For the last five hours or so, the largely teenage swarm near the front of the stage at Raleigh's large Lincoln Theatre has exuberantly and obediently raised its hands, the black X's reserved for those under 21 creating an elevated sea of Sharpie ink. As the night progresses, the crowd stretches back toward the club's entrance. The audience's median age has started to rise, too, as older fans with beers and younger fans' chaperones with graying hair begin to occupy the back of the house. Through an exhaustive slate of opening acts, the crowd enjoyed itself, sure. But they have been waiting for something to push them past the precipice of mere enjoyment.
So an hour before midnight on a Sunday in late November, the night's headliner—Raleigh six-piece Alesana—launches into "Annabel," the seven-minute closer of, and Shyamalan-like twist in, the plot for The Emptiness, the band's 2010 homage to Edgar Allan Poe. Several slam dancers suddenly flail their arms harder than before, stomping a gap into the crowd. One even lands a front flip. More crowdsurfers emerge from the mass, bobbing their way toward the stage: "I handed you a knife and my heart/ oh-oh-oh/ And now the dream is over," goes the song, the refrain filling the room.
Of the six acts that played tonight, Alesana is easily the most ambitious; its set, like its music in general, is bombastic and overabundant. Songs inspired by fairy tales and classic fiction veer between bludgeoning metalcore and airy pop-rock, between complex prog and sing-along simplicity—a sound the band has dubbed "sweetcore." This begged-for encore is the final push the audience needs. When the song finds its way to the coda, the floor roars, and the stage beneath the prog-leaning hard rock band for this rare hometown performance suddenly overflows with friends, tourmates and big-time fans.
For one 15-year-old fan, Brett Atwood, the encore was particularly notable. After flying halfway across the country from his home in Houston, Atwood wound up on stage at the request of Alesana's 32-year-old frontman, Shawn Milke. He invited Atwood to play guitar in front of almost a thousand people with his favorite band. For Atwood and his father, 48-year-old Brett Atwood Sr., it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
Says the older Atwood, himself a former Deadhead and a lifelong fan of hard rock music from Black Sabbath to Avenged Sevenfold, "For a father that has a teenage son that loves music like he does, I would have paid thousands of dollars for that experience."
Melissa Milke, Shawn's 27-year-old sister, has sung with the band on all of their albums. On this year's A Place Where the Sun Is Silent, she guests on almost all of the songs. At the Lincoln, she also joined her brother's band for the encore. These types of moments aren't exactly rare for Alesana, she says.
"Their fans are just so passionate and just love them so much," Melissa Milke explains. "These kids are just reaching out, like screaming, crying. If they even slightly bump into them or anything, they're freaking out like it's the greatest thing that's ever happened."
Seven years since the band's formation on Halloween of 2004, Alesana—by the numbers, at least—is the most successful band in North Carolina to contain neither an Avett nor an American Idol contestant. They've made three successive albums that have climbed increasingly higher up the charts. They've been a consistent and continually bigger draw on the road. And they've amassed a legion of zealots who wear their dedication with tattoos or T-shirts, on obsessive fan websites or cross-country pilgrimages to see the band in their hometown.
Make no mistake: This sort of success was the band's mission from day one.
"We kind of lived by the belief that if we had a fallback plan, we'd be too willing and ready to fall back," says Shawn Milke. "So we just made it Alesana or bust; we'd make Alesana big or die trying. There was never really a plan B for us. It was always just, 'Let's go for it.'"
Shawn Milke started playing in a Baltimore-based pop-punk band called The Legitimate Excuse in 2001. He quickly grew tired of that band's straightforward approach, so he started writing songs with Patrick Thompson under the name Alesana. "We both had the same vision—the idea of adding some heavier elements to our music and, honestly, some softer elements," Milke recalls. But the band never took off in Baltimore. The pair liked what they saw in Raleigh at a gig with an early incarnation of Alesana. It seemed to be a welcoming, vibrant scene.
"We came back, and we're sitting in Baltimore," Thompson remembers. "And we just had this feeling like, 'We should go back to where we were.'"
The band's core trio solidified when Milke, who was working at a restaurant and bar on Glenwood Avenue, met Dennis Lee, then a N.C. State freshman who was trying to lead a death metal act. Milke convinced him to go in a different direction and join Alesana. The ambition was evident from the start. The trio paid close attention to detail, discussed visual aesthetics and refused to play a show until they'd written and practiced a set they could be proud of—in Milke's words, "until we were able to go on stage and not look like we were a brand new band."
