on The Emptiness provides a journey of the Artist’s descent into madness. The beginning of this album says that the events that happen to the Artist are indescribable. The Artist is very troubled by Annabel’s death and does not know how to deal with it, and even questions if he has the blood on his hands such as in “Curse of the Virgin Canvas,” saying “sweet revenge . . . I will pay (my!), I will pay (dear!).” It leads him to a journey that causes his sanity to slip away as shown in “The Thespian,” which includes the line, “Night falls and I’m running in circles (wo-ho-ho wo-ho-ho).” This is the only time where the use of wo-ho-ho happens, which conveys that the Artist is in a place of madness.  Moreover, the supernatural elements become more apparent in “The Thespian,” since the Artist thinks that Annabel is alive and he begs for forgiveness. This song ultimately questions if the Artist is a reliable protagonist.

Now, with all this talk about the album itself, there is inevitably the question about whether there is a point in listening to this album. There is so much music coming out everyday that it’s a fair question whether there is a reason to listen to an album that is a decade old. The Emptiness is not just another album from a band: it is an album that shows passion, dedication, and talent. Its themes convey important questions about love, perception, and sanity. Each track is great, because they are not only well crafted, but are able to reflect on passion’s ability to drive people to the edge. The album’s reflection on passion through the Artist conveys a truth that passions eventually become demises. Ultimately, The Emptiness by Alesana is not only a great story, but reveals truths about humanity that are blind to many people. Through finding out those truths, The Emptiness will haunt you . . .