Album Review: American Nightmare - 'American Nightmare'

5 March 2018 | 11:52 am | Staff Writer
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For any reunion album, there’s one pivotal question that’s typically asked upon release: did we (that nebulous, collective ‘we’ stand-in for fans of said band) ask for this? On the surface, that may seem a trivial, and perhaps slightly unnecessary, question to ask, however it does get to the heart of a fundamental and multi-faceted question within alternative music today, namely one of creative enterprise, nostalgia and fan ‘ownership’. In a genre as divisive (read: fickle) as hardcore, this question essentially boils down to three factors: influence, legacy and discography.

Alongside local figureheads Converge, Boston hardcore outfit American Nightmare helped to shape and define the sound of East Coast hardcore in the early 2000’s, reconceptualising the gritty and visceral hardcore punk of the 70’s & 80’s underground, while eschewing the more metallic sensibilities of their metalcore/crossover contemporaries in and around the late 90’s. American Nightmare’s legacy, and gift to kids in crewnecks and dad hats everywhere, was the genesis of what’s now referred to as the ‘melodic hardcore’ sound, the core elements of which – short bursts of fury; swift melodic undercurrents; vocalist Wes Eisold’s tortured and emotional lyrics; the incendiary, floor-levelling live show – would resonate with and inspire numerous other influential hardcore groups, such as Verse, Ruiner, Modern Life Is War, Ceremony, Have Heart, Defeater and countless others.

Yet for such an iconic band, American Nightmare’s discography is relatively sparse, with only two full-length albums released during their six-year tenure: 2001’s now-classic debut ‘Background Music’ and 2003’s more experimental ‘We’re Down Until We’re Underground’ (released as Give Up The Ghost, after a protracted legal battle with another band over the ‘American Nightmare’ name). After their break-up in 2004, the band’s members would go on to take part in various other projects of varying shapes and sounds (Some Girls, Head Automatica, Bars, The Hope Conspiracy, and most notably, Eisold’s post-punk/darkwave/synth-pop vehicle Cold Cave), before reuniting in 2011, to play sporadic shows and take part in short runs across North America.

Which brings us to now, and that same trivial question: did we ask for ‘American Nightmare’ — the band’s third full-length album and first in 15 years? Perhaps. Maybe real or ‘true’ A.N. fans have been clamouring for this release for the better part of two decades. Or, according to Eisold, maybe it’s not actually about us at all: “In making this record we had one goal: To make a hardcore punk album that was true to American Nightmare, who we were then and who we are now. No filler, just existential poetic venom. This is ground zero, a new life for the band.

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Listening to ‘The World Is Blue,’ the album’s lead single and opening track, it’s clear that Eisold is speaking in earnest: there’s no denying that this is American Nightmare, through and through. The track gains speed with a jangly, discordant riff before exploding with energy, carried along swiftly by Eisold’s pained vocals and drummer Alex Garcia-Rivera’s cracking snare. The track features some brief guitar flourishes towards the end, but ultimately races to a finish in under two minutes, practically forcing the band's breakneck intensity down your throat.

Likewise, ‘Flowers Under Siege’ feels like it was entirely designed to leave you breathless and wanting more. Musically, all 47 seconds of it feels heavily under-utilised; the essence of a good idea that never really germinates. Lyrically, however, the track finds Eisold at the height of his poetic prowess: “Flowers grow from the underground/To be stared at and stepped on and sold/Until what’s beautiful is too old/Been under siege since I was a seed/And I’ll be under siege ‘til they re-bury me." ‘American Death’ feels like a cut that could have easily featured on the band’s previous full-length’s, and it isn’t until the album’s fourth track that we finally get some fresh new meat on those all-too-familiar bones.

Bolstered by sleek punk chords, ‘War’ runs like a god-damn unstoppable freight-train, chugging along with soaring leads, propulsive drums and a relentless tempo. Lyrically, Eisold appears to be reflecting on his youth, and how American Nightmare was both powered by, and (in part) responsible for his internal existential angst: “Break down, Two thousand anything/I had no voice so I tried to sing/Eyes wide shut off the coast of Maine/While white snow shovelled through my veins/You don’t know love ‘til you know pain/Skin breaks by the fangs of the feigned/You can’t put your fist through a memory.” This reverie is then backed up by the bass-riddled melancholy of ‘Gloom Forever,’ which never quite gets out of its mid-tempo gear, but allows for some searing tension as Eisold wrestles with the darkness of the abyss. At the track’s emotional zenith, he channels his inner Ian Curtis to simmer and yelp, “I know/There is no turning back/But when you’re standing in the fire/All you see is black.

From here the album moves back into familiar rhythms with ‘Lower Than Life’ and ‘Dream’. The former having a few catchy lines here and there, and the latter trying to pass itself off as barely 40 seconds of lo-fi, garage battering; neither of which add much value to the album’s tone or pacing. ‘Colder Than Death’ reeks of a Cold Cave demo idea frankensteined by testosterone, while album closer ‘Crisis of Faith’ knows a simple refrain when it hears one, and then just drives the point home for extra effort, giving the record a rather subdued and tempered ending.

Thinking critically about ‘American Nightmare’ leads to two obvious conclusions: 1) American Nightmare have more than earned their place on the hardcore mantle-piece; any new tracks are then, by extension, good news for the band, their legacy and their ultimate longevity. Or 2) ‘American Nightmare’ is mostly just a glorified EP of new material, with nine tracks in 20 minutes; save for ‘War’ and ‘Gloom Forever,’ there isn’t much here that screams ‘replay value’ or ‘will be epic live’. Existential poetic venom, yes; no filler, not so much.

Still, if ‘American Nightmare’ gets a new generation of kids stoked on hardcore punk and encourages a resurgence in the band’s standing and back-catalogue, then that can only be a positive thing. As Eisold emphatically declares on ‘War’: “Don’t forget that the world’s against us/And there’s no place I’d rather be.

  1. The World Is Blue
  2. Flowers Under Siege
  3. American Death
  4. War
  5. Gloom Forever
  6. Lower Than Life
  7. Colder Than Death
  8. Dream
  9. Crisis of Faith

‘American Nightmare’ is available now through Rise Records. To stream and purchase copies of the record, go through the jump here.