That grandiosity and care for the bigger picture has only swelled. As the band's albums have become more conceptual, the ephemera and promotional items the band uses have hewed to whatever story Alesana is promoting. "When you're a concept band, you really have to be all the way around, when it comes to press release photos, the website, everything," Lee reckons.
Today, the band's official image plays off the band's bookworm tendencies, with the members clad in sweater-vests and bow ties, offering poses as if they weren't in fact a sextet of traditionally attractive Gen-Y rock musicians with full-sleeve tattoos and lip rings. Behind them, a chalkboard scrawled with the names of all seven deadly sins written in Latin suggests The Simpsons' title sequence. It's meant to remind viewers that A Place Where the Sun Is Silent, Alesana's fourth full-length, largely pulls from Dante's Inferno.
The album's premiere video is a nine-minute short film for "Lullaby For the Crucified," a five-minute song that sets Dante's tale in a modern world where sin (having sex with strippers, for instance) results in surreal horror. "The challenge of doing videos with Alesana is that Shawn and Dennis write novel-length theatrical stories rooted in literary works as the themes of their albums and then strive to capture that with the band's visuals," video director Stephen Penta said in the video's press release. "It was overwhelming."
Overwhelming is a good word to describe most of the 62-minute A Place Where the Sun Is Silent, a defiant overgrowth in an age of short attention spans. Posited as the prequel to last year's The Emptiness (itself a concept album inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee") and the second entry in a conceptual trilogy, A Place Where the Sun Is Silent is the most complete summary of Alesana's character yet. Loaded with piano, horns, strings, choirs, complicated song structures and three singers (Lee, Shawn Milke and Melissa Milke), the album inhabits a Queen-meets-Andrew Lloyd Webber realm, landing somewhere between the concert hall and Broadway.
The band's career arc is inspired by that of the Australian alternative rock band Silverchair, says Milke. Their albums moved from the grunge sound of the 1995 debut Frogstomp into more musically lush territory on 1999's Neon Ballroom and 2002's Diorama. "It made me realize," he says, "that you do not have to stay the same."
Like Mastodon, another Southern hard-rock band with a taste for classic literature and indulgent prog, Alesana incorporates a buffet of influences. Alesana's crisply produced post-hardcore is rooted in the sound of early-'00s emo, but the sextet—which features Milke, Thompson, Lee, guitarist Alex Torres, bassist Shane Crump and drummer Jeremy Bryan—has grown well beyond its roots. Contemporary electronic production and lush arrangements give the band a pure-pop polish. The compositional ambition of late Beatles albums augments the fantastic voyages of classic metal. A Place Where the Sun Is Silent is a logical progression; even so, it takes on a baroque, theatrical air far beyond anything else in Alesana's catalog.
"I'm sort of obsessed with theater and film," Milke says. "I love how much music can control a film or control a theater play. I wanted to kind of reverse that with our records and have the visual element move the music."
So far, the audience seems to be responding to Alesana's bold move. According to Nielsen SoundScan, A Place Where the Sun Is Silent sold almost 12,000 copies in its first month, climbing to No. 55 on the Billboard Top 200. The new album's predecessors, 2010's The Emptiness and 2008's Where Myth Fades to Legend, peaked at No. 68 and No. 96, respectively. Even in the wake of illegal downloads, YouTube and other single-song sales, Alesana has sold a total of more than 214,000 albums, and they're now poised for even better results thanks to a new deal with Epitaph Records, one of the largest independent labels in the country. The growth has enabled them not only to pursue even more of their ostentatious ideas but also to make albums that create revenue on the road and at the merchandise table.
"That's probably our No. 1 way to make money," Milke says of touring, as if the sold-out school-night crowd at the 850-capacity Lincoln Theatre weren't evidence enough. But package tours, like the one that pulled into Raleigh, used to work with three bands. They now demand six, he says. That splits the bill and makes it harder to sell merchandise. Alesana has typically done well with its wares, showing a clear understanding of what their audience wants. The band's merch booth displays a closet's worth of T-shirt designs. Milke says he prefers simpler designs—black T-shirts with a plain insignia. But he's not the one buying his own shirt.
