Before Hot Water Music was a band I loved, they were a band I wanted to love. From the outside looking in, there’s an undeniable something about the band’s output that makes you wish you were a part of it. Maybe it’s the minor cult of personality surrounding Chuck Ragan– Hemingway-styled man’s man and gravel-throated troubadour. It could be the name too, Hot Water Music— a name shared with a short story collection by Charles Bukowski. Then, of course, there’s the music itself. At once groove-based, experimental, airy, and tightly interlocked– then also, inherently singable, loud and anthemic. With so many ideas making up the core of Hot Water Music, it’s easy to forget that the actual core of the band is four people: Chuck, Chris, George, and Jason. And more than anything, how each member irreplaceably contributes is what makes all the difference.
I have fond memories of Fuel for the Hate Game, it was my first Hot Water Music album, and as music cliches go, it’ll probably always be my favorite. I had already heard Fugazi, so I at least had a band to namecheck against its post-hardcore approach to melody and rhythm. “Turnstile” the most unabashed punk banger on the album, reeled me into the new waters, and soon the rest of the album followed. By the time Exister came out, I felt like a seasoned fan, rolling around in the muck and excitement of a new Hot Water release.
Well, we’ve come to the end of one release cycle and entered a new one. Fittingly, it’s time to write one of my favorite collections of words: Hot Water Music is back. Light It Up wants you to know from the get-go that it is a Hot Water Music album, both a continuation of what they’ve been doing years and a sonic scrapbook. Before you even start spinning, the album artwork hearkens back to the wonderful and abstract cubism of Scott Sinclair’s art. Then, there’s also the fact that this album, for the first time since Fuel for the Hate Game, is totally produced by the band. For better or worse, this release carries with it the same weight as a self-titled album. Hot Water Music wants you to know they’re back, and across Light It Up, they’re exploring everything that makes them unique.
Light It Up is a latter-day Hot Water Music album, so game-changing is out of the question. In this stage of any band’s career, there are few boundaries to adequately explore that don’t feel perfunctory or worse, stale. The best you can hope for from a band with a handful of classic albums is that their new stuff is what they’re excited about playing. And continuing the theme of distilling the essence of Hot Water Music– the time honored back to roots approach of latter-day album making– they have reintroduced some of the band’s old idiosyncrasies that were sadly missing from Exister. The Chris Wollard led tracks are the most obvious in these regards, as they usually are. “Vultures” verses are shouted, a throwback to the band’s own hardcore influence and “Overload” is carried by the bass fills that have been with the band since the start. On “Show Your Face,” we get to hear a more aggressive Chuck Ragan delivery than usual, with him barking the opening verse. Hearing Chuck tap into his punk side a little more on this album is a real treat, as I thought some of the most off-notes of Exister were when it felt like we got the electric B-sides of a Revival Tour jam. He actually delivers the angriest track this time around– “Sympathizer”– a mid-tempo banger with a nasty minor-key riff that punctuates lines like, “It’s safe to say you burned our bridge!” It’s an easy standout in an album full of quality songs.
“Bury Your Idols” is a Chuck Ragan-belter that begs to be screamed along to in sweaty crowds. This song and others, bring to mind that as Hot Water Music has aged, they have settled comfortably into a punk rock sound that takes as much from early Bad Religion as Fugazi. The hearty and melodic woahs that appear across Light It Up make the case well, and while I could argue it strays the band further from their core (but, I could also point to “Wayfarer” off Caution and wonder what the fuck I’m talking about in the first place), they execute everything with such gusto that it’s hard to say any one element doesn’t belong. Big woahs aren’t what I go to a Hot Water Music album for, but they make for sweaty communion in the live setting. And if anything, that might be what has guided the band from an angular post-hardcore outfit to gritty anthem-writers– it’s hard to project yourself onto twisting rhythms, but traditional songwriting is tried and true and more connective than most of us want to admit. The fact that Hot Water Music hasn’t totally bled out all of their abrasion is a minor miracle. “Light It Up” is literally a marriage between the past and present, one of their fastest tracks in a long time, filled with fast-spitting vocals and yes, a big woah chorus.
The album closes with “Take You Away,” an impassioned track with a killer lead vocal performance from Chuck Ragan and some call and response. And I think, that is essentially why Light It Up works so well. It’s not groundbreaking for Hot Water Music, but it makes good on every disparate element of their music and delivers in the spirit, if not the exact formula– it’s passionate, but also, it has integrity. It comes through in the vocal performances, the emocore-hearkening lead on “Rabbit Key,” the fluid basslines on “Complicated,” and George Rebelo’s glue like drumming that keeps so many strong voices on the same team without losing his own.
Again, I take a deep breath and say my favorite words: Hot Water Music is back. Light It Up is a record of songs that wanted to be written, an album that respects the past without slaving to it. As an entity, Hot Water Music has already made their bones, and with Light It Up, they’re telling the world they plan to keep them.