[9 January 2003]
As musical genres go, few are more limiting than hardcore punk rock. After all, there’s only so much that you can do with three chords and a breakdown. Given its limitations, the style works best when crammed into 90 second spasms of fury, thrashing about like a fish clinging for life on a cutting board. When done properly, a good hardcore band can make those 90 seconds seem like the most vital you’ve ever experienced. Ninety beautiful seconds when, as the listener, you believe anything is possible and that you are not alone in the world. However, hardcores stylistic limitations are also their own worst enemy. Most hardcore bands flame out after a record or two simply because they find themselves writing the same song over and over again. There are some variations: add a little melody to pop punk and you’ve got emo, add some double bass and D chords and you’ve got metal-core—unfortunately both seem to do little more than drain hardcore of its vitality. When hardcore bands eschew those paths, it is usually because they are attempting to expand their sound, but often end up playing bad alternative rock. There are some exceptions, Fugazi and Quicksand being two, when bands are able to expand upon their hardcore foundation with a sound that is both innovative and invigorating. However, too often bands cannot escape hardcore’s trappings and once the sense of purpose is gone, so is the flame that once kept the bands burning.
Hailing from Gainesville, Florida, Hot Water Music seemed poised to join the ranks of bands able to successfully transition hardcore into something else. It has been nearly 10 years since Hot Water Music first ventured out of Florida, like bootleggers running hooch up North, spreading their secret hardcore brew. Being one of the first bands to come from Florida there was something about them that made them seem more precious than your average suburban hardcore band. Between the gruff, pirate vocals and the driving guitars that managed to combine the emotive riffs of Jawbreaker with the fury and energy of Dag Nasty, Hot Water Music rose to the top of the hardcore pyramid. In 1996, Fuel for the Hate Game was delivered with an exclamation point, and the word about Florida’s burgeoning punk scene was out. However, thanks to limited distribution, Hot Water Music was still a mystery to most of the scene. They were the band that all the zines raved about and all the cool kids at the shows wore their patches, yet judging by record sales, it was impossible for more than a couple thousand to have actually heard them. All that changed in 1997 when the band released Forever and Counting on Doghouse Records. The record was somewhat lost amidst the emo explosion led by labelmates The Get Up Kids, however those who were paying attention witnessed HWM expand on their sound,delivering classics like “Just Don’t Say You Lost It” and “Three Summers Strong”. With Doghouse behind them, the word was out and HWM was no longer just for the “in-kids” but a band whose cathartic live shows were enjoyed by many.
And then they broke up. Right after No Idea released Live at the Hardback, a testament to the band’s incredible live show, Hot Water Music called it quits. Unfortunately, most people involved in the punk/hardcore scene were used to the best bands breaking up just as they were reaching the heights of their prowess. Furthermore, while Forever and Counting was a fantastic record, it was more an extension of Fuel for the Hate Game than anything else. The band had perfected their sound, but they had failed to take it to any new heights, fenced by the limitations of the thrash and burn of punk rock. Then, before the string of posthumous releases could seize the market, Hot Water Music did something few bands do, they reformed and started writing an album that would exceed all previous efforts. No Division, released by Some Records, was a magnificent testament to what a punk rock band could do if they kept both ears on expanding their sound, but both feet planted in their roots. The songs were longer, more thought out, and, under the careful guidance of producer Walter Schreiffels, the quartet of Chuck Ragan, Chris Wollard, George Rebelo, and Jason Black had finally escaped hardcore’s limitations. On “At the End of Gun”, the band used a steel guitar, further flexing their newfound music muscle. While most hardcore albums swirl together into 20 minute bursts, every track on No Division stood out. For one album, Hot Water Music managed to pull off the rare feat of maintaining the energy and politics of punk while embracing a thoroughly rock and roll sound.
Unfortunately, Hot Water Music, having touched the summit, do not seem fated to stay there. The year 2001 brought about a new label, Epitaph, and a new album, A Flight and a Crash. And, although the band would now benefit from never-seen before (at least by them) label support, the record was flat as HWM seemed to regress to pre-No Division form. Gone were the experimentation and intracite songwriting, in its place were songs that failed to distinguish themselves from each other. Recently, HWM produced their follow up, and second album on Epitaph, Caution. The band seems to still be spinning their tires, not heading forward and in danger of slipping backwards.
“Remedy” starts Caution off with a shot of adrenalin that burns like whiskey on an empty stomach. The seared vocals, choppy guitars, and pounding rhythm section are prime mosh pit material that few bands can pull off with such ease. “Trusty Chords” follows with a look at the life of the punk rock band always on the road, but fails to deliver the gut punch that older songs like “Our Own Way” or “Alchua” had. After that, the band chugs along like an old locomotive that knows it route all too well, that is to say there’s little variation until the ninth track “All Right For Now”. On No Division the band confidently soared above the trappings of hardcore, on Caution they seem suddenly unsure of how to proceed. Will they continue down the more daring path, at the chance that they may completely leave hardcore in their dirty rearview mirror? Or will they play it safe by playing mid-tempo hardcore tracks that come complete with a built in audience? Hot Water Music were once a band capable of displaying all that a dedicated underground hardcore punk band could do. It is about time they did it again.