Like so many other fans, when I first heard that Hot Water Music was making a new album I was extremely excited. With a legacy like theirs and a still-rabid fan base, Hot Water Music could have simply gone through the motions or just farted into a microphone and people would have still loved it. Luckily for all of us, that’s not the case with Exister.
Hot Water Music is one of my favorite bands, if not my favorite band ever, and that’s a big reason why I have such mixed feelings about Exister. Let’s go through the positive things first. Exister is Hot Water Music’s eighth full length and their first in 8 years. It’s the band’s first album since singer/guitarists Chuck Ragan and Chris Wollard have been doing their own solo things and it manages to remedy most of the things that many fans seem to dislike about their under-loved 2004 album The New What Next. Don’t get me wrong, there are many great songs on The New What Next, but it’s the most often dismissed of the band’s albums among both new and old fans alike. It’s moodier and less uptempo than Hot Water Music’s other albums. Where The New What Next lacks the aggression and throat-shredding vocals of earlier Hot Water Music albums, Exister has both of those in spades. Exister is basically a straight-up no-nonsense punch to the gut.
Exister blazes out of the gate with “Mainline” and doesn’t really let up until the final notes of the closer, “Paid In Full,” have been played. It’s as solid and consistent an album you’re likely to hear all year. Big choruses, raging guitars and the trademark Hot Water Music vocal growl are par for the course on Exister’s 13 songs with (perhaps) “No End In Sight” being the only slight sidestep along the way. However you shake it, this record finds Hot Water Music charging ahead at full speed without ever looking back.
For the recording of Exister, Hot Water Music laid down tracks at Bill Stevenson’s famed Blasting Room. Stevenson is responsible for so many great records and his production here is razor sharp but I find it to be overly clinical. To my ears, Hot Water Music sounds better with a bit of a muddier and dirtier sound. Exister just sounds too clean and too precise; it’s overly polished.
No one will ever argue that the guys in Hot Water Music aren’t ridiculously talented and musicianship displayed on Exister is amazing. The performances are impassioned and urgent but somehow the album feels a little stiff to me. The nuanced jazzy feel that Hot Water Music’s rhythm section of bassist Jason Black and drummer George Rebelo imparted on the early releases in Hot Water Music’s catalog is diminished on Exister just as it has been on the last few Hot Water Music albums.
Ever since 2002’s Caution (has it really been that long) Hot Water Music has been a different animal. Listen to Exister then go back and listen to songs like “Alachua,” “Turnstile,” “Better Sense,” or “It’s Hard To Know” and tell me what you hear? As hard-hitting as the songs on Exister are, Hot Water Music’s older material is so much more raw and visceral. The guitar interplay was more dynamic, the bass danced around more, the hi-hats and drum fills were magical, and Chris and Chuck’s dual vocal attack was front and center. Hearing them scream/sing together on those old records still gives me chills.
While I would never consider Hot Water Music to be experimental, the songs used to be more unpredictable. They were more exciting. They erupted into crescendos. That is a huge contrast to Exister (in addition to TNWN and Caution). Almost every song on Exister seems to follow a pretty standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus structure. It adds up to a brilliantly preformed and flawlessly executed album that’s a bit too predictable and not really as interesting as I’d hoped it would be. The Hot Water Music of today just has a little less swing and a little less swagger than they used to.
Maybe they’ve changed and maybe I’ve changed, but the three albums Hot Water Music has released in the last ten years have all underwhelmed me despite all being amazing. As odd a sentiment as that is, I know other people feel the same way. The albums all feel like collections of Chuck songs and Chris songs rather than the Hot Water Music Band albums that made me fall in love with the scruffy dudes from Gainesville so many years ago.
Still, for what it is, Exister is an amazing album that will continue to be in steady rotation around here for quite some time. There’s no denying that this is a document of the post-2002 Hot Water Music at their finest. The problem is that Hot Water Music set the bar so high years ago that Exister manages to be underwhelming despite easily being one of the best albums that will be released all year.