It’s two-thirty in the morning and I’m hoarsely choking out half-sentences and breaking down while trying to explain why a thing is important to people. Why it’s important to me. This used to happen a lot, unwanted emotions strong enough to drown my thoughts, but I surprise myself when it happens now after years of working on self-control. Maybe the self-control is a lie. Maybe we just don’t let ourselves feel as much as we used to and when that door is cracked, when we actually admit that something matters, the numbness that made us forget what vulnerability feels like drops and the feelings still overwhelm us.
Of course, I’m not thinking about any of this. I’m voiceless from screaming for an hour, half-drunk, and tearing up trying to explain to my girlfriend what the song lyrics I’m trying to read mean to me.
For a lot of people, expressing why Boston hardcore legends American Nightmare are important is hard. It’s doubly hard if you were ever trained to moderate your emotions. You have to fight through a series of self-preservation techniques first, so by the time you get to the part where you verbalize your actual feelings, you’re already mentally exhausted. This is what my brain is going through a couple hours after the opening show of their 20th anniversary tour this February in Boston. That’s the reason it can only muster song lyrics and half-spoken sentences about why they rang so true to me at such an important part of my life.
The first time I saw American Nightmare was in 2001. They’d only been playing for a couple years, but two instant-classic 7-inch releases had them among the most hyped up-and-coming hardcore bands, not just in Boston, but in the Northeast. Their first full length, Background Music, would come out a couple months later and become one of the most important hardcore albums of the twenty-first century. They played fast and angry and there were breakdowns and gang vocals. You wouldn’t get too many weird looks if you compared them to the youth crew hardcore bands that had reemerged around Boston in the late 90s, but there was something more desperate and nihilistic and complicated about them. There was also something more welcoming.
A lot of the hardcore scene at the time was focused on tough-guy bravado and moralizing. It could feel like the kind of macho and cliquey social atmosphere that a lot of people got into punk and hardcore to get away from. And maybe if you got in the wrong pit or danced too hard next to the wrong dude, you’d find yourself in the middle of getting your ass kicked before knowing what you’d done wrong.
Being at an American Nightmare show was different. Nobody cared if you were wearing the right band’s t-shirt—this was, after all, a hardcore band that dropped Ian Curtis and Nick Drake references—and nobody cared if you danced the right way. That’s not to say that there weren’t bodies flying everywhere, there were. But it was a space where emotional release was more important than swagger. The fact that so many people saw themselves in singer Wes Eisold’s poetic, dark, and deeply personal lyrics, and screamed along with all of them, made the catharsis that much stronger. In a scene that had bands like Cave In, Converge, and Isis helping redefine what heavy music could be, and a slew of other talented hardcore bands like Bane, Suicide File, and the Hope Conspiracy in their prime, American Nightmare’s intimate and borderline self-destructive brand of hardcore stood out.
It’s unsurprising that with such a personal focus, American Nightmare’s music ended up being mapped onto the life experiences of many fans. When you’re a kid, you don’t always know why you get into things, but in a 2018 interview with Revolver, Eisold remarked that people are attracted to music like this because of different kinds of abuse. It was a passing comment, embedded in a larger explanation of his feelings about people’s behavior at shows, but it’s exactly what made American Nightmare resonate with me. I didn’t consider myself abused when I got into the band. I thought that regular yelling and violence in the home as a child was something everyone dealt with. Three-decker neighborhoods in the 80s were just kind of like that. Being pinned against the wall, jabbed at, and called a pussy was just the kind of thing that happened when you got old enough to have to be shaped into a man. It made me angry and cynical, but I knew people who had it much, much worse, so I struggled to label it. I can’t say that it didn’t shape how I viewed myself and cause doubts and turmoil while I was trying to carve out a space where I could figure out what exactly that view was or what it meant.
Whether because of a violent background or other issues, hardcore draws people who need a release, who need to scream and flail and maybe be a little violent, but still be embraced and helped up and loved and feel like they can be themselves and that’s good enough to be a part of something. What separated American Nightmare was their admission of being on the edge of losing control. They were angry and aggressive, but they were also heartbroken and lost. For a band playing in a genre where traditional masculinity was still a driving force, the emotional nakedness and honesty felt like a subversion. For those of us struggling with who we were and where we stood in, it felt like an embrace. Someone saying that it was okay to feel that way. A friend letting you know that they felt it, too.
In 2003, American Nightmare released We’re Down Til We’re Underground the follow-up album to Background Music. It wasn’t as intense as previous efforts (though still plenty intense), but it showed the band going in interesting new creative directions. After a legal dispute with another band that shared the name, subsequent name changes (American Nothing then Give Up the Ghost), and constant touring, the band releasing an album seemed like a victory from the perspective or an observer. Some nine months later, however, just before a European tour, and owing to a combination of the members’ exhaustion, depression, and uncertainty about the future, the band was no more.