"Kids love for other kids to know who they like when it comes to music. That's the whole point of a T-shirt," Milke says. "I can't even tell you how many people I've run into at shows, all over the world, who have our T-shirt but do not have our record. That just blows my mind."
During the next few years, Alesana might actually slow its roll on the road. With six bands each offering a dozen T-shirts on any given night of a tour, even shirts are delivering diminishing returns. Compounded by the demands of family and outside interests, those margins make maintaining a 10-month tour schedule difficult.
No longer the Raleigh upstarts they once were, Alesana now has members spread across the country. Milke lives in Maryland, Thompson in California. Bryan is in Illinois, Torres in Arizona and Crump in Florida. Only Lee remains in North Carolina. That doesn't mean they're receding into some twilight. Milke's ideas seem bolder than ever. He says he'd like to let the band's theatrical concepts play out in short films, or even on stage. Instead of a typical rock concert, he'd like to find new ways to bring Alesana's art to its audience.
"We've grown as musicians and songwriters and storytellers," he says. "Why not grow as performers as well?"
Or moneymakers, for that matter: Alesana earns money through its website, selling subscriptions at $5–$25 per year for access to exclusive content and merchandise and offering VIP upgrades to concert tickets. The VIP ticket option for the Motel 6-sponsored Rock Yourself to Sleep Tour, which ended with the show in Raleigh, gave a small group of fans at each show a chance to watch the band's soundcheck and visit with the band for an in-depth meet-and-greet.
Brett Atwood and his father took advantage of these tickets at the tour's Houston stop and again when they decided to make the trip east to see the band. The younger Atwood practices playing Alesana songs two to three hours each day on guitar, and he regularly posts videos of himself playing them on YouTube. During the meet-and-greet in Raleigh, the younger Atwood asked Alesana's guitarist, Patrick Thompson, to help him figure out how to play some of the songs. This led to a conversation with Milke and ended with the invitation to join the band on stage.
"I was so shocked," the boy says two weeks later. "I didn't even understand what he was saying at that time."
For Alesana's most devoted fans, simply buying CDs and shirts and upgrading their concert tickets—simply engaging with the commerce of it all—isn't enough. Rather, Alesana fandom seems to be very much about identifying—about understanding what they are saying and being understood in return.
"To me," says Milke, "the description of a true Alesana fan is somebody who completely gets the whole experience and lets themselves get lost in it."
By that reckoning, Kaitlyn Stewart is a true Alesana fan. A 14-year-old from Kentucky, she discovered Alesana three years ago while browsing YouTube. The website had suggested the band as something she might like, and that was putting it mildly. "It was 'Beautiful and Blue' on first," she remembers, "and I just absolutely loved their music. I just instantly fell in love with it."
When Alesana released Where Myth Fades to Legend, with songs based on classic fairy tales, Stewart fell even harder for the band.
"They don't talk about all that relationship stuff, breaking up and things we hear a lot about today in popular music," Stewart explains. "They write stories, and base their records off of them, and that kind of stuff." She lovingly calls them "big nerds," then uses the same term to describe herself. Their music has somehow convinced her to take school more seriously.
Stewart and her friends began referring to themselves as the Alesana Army. She made a group on Facebook, and membership ballooned. Today, with more than 800 "Likes" on the social network, that page is perhaps the most thorough and enthusiastic fan page in a sea of them.
"Every day we add more stuff," says Keisha Goodnight, also 14 but from Ohio. Goodnight fell down the rabbit hole for the band's literary references. She now manages Alesana Army alongside Stewart. They met through conversations on Alesana's official Facebook page and became friends online, despite the few hundred miles between them. They spend hours updating the page daily. Stewart once pulled an all-nighter just to make the "Welcome" tab that serves as her fan page's face; that's not an isolated instance of devotion.
"In November, I went to see them in Alabama, and the trip cost a ton of money because we had to buy the hotel room and snacks and gas, you know," Stewart says. "But it was completely worth it. Completely worth it." That was the third time this year that she'd seen the band live. Early in the year, Stewart came down with a life-threatening illness. She doesn't like to talk much about it, except as an explanation of why Alesana means so much to her. In the hospital, her mom would bring a portable CD player so she could listen to Alesana in her room.
