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In 2000, four friends in northern Indiana formed a band. They recorded an album in someone's basement, toured as much as possible, and nourished big dreams. Three years later, they didn't break up so much as gradually dissolve. No fistfights, no arguments, no rise, no fall: just five guys who ended up going their separate ways.
Their story is not unique. For every band that makes it — whatever "makes it" even means anymore — there are many more like Annabel;Lee, who worked hard, toured hard, yet never managed to turn some small professional momentum into anything resembling a career in the music business.
And that's okay. The story of Annabel;Lee may be a common one, but that doesn't mean it's not a good one. In fact, its power and poignancy reside precisely in its familiarity, in the idea that young men and women are constantly investing punk music with talent and dreams. Very few of them, however, enjoy such an extensive, affectionate, or handsome retrospective as I Saw It All Unfold, a joint venture between the Bloomington-based labels Auris Apothecary and Crossroads of America Records. The limited edition vinyl set collects everything the band ever recorded: all the demos, their sole album, the final songs that survived as bootlegs passed around by aging fans, even a DVD featuring archival live footage.
I Saw It All Unfold has been a labor of love for two long-time fans and label heads, Bruce Woodward and Mike Adams.
"They were a very influential artistic presence in my life," Adams says. "Those guys are my age, more or less, and essentially come from the same place, but they seemed to view the world from a different and more interesting perspective. I've been in hard pursuit of that outlook ever since."
Northern Indiana had a busy punk scene in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as kids raised in Christian households formed hardcore bands. The fast and loud aesthetic attracted many angst-addled teenagers, many of whom were developing their chops in front of their friends and peers. One of the most popular was a group called At Peace WhileBurning, an overtly Christian act.
"We were a serious hardcore band with a message," says J.J. Evans, who sang and played guitar. "There was a gravity to the shows and a sense of purpose and catharsis."
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- The retrospective is a dual release on Auris Apothecary and Crossroads of America
Annabel;Lee started as a side project, with three members — Evans, drummer Jason Torrence, and bass player Aaron Eikenberrry (eventually replaced by Jeremy David Miller) — looking for "something a little more emotive," says Torrence. "I distinctly remember us making conscious efforts to write music that was less melodic and more dissonant." They added a local named Jesse Swain as an additional vocalist, but every guy took a turn at the mic, often singing against one another. The effect remains powerful and visceral even 15 years later, creating a tension that sounds like it might explode at any moment.
"Chaos wasn't something we shied away from," adds Evans, "so throwing vocals back and forth or piling them on top of each other worked well for what we were trying to accomplish."
That fraying sense of democracy set the band apart among their Midwestern peers.
"Even when we traveled other places, it felt like maybe we were the first of our kind that people had seen at that time," says Swain. He was a large part of what made the band stand out, as his throat-scraping vocals were part black-metal and part screamo, part King Diamond and part Cookie Monster. "It was hard to do," he says. "If we played three or four nights in a row, I had a really tough time. There were times I would open my mouth and nothing but a squeak would come out, but that put more emotion into it for me. It was painful."
As they honed their attack, the band recorded continuously in Evans' basement. In 2001, they self-released an EP and an LP, both showcasing their volatile mix of emo catharsis and punk violence. Avoiding the loud-quiet-loud contrast that defined so much alternative rock at the turn of the century, the band developed a very different kind of dynamic, one that pitted churning rhythms with atmospheric passages, tension against a vague promise of release. At times their music recalls such post-hardcore acts as at.the.drive.in and Saves the Day, while at other times it achieves the precarious grandeur of ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and Explosions in the Sky.
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Their self-titled full-length proves much more than pastiche. Rather, it shows a band just learning to integrate their influences into a distinctive new sound. That is a rite of passage for any band, although few sound quite as devoted to the task as Annabel;Lee. "I remember playing a lot of moshy hardcore shows and feeling super ahead of the times because we weren't doing the quote-unquote dumb jock hardcore thing," says Torrence. "In retrospect, it was a stupid way to think, but at the time it seemed like a big deal that we were making music that sounded more artsy and less tough."
I Saw It All Unfold concludes with The Van's Gone, an EP that reveals a group of musicians growing incredibly comfortable in their individual roles and more confident in their collective identity. "The Van's Gone in my opinion is our swan song," says Torrence. "It was recorded, mixed, and mastered in four hours, but we never got to officially release it." The EP circulated among fans for years, but I Saw It All Unfold marks its official release.
After that: nothing. Evans started college in Chicago, but Miller, Torrence, and Swain were still in high school. They simply drifted apart, growing up at different rates. "I think the biggest reason is that we'd all grown up pretty sheltered, and we were becoming un-sheltered at different rates," says Torrence. "We played a show in Chicago where there was some drinking onstage by members of Annabel;Lee! That was a huge shock to my system at the time. In hindsight, it was a silly reason to quit a band, but the guys were gracious about it."
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For most of the band members, Annabel;Lee was a short chapter in a longer musical life: Ten years later, Torrence plays drums in Nashville, Tennessee, and Miller, Evans, and Eikenberry play in a Chicago indie-rock band called The Rambos. Only Swain has completely retired from music: He lives in Richmond, Virginia, and makes a living racing boats.
For many of their fans, Annabel;Lee still looms large over Indiana rock history. "This stuff opened up a world of possibility to me," says Adams, "and I thought it was a shame for it to disappear on Grandpa's old CD-R collection. Plus, the music holds up. I just feel really strongly that this stuff deserves proper respect."
Annabel;Lee did not change the face of rock and roll in America, but they did accomplish something that should be the goal of any punk band: They inspired others to make music. I Saw It All Unfold is not merely a scrapbook of the band's short history, but a monument to every band that shares their story.