The members stayed busy with other projects, including Eisold’s hugely popular Cold Cave, but whenever I’d run into old friends, the question was always, “Hey, do you think AN will ever get back together?” With the way the band burned out, and how successful the members had been with other things, it never seemed all that likely.
In 2011, however, an ecstatic scene welcomed them back for a series of reunion shows that turned into several years of playing a few festivals or other shows a year. In 2018, American Nightmare put out their first new music since We’re Down Til We’re Underground, a fittingly self-titled album, which impressively managed to capture the spirit of the band while also showing growth and giving some insight into what they’d been up to since 2004. They also, for the first time since they got back together, embarked on a full tour.
Pulling heavily from the then new self-titled album and Background Music, the set in Boston on that tour in 2018 felt like a victory for the band and the crowd went ballistic. I hadn’t left a show with footprints all over my clothes in years.
If that show was a release of years of pent up energy, the show that opened the twentieth anniversary tour this winter felt like more of a celebration. Things are different than they were when the band was first around, but a lot of us are still here. There’s also a sense that this might not happen again for a while, if at all.
While the last tour pulled heavily from the self-titled album, the 20th anniversary set mostly focused on the classics. The opener “Love American” was off of We’re Down Til We’re Underground, new single “Life Support” was played for the first time, and they touched on the self-titled album, but most of the set came from Background Music and the two 7 inches that made up the band’s first non-demo releases, now collected on the freshly reissued album Year One. Some covers also made the cut: “You and Me” by Archers of Loaf and “Dead and Gone” by The Trouble, a beloved Boston punk band that I concussed myself to as a kid due to a load-bearing pole on the floor at a long-defunct Worcester club called the Espresso Bar.
American Nightmare’s newer songs are a fitting testament to who the band is today, and show that they still something vital to say, but the old ones, as the band has been open about on this tour, saved a lot of people’s lives in one way or another, which is maybe the most succinct explanation for why I couldn’t quite explain my emotions after the show.
I don’t think about specific things that hurt me in the past much anymore, other than occasionally doing some probably horrible self-analysis when I catch myself feeling something that is not helpful and I’m trying to figure out why. But I still hurt. I’m lucky and a lot of the time it’s not much and it’s just kind of there. I’ve had allergies my whole life, so I’m basically always gross and congested and usually the hurt is just kind of like that: a normal part of life that you deal with and try not to focus on too much. Sometimes it’s much more and everything seems pointless and difficult and I’m unsure of every decision I’ve made despite having ending up with a lot of the good things people usually say they want.
At least some of this comes down to doubts about where I fit in. It’s something I’ve never really been able to figure out. There are no set rules for any of this, and I’ve never really aspired to be anyone else, but it’s still so easy to define yourself by what you’re not, or by what you don’t have. I always thought the feeling would just go away with age. Not wanting to play sports mattered at 13, but wouldn’t at 18. Being poorer than everyone else at school mattered at 18, but wouldn’t at 25. Not having the right background mattered at 25, but wouldn’t at 30. And so on. Even as people overcome obstacles, society finds a way to remind them that they don’t quite belong. It can feel like you’ve been fighting against things for way too long and you can get beaten down. It’s easy to feel like you need to sacrifice yourself. We’re all compromised in one way or another, but would things get easier if you just really gave in?
Seeing American Nightmare again was a reminder that the pain and doubt is part of life and it’s kind of beautiful in a way. We can find moments where we can be free and happy and exactly who we want to be, regardless of where that fits in. In that same interview for Revolver Eisold echoed that by saying “feeling like an outsider and all the things you felt growing up are legitimate. And that it’s OK to still feel that way.” I’m 36 and reasonably well-adjusted, but it’s still nice to be reminded of that every now and then.
Even with the sense that American Nightmare was a lifeline that allowed people to express who they were and not be afraid to be vulnerable and angry, the song that they end shows with is an anthem of celebration, an affirmation of friendship and a community’s ability to see us through. Eisold sings in the opening verse “All I see in you and me, is a light in the dark of humanity. And when the days are done, I won’t forget,” and throughout the song, among the reminders of how hard and lonely everything can be, and how quickly things can change, are glimmers of hope before a closing reminder that we’re not alone: “You’ve got to know, you have my heart.”
And I guess, at the heart of it, that’s why they’re so important: they expressed so many people’s feelings before they really had the control or care to be able to do it for themselves. They let us know that we weren’t alone. And we’re still not. Twenty years later, American Nightmare is still a reminder that we belong somewhere. They’re a reminder of how much we’ve been through. They’re also a reminder that we had the strength to fight and find ourselves and have the strength to get through more.