I don’t remember a time when Hot Water Music wasn’t iconic. Being late to the game, I always had to contend with Hot Water Music being one of those bands. A classic, required listening. A luminary with a discography as extensive as it is menacing. Older readers may place more distinction on the Florida punks, separating them from the older, dinosaurs of the genre. But to me they were in the same ivory tower as Minor Threat and The Clash. Untouchable because of their reputation as infinitely important to the genre’s timeline.
On “Drag My Body” the ever gravelly Chuck Ragan sings “I found the pedestals and burned them down to kill my idols and to bury the thoughts underground.”
If only it were that easy, Chuck.
When I started listening to Hot Water Music I didn’t find a sacred cow to slaughter. I found what everyone else found, an institution. And with that it became clear that their hiatus wouldn’t be wasted on me; I did my research, I caught up. I gracefully joined the greater masses of punk rock. So, when the news of their reformation hit me, I gleefully took part in the gladiatorial battles of internet discussion. After all, I was a fan now, and I could not contain my enthusiasm. But now, the emotions have leveled and I can say I’ve listened to Exister. Preconceptions are out the window and it’s time to take a hard look at what we’ve been delivered.
After such a long exile, the obvious question is one of yearning. Will they be the same? The obvious answer is ‘no’. Except for the band’s sacred fundamentals, Exister doesn’t really sound like Fuel for the Hate Game. If this bums you out, that’s fine. But it’s undeniably the sound Hot Water Music has been building to throughout their career. And after eight years of non-activity, it feels like they picked up right where they left off. Exister is a continuation of a long and storied history, and it might be their best album to date.
The album opens with “Mainline,” and right away the listener is confronted with Hot Water Music at their most melodic. While definitely not as technical as their previous work, “Mainline” is a fantastic punk rock song. Next up is “Boy, You’re Gonna Hurt Someone,” featuring Chris Wollard on lead vocals. It begins with a repetitive melodic idea that explodes into a volatile chorus with a vicious dual guitar attack that prove you don’t need power chords to bring power to your music. Every song on Exister is great and each of them individually demonstrate Hot Water Music’s merits. “State of Grace” is a catchy number sung by Chuck Ragan who is at his best on this album–making it clear the years of solo work haven’t taken the venom from his voice. Fans will notice a callback to the classic song “Trusty Chords” off of Caution.
But even with a handful of great punk rock anthems, any Hot Water Music album would feel incomplete without those subtle moments of technical virtuoso. Jason Black dutifully provides with his mesmerizing basslines. Seldom heard in a lot of rock music, bass guitar tends to be dismissed. But in Hot Water Music, Black’s bass is truly the star. “Drag My Body” could have sounded like a full band cover of a long lost Ragan solo track, but Black’s playing transforms the track. He has an ability to turn a good song into a great song, and undoubtedly defining to Hot Water Music’s sound.
The title track “Exister,” is reminiscent of the best of Caution. Bringing to mind the rough hewn melodic punk rock of old, it’s an emotional experience in a stick of dynamite. Lyrically, Hot Water Music has always been abstract and hard to peg, while remaining emotional to an extreme. The furtive nature of their lyrics only strengthens the connection between sound and audience. Direct enough to pull meaning from, vague enough to make the meaning your own. “Pledge Wore Thin” is one of those songs, the title suggests its political nature but the lyrics are constructed with personal, visceral imagery. “All about you breaking skin on your back, it’s just a little dagger; it’s just a little blade, right? But there’ll be more and they don’t bend at all.” It communicates the concepts of political betrayal and discontent without ever leaving the realm of personal experience.
For whatever reason, Hot Water Music will always be one of those bands. The kind that you see tattoo’d into people’s skin. The kind people quote lyrics from. The kind that have a grip on your heart. In retrospect, it seems silly to question Hot Water Music’s relevance. Exister leaves little doubt to their place in the scene. All the questions it asks can be answered. Can punk be soulful? Can punk be musical? Can it capture our hearts? Yes, yes it can.