I hadn’t seen Hot Water Music in over a decade. The melodic (post-)hardcore foursome took an eight-year “hiatus” in 2006, and I never really expected to see them again. Truth is, before this month, I can’t even remember listening to HMW in the last five years. But, when I heard the band was touring to support a new album (titled Exister), I couldn’t suppress the excitement of that intense, anxiety-ridden 15-year-old—still buried deep inside me—with baggy, fraying jeans, hoodie covered in safety-pinned patches, and a greenish-yellow copy of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” tucked under one arm. Thirty seconds after receiving the news of the HWM show, I was already pecking out an email, ready to beg BYT for a press pass, if necessary. At the same time, I wasn’t even sure that I would enjoy the show.
I wasn’t crushed when the band broke up. The band peaked early with two definitive albums Fuel for the Hate Game and Forever and Counting, both in 1997. For me, these albums were seminal because they transcended the simple, hook-heavy punk and hardcore that played the venues I frequented in Pittsburgh—and, being an extraordinarily hardworking band, HWM managed to land in Pittsburgh several times a year. These early albums stood out for two reasons: 1.) The hooks were catchy without being facile. They made you want to sing and chant without leaving you feeling embarrassingly conformist (as was the case with most hardcore music). 2.) The songs would freely veered off into vast fields of distortion with Black’s meandering bass lines slowly winding a path back to the chorus or conclusion of a song—like a slightly shoegazey Fugazi that resolves into something that sounds like neither. “Blackjaw” is probably the best example of this style (also, “Trademark,” “Just Don’t Say You Lost It,” “Manual,” and the intro to “Minno”).
At its best, HWM is a bass (Jason Black) and drums (George Rebelo) band with melodic guitar fuzz and intermittent exchanges between the two lead singers, Chuck Ragan and Chris Wollard. This formula certainly carries through to No Division (1999), which was, undoubtedly, HWM’s most experimental album, opening with a chant by radical cheerleaders, fading at times into Latin percussion, and toying with distorted vocals.
The thing is, as a kid, I didn’t just listen to Hot Water Music obsessively; I wanted to be Hot Water Music. Like innumerable other privileged suburban kids, frustrated with the lack of art and in grit in the plastic land of housing plans and retail chains, I turned to making music as a way of biding time until adulthood offered an escape path. When I first started playing, the music was as much about grasping for some sense of identity as it was about, well, music. I formed and reformed countless punk bands, which often existed only symbolically, like the girlfriend/boyfriend you have yet to kiss.
Forever and Counting changed everything. It gave me (and others around me) a musical blueprint. I dropped my pick and tried to learn to play bass with my fingers, just like Black. I saved money and bought a bright Hartke head and tight, trebly speakers, so my bass could bubble like what I heard on those tracks. In retrospect, I never had the rhythm or dexterity to play like that, but the dream sustained me through four otherwise bleak years of high school anxiety and depression.
I still remember the kinds of obscure details that one absorbs through years of idol worship. For example, I vividly recall when, back in the Geocities and Angelfire days, HWM won a contest to have some professional design firm redo their website in this newfangled thing called “Flash.” The site had photo albums stretched along the bottom, and they scrolled and zoomed when you moused over them. For a two-year period, HWM’s site was a glimpse into the future of the Internet.
I also remember reading the potentially devastating news that Ragan had leaned back on a wine glass while having a lakeside picnic with his girlfriend. Rumors spread that the damage to his tendons were irreparable. Was this the end? Turns out he would recover in only five months.
I marveled at the rough abstract figures painted on each of HWM’s album covers. And, I remember deciding that, one day, I would track down their album artist, Scott Sinclair, and ask him design me a tattoo. I settled for stalking Sinclair on MySpace.
(Though, Scott, if you’re out there, I’m still game.)
As the band matured, their songs, ironically, became less sophisticated, turning to the kinds of familiar and predictable structures that get fists pumping but no longer seem to be blazing new ground in a tired genre. For example, the chorus of their popular track “Wayfarer” from Caution (2002), sounds almost like a caricature of the hardcore genre that they had transcended in their earlier career. While the songs styles vary on HWM’s to most recent albums, they are generally more stripped-down and deliberate than the earlier albums (as is evident with the “Mainline,” the opening track on Exister). Later albums also gradually moved farther away from the intertwined vocals that made the early albums so distinct; instead, the newer songs tend to focus more on one or the other vocalist in isolation, with some backup vocals for texture.
In 2001, the band signed with West Coast indie super-label Epitaph Records (who packaged and sold punk rock to the masses via its Punk-O-Rama samplers before Hot Topic was even a glimmer in eyes of its corporate overlords). A Flight and a Crash (2001) and Caution still had several solid songs that echoed the best aspects of their early records. Lyrically, these may have been their best records. Caution opens with a snappy poetic track called “Remedy,” and “Paper Thin,” a moving ballad on A Flight and a Crash, recounts the sense of helplessness that the singer experienced while waiting to find out if a loved one would recover in a hospital. “She Takes it So Well” from the same album departs from their previous style in the best way possible: slowing the tempo way down and layering new ghostly and echoing guitar sounds. It is the track I wished their future
albums had taken cues from.
The New What Next, the final (2004) album before their breakup, was largely forgettable, having a certain sterility about it (probably due to being produced by some Epitaph-funded mega-studio). Moreover, HWM jettisoned Sinclair and the cover art was as ugly as it was cliché. Exister is more reminiscent of The New What Next than any of HWM’s previous albums though the songwriting is more varied. In fact, the first single, “Drag My Body” probably owes more to Bruce Springsteen than to the musical style HWM themselves developed in the 1990s.
While Tuesday’s show was in support of their new release, it was also the first opportunity for many fans to see the band in nearly a decade. They reached deep into their catalog, playing many of the classics. However, even these songs were played in the choppy, overly-deliberate style of the newer albums. The more patient, melodic spirit of the early albums now seems long gone. After a month of revisiting HWM, my feeling about their music is not unlike the way I feel about that copy of “Perks of Being a Wallflower” I used to tote around (which I also haven’t returned to since high school): Art often finds meaning in a particular moment, and once that moment is gone, I’m not sure it can be recaptured either by the artist or by the audience.
“Turnstile,” Fuel for the Hate Game
“Blackjaw,” Fuel for the Hate Game
“The Sleeping Fan,” Fuel for the Hate Game
“Better Sense,” Forever and Counting
“Minno,” Forever and Counting
“Moonpies for Misfits,” Moonpies for Misfits / Till the Wheels Fall Off
“Hit and Miss,” No Division
“Paper Thin,” A Flight and a Crash
“Sunday Suit,” A Flight and a Crash
“She Takes it So Well,” A Flight and a Crash