Hot Water Music: Exister
Hot Water Music's Exister has been a long time coming. Their last proper record, The New What Next was released in 2004 to mixed reactions. Longtime fans were unimpressed with the polished productions and songs that verged on indie rock. They missed the charging stop-start anthems that peppered earlier records, most significantly all-time fan favorite, Fuel for the Hate Game. On Exister the band attempts what some might term a return to form, while incorporating the lessons they have learned since 2004. While not necessarily a comeback record, Exister should please longtime fans, while bringing a few new ones into the fold, especially if they catch the band's incendiary live show in 2012.
Eight years is an eternity in our direct to internet world. Many bands that took inspiration from the band, formed, released several records, and quietly disbanded. During that time, the principle members of HWM tried their hand at other ventures, while playing occasional shows. Whiskey-voiced frontman, Chuck Ragan, embarked on a well-received solo career, honing his song-writing skills as a everyman folk troubadour, writing songs of railroads and love, not unlike that of Avail's frontman Tim Barry's recent solo efforts. Chris Wollard and the rest of the band soldiered on for one record as The Draft, creating music that was a tad more melodic, but less memorable. Despite impressive musicianship, Ragan's songwriting and gravelly vocals were missed. The Draft ended up sounding like much else that was coming out at the time, retaining little of the magic that made HWM so dynamic. Wollard also released a folk record with his band the Ship Thieves, while drummer George Rebelo joined a band they had inspired, Against Me! for a short stint. Yet insistent rumors that they were reuniting persisted. In 2011, the band released a teaser EP, “The Fire, The Steel, The Tread,” which proved they had lost none of their power. Yet it was still uncertain if they could create an album that measured up. This is always a tough task; would they be able to create a classic to stand alongside their earlier work as few can? For every band like Mission of Burma, who has increasingly released inspired records after their reformation, there are ten like the Stooges, whose poor showing, “The Weirdness” threatens their legacy.
Which brings us to Exister, a record released on the small Oregon-based Rise label instead of the much larger Epitaph, where they found their later success. With a new label, perhaps the band is looking for a new audience, but they might just find the old fans waiting instead. If anything, his solo turn has tightened Ragan's topical and personal song-writing, while adding more melody to the band's rhythms. The hooks are propulsive and insistent on much of Exister, particularly in Ragan's songs, as if the band wants to prove it can still rock. Although catchy sing along choruses are not missing from Ragan's solo work, parts of the album seem to revel in recapturing that mid 90's aesthetic. One problem is that many of the songs are not as memorable, lyrically or musically.
The record starts strong. As the guitars storm out of the gate on “Mainline,” it becomes obvious that HWM still knows how to rock. Yes, Chuck Ragan's vocals are more whiskey-soaked than usual, but the sweet back up harmonies, soon show that the band can still bring the melodies. The track surges with immediacy and intensity, as Ragan sings “For all the marks, all the nicks by all the pessimistic tricks /We are here and time is relevant to mainline every worthy element.” The lyrics are more obtuse and fractured than what Ragan has been doing recently, perhaps going back to the band's earlier catalog. Yet the glossier production recalls their work after they signed to Epitaph. “Boy, You're Gonna Hurt Someone” is murkier, both musically and lyrically. It recalls the heavier tracks on “Fuel for the Hate Game,” yet the lyrics are equally murky.
“State of Grace” explodes out of the gate with guitar interplay, tight drumming, and a classic Jason Black bass line, sounding much like an outtake from A Flight and a Crash. The song's lyrics yet again speak to Hot Water Music's relevance in the contemporary musical scene. Ragan sings “Our state of grace is crumbling / I fear we're good for nothing/ And simply disintegrating into the terra firma.” The song is slight and less substantial than “Drown In It,” which delivers the hope that is lost in “State of Grace.” “Drag My Body” stands out because it is far more inspired. Sounding much like a track off Ragan's solo records, it infuses the album with melody. The drums sound better and the band has an urgency they haven't had in years. Bass lines jump out of the murk as the guitars call too each other. Ragan's voice is tender and culpable as he sings “I'm hardly feeling human anymore / Enough to drag my body from the floor.” While it is another song that speaks to the uncertainties of the human condition, it's propulsive tempo and catchy rhythms show that HWM is still capable of broaching these topics with finesse and originality. “Safety” finds Chris Wollard channeling Jason Beebout from Samiam; his vocals are clean and clear. When Ragan comes in on the chorus, their chemistry is evident. Yet the lyrics again focus on doubt, the doubts of existence personally and as a band. “Exister” continues this trend. The band tightly explores the same theme that will appeal to their fan base, but they don't do it with the grace or originality of “Drag My Body.” “Wrong Way” shows growth – the band brings the tight playing and explosiveness of their early work, meshing it with melodies and vocal harmonies.
“Take No Prisoners” is another standout, perhaps because Ragan's vocals are at the top of the mix. With lyrics such as, “Some days we must surrender / Or start building a 'take no prisoner' road and a chorus that incorporates whoas, the song comes the closest to a college radio hit as the band ever has. “Pledge Wore Thin” is even catchier; the second half of the album relies on heavier melodies. Here the band really stretches out, bringing the song craft and the catchiness that was often missing on The New What Next. Instead of relying on indie rock dynamics, HWM is able to merge them with their post hardcore rhythms and lyrics to create some of the best songs of their careers. Too bad that there are so many songs that seem unfinished, as if a return to form required the band to ignore their growth. “No End Left In Sight” trudges along, bringing the tempos down, although there are some interesting guitar solos during the bridge. HWM builds momentum only to undercut it with slow tracks like these. “The Traps” builds the momentum back with call and response vocals, yet it seems indistinguishable from many of the other tracks on the album, except for Wollard's vocals which only get better towards the close of the album. “Paid in Full” closes the album. Another Chuck Ragan rager, the song builds as Ragan's vocals surge. It is hard to imagine that he doesn't damage them, especially on the chorus: “Feed the fire to rid the head of wreck from desire / paid in full and left for darker floods.” His passion on the track proves that HWM is still alive and well.
Problems with the record are minor. Old fans will love it, and new upstarts will likely pay attention. The album is uneven, as the band's outstanding melodic songs so often overshadow the songs that are trying to reach back to their earlier hardcore days. While they have learned lessons from their time apart, they could learn to more effectively integrate them. Instead of reaching for the glory days, HWM could very well release an album with more urgency and melody than ever before. With Exister, they fall short. There is too much filler, the production is often murky, and the standout tracks are often followed by indistinguishable songs. Overall, it is a solid record from the veteran act, who should hone it on tour and release a live record that could revitalize some of these songs with necessary energy.