We’ve never tried to be anything other than who we truly are, or pull any wool over anyone’s eyes. And since we’ve based our band around the bond and the friendship that drew us together to begin with, it has stayed honest. We also found that what stays honest, stays real. And reality is something that most everyone can relate to at one time or the other.
—Chuck Ragan, singer and guitarist for Hot Water Music
This quote from an interview on Decoymusic.com well illustrates the intended aesthetic and philosophical approach of the Gainesville quartet Hot Water Music. This pledge to consistency is remarkable given that the arc of the band’s 10-year career has been anything but steady. In fact, the band has undergone a number of profound shifts since their inception in the mid-‘90s, including an ascent to popularity that fair exceeded the bounds of most hardcore punk bands in the still-burgeoning scene, a sudden break-up, an even more sudden reformation, and a subsequent leap to a new level of exposure and success following a slew of recent albums released on Epitaph Records. Yet throughout all of these changes Hot Water Music, as illustrated by the words of singer Chuck Ragen, have tried their best to maintain a palpable measure of sincerity and congruity to serve as the common thread that ties all of these disparate elements together. When used to inform an attitude and an image, this commitment to consistency is endearing and works in the band’s favor, providing a touchstone of familiarity and trustworthiness to their music. But when it is translated into a modus operandi for their songwriting, this same regularity can turn into redundancy, robbing the band of vital opportunities for musical development.
For their most recent full-length release, Hot Water Music have chosen the title, The New What Next. I think that the title is meant to refer obliquely to the cyclical nature of crisis in modern politics. But it is an apt choice of words for another reason as well, because the music contained on the record is not new and it is certainly not what’s next. That is not to say that the record does not have its high points. In fact, it is rather comforting to hear a band that is so apparently jubilant about making a record that fits perfectly into their catalogue of post-hardcore punk offerings. Somehow the formulaic nature of their arrangements doesn’t keep the record from sounding sincere and energetic, even as they tread their way through some painfully over-familiar territory.
That being said, it’s still evident that the band has progressed mightily from their early days as a straight-up hardcore outfit. The trouble is that when they departed from the highly charged, yet simply arranged blueprint of hardcore, they ventured into an area that was more musically complex, but overly polished and fraught with cliché. It’s almost as if each musical flourish added in the studio somehow takes a little bit of the power that comes with simplicity, consequently making the band’s authenticity a little bit harder to find.
The record opens up on with a song entitled “Poison”, featuring chugging punk guitar riffs, Ragen’s growling vocals, and righteous and combative lyrics that remind listeners of their hardcore roots almost as much as their sound does. When Ragen sings, “I could waste myself with politics, drown myself with wine, / Confine myself to solitude or inject poison into my mind”, we all know that he is positioning himself against those things so that he can associate them with the apathetic masses that Ragen uses for a straw man. “The End of the Line” fares much better, led by frenetic drums, winding guitars and vocal harmonics that recall both Diary-era Sunny Day Real Estate and Bad Religion. Unfortunately, the melody winds down too quickly and ends up falling into sluggishness towards the end of the song.
The band picks up a bit of speed with “All Heads Down” a hook-driven crowd-pleaser with a buoyant single-note guitar lead that culminates in a chorus that almost crosses the line into metal with its raw intensity. The fifth track, “Under Everything”, is similarly spirited, but veers into a different area altogether. Ragen’s emotive singing and jangly guitars cause the song to bear an eerie but uncanny resemblance to U2. This near-ballad arrangement carries over to the next song “There Are Already Roses”, a death-themed number with a catchy chorus and an impressively polished guitar solo halfway through. The next song, “Keep it Together”, makes good use of the band’s penchant for combining a number of different tempos in an almost orchestral arrangement. The song builds steam quickly, opening with a shimmer of cymbals and guitars, but just as the sounds begin to converge, they break down around the jagged rhythms of Ragen’s vocals. Another high point comes just before the album’s close with second-to-last song “This Early Grave”, a bizarre yet invigorating tune book-ended by Chris Willard’s virtuosic guitar playing.
Given the fact that fans of post-hardcore outfits like Hot Water Music tend to be as dedicated to consistency as the bands they love, The New What’s Next is sure to please them despite its shortcomings. This is not an entirely bad prospect. After all, what the record lacks in innovation, it makes up for in obvious enthusiasm, muted as it may be at times. If, as Regan said, what matters to the band and their fans most is the fact that they have “stayed honest”, then the record can be called a success no matter what this cranky rock critic, or anyone else says about it.