Back On The Deck: American Nightmare – ‘Background Music’

By Glen Bushell

Through the years there have been more than a few bands in hardcore that really strike a chord with their listener. They are the kind of bands that offer something different, and invite people to delve deeper into their art, rather than just caring about the hardest “mosh” parts or maybe how “ignorant” their song titles are. It is no understatement to say that within hardcore there has been no band that has achieved that level of adoration more than American Nightmare. Fronted by the enigmatic Wes Eisold, they have developed a cult like following during their career by combining abrasive hardcore with poetic lyrics that resonate with almost anyone who listens to them, and have inspired countless bands to adopt a similar aesthetic. After abruptly breaking up in 2004 following internal issues and several legal matters, American Nightmare reunited in 2011 and have played a handful of shows since. In celebration of the band coming to the UK for two shows in June, we take a look back at their timeless 2001 album ‘Background Music’.

American Nightmare band

Hardcore in the 90s was dominated by metallic riffs, questionable fashion choices, and some mainstream success thanks to the rise of nu-metal. Over in Boston, MA however, Wes Eisold and former Ten Yard Fight guitarist Tim Cossar had been rapidly making a name for themselves with American Nightmare after releasing their demo on Malfunction Records, and then two 7” records on the now iconic Bridge Nine Records. Their image was like nothing else at the time, and was inspired more by UK mod culture as opposed to the XL shirts and basketball vests of their contemporaries. In contrast to this, their sound had the intensity of Right Brigade, and American Nightmare became natural heirs to their throne. Yet what set them apart was Eisold’s penchant for brutally honest and melancholic lyrics. After gaining more traction, the band signed with highly respected label Equal Vision Records to release ‘Background Music’, which would become the gold standard of hardcore punk in the early 2000s.

From the moment ‘Background Music’ starts with the battle cry of “This is the soundtrack to saying goodbye” on the opener ‘(We Are)’ it sets the dark overtone of the album which does not let up for little over 20 minutes. Eislod’s lyrics have more in common with wordsmiths such as Morrissey, or Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, and are delivered with the utmost passion, without a doubt the main focal point of American Nightmare. The words to ‘There’s A Black Hole In The Shadow Of The Pru’ read like a diary entry more than a song as Eisold confesses to be “Drawing words from a tired heart”. The emotional and heart-wrenching delivery of each word is a world away from the tough guy transition in hardcore that was happening at the time, and in some ways could be seen as sacrilege. Anyone who bore witness to an American Nightmare live show around this time however can agree that a tracks like ‘AM/PM’ were simply crushing live, and could incite just as much carnage.

Tim Cossar’s guitar playing is somewhat legendary to those within the hardcore scene, and some of the composition on ‘Background Music’ was so far ahead of its time. Nowadays it would probably be billed as “melodic hardcore”, but this transcends such labels. ‘Shoplifting In a Ghost Town’ has almost 90s indie moments with the kind of chords and structuring being used, but is no less unrelenting than the blistering 22 seconds of punk fury in ‘I Saved Latin’ that follows it. The other beautiful thing about ‘Background Music’ is the way in which the tracks segue into one another, and flow like a singular body of work rather than 11 tracks thrown together. While American Nightmare bought hardcore into the new millennium there were also nods to the past, particularly on ‘Hearts’, which is a ferocious old school punk rock anthem.

American Nightmare live

While hardcore would traditionally be focused around a “Positive Mental Attitude”, brotherhood and so on, American Nightmare offered a release for those that felt like they didn’t fit that mould. Not everyone cared about how the scene should stick together, and needed something more personal that they can relate too, whether that may be relationships, lost loves, despair, loneliness, depression or torment. ‘Your Arsonist’ sums that up perfectly, stating “Porcelain hope, you’re not much but you’re all I got”, and goes to show that listening to hardcore doesn’t make you immune to real life issues. The closing mantra of ‘Farewell’ is probably the most emotional rollercoaster on ‘Background Music’, and is still to this day the quintessential American Nightmare track. It sums up the ethos of the band perfectly with the sentiment of “The saddest songs make sense to me”, which is exactly why their brand of hardcore punk resonated with so many.

American Nightmare became cultural figures within the scene following ‘Background Music’, and would influence a slew of bands in their wake from Killing The Dream and Defeater, to Touché Amore and Dead Swans. In the years that followed the band faced many tough situations, including having to change their name to Give Up The Ghost due to a dispute over the rights to American Nightmare, and then of course there was the well-documented lawsuit with Fall Out Boy after they unashamedly used some of Wes Eisold’s lyrics (just Google it, enough has been said about it, and the past is the past now). They released their starkly different swansong album ‘We’re Down Till We’re Underground’ in 2003, and then called it a day shortly after to move on to other projects. Yet the legacy of ‘Background Music’ remains unsullied 14 years after it’s release. It truly was a groundbreaking album that will forever be remembered in the annals of punk rock history, and now is the perfect time to reacquaint yourself with it before American Nightmare visit our shores later this year. Tell the boy’s I’ll see them soon.

American Nightmare will play two nights at the Electric Ballroom on the 29th and 30th of April respectively, before heading to play Groezrock in Belgium. Tickets for the shows are on sale now.