"The only thing that could really make me happy or smile was listening to Alesana and thinking about meeting them," she says. "They were my inspiration to get better."
In July, at her second Alesana concert of 2011, Stewart's wish became a reality when she posed for a photo with Shawn Milke. The bandleader subsequently posted the photo to his personal Twitter account: "This is me and the prettiest, strongest girl in KY, Kaitlyn. Her bravery inspires me. <3 Shawn."
The gesture certainly left an impression on Melissa Stewart, Kaitlyn's 40-year-old mom.
"I remember when Shawn hugged Kaitlyn. She cried, and he said, 'Don't cry, beautiful girl. I'm just a guy,' which of course made her cry harder, and then Momma started crying," she says. "I don't care how big they are or how small they are, bands don't do things like that. It's just very, very amazing what they do."
The image of teenagers crying for rock bands is at least as old as the Beatles, but what Alesana's "true fans"—male or female—see in the band ultimately seems to be themselves. Explains Lee, "We get the freaks and the wallflowers. I love it. I mean, I used to wear gas masks to high school."
It's little wonder, then, that fans are so devoted to the band and interested in their backstories. A typical interview with a fan-run blog includes questions about the band's faith (early in its career, Alesana played the Christian music festival Cornerstone) or its stance on straight-edge culture. The answers generally dodge those points, indicative of Alesana's overall relationship with its fans—always utterly sincere but characteristically savvy.
As for the straight-edge aspect, the healthy volume of photos picturing band members at tour stops with fishbowl-sized margaritas, cigarettes and cans of PBR answers that. All six members of Alesana have the letters PMA, standing for Positive Mental Attitude, tattooed on their bodies. That, Milke says, is the band's guiding philosophy: being inclusive, welcoming and positive.
"That's the thing," Milke says. "Our convictions are that we're open-minded to whatever somebody believes. Even within our band, we have devout Christians, agnostics and atheists." Milke says he'd prefer to keep some things private anyway. When he and his wife wed in September, photos of the ceremony made their way to fan groups online within a week, no matter how hard the couple tried to prevent it. Lee and Milke seem to harbor some regret for how much their lives matter to some fans. But Lee confesses he wouldn't be doing what he does if he really hated it.
The band does seem to have a genuine interest (beyond the financial) in making sure its fans feel recognized, agrees Melissa Stewart. "They went way out of their way to let Kaitlyn know that they know how much she appreciates their music," she says.
That stable base behooves a band that seems so built on changing musically, or riddling songs that could be simple with complex elements; what has remained steadfast is Alesana's magnetism to its fans. They've grown quickly but mostly quietly, with a word-of-mouth approach that echoes the Avett Brothers' famous "one fan at a time" credo. Alesana has mostly avoided the media spotlight locally and nationally by settling for a middle ground between bombastic but simplistic pop and subtle, cerebral indie. Like any number of prog or power-metal bands obsessed with speculative fiction and instrumental mastery, Alesana doesn't embody traits that define "cool." But the traits that do define this band—bold-faced ambition, musical indulgence and overt earnestness—appeal to exactly the type of fans prone to poring through novels, or studying instruments or fastidiously cataloging the activities of their favorite band.
"I actually don't usually like to read, but I kinda like to read about the stuff that Alesana write their songs about," says Atwood, the 15-year-old from Texas. "It's not some of the stuff that we are forced to read in school."
Thompson feels like the band's fans sense that the music means something to the people making it, that they're not trading safe stylistic ground for money—that they're being themselves, and finding success.
"I think the people in the crowd, besides responding to the songs that they like, I think they respond to how much we enjoy playing our own songs," he says. "When we get on stage and we play, we care about what we're playing. It means something to us." And because the fans identify so fully with Alesana, it means something to them, too.
It's not unheard of for a band to invite a fan to join them on stage. But it's not common, either. It's even less common for a band whose songs aren't particularly easy to play. In the excitement of that encore in November, nobody would've blamed Brett Atwood for messing up. He's only 15, and he was starstruck. There's a big difference, he admits, between playing guitar in your room at home and playing in front of a rowdy, sell-out crowd. But with a complete look of concentration and a little instruction from Milke, Atwood played the song as if it were his own.
"When I got on stage I thought I was going to be really nervous because I didn't want to mess up," Atwood says. "But once he handed me the guitar, I just didn't feel very nervous anymore."