When Hot Water Music’s debut, Finding The Rhythms, came out in 1995, it already sounded familiar. On one hand, the Florida quartet drew from Jawbreaker, Leatherface, and other gruff pop-punk bands of the era; on the other, HWM amplified its simple songs with the wiry, post-hardcore dynamics of Fugazi. That formula became a huge influence on the mainstream emo of the ’00s, and with that wave mostly past, a new generation of gritty-yet-catchy punk groups have picked up HWM’s torch. HWM itself, though, hasn’t released an album since 2004’s solid The New What Next. Singer-guitarist Chuck Ragan has been concentrating on a folkie solo career, and the remaining members teamed up in the short-lived, Foo Fighters-leaning The Draft. Exister is HWM’s comeback—and while it sticks to the familiar elements that made the band so beloved in the first place, it finds far less inspiration in them.
Exister’s lack of spark isn’t immediately obvious. In fact, the opening riff of “Mainline” kicks in like an ornery mule. The problem is, Ragan sings it like an ornery mule, too. The last eight years he’s spent as a rootsy troubadour have aged his voice, which sounded grizzled 18 years ago; now, he sounds out of place when played off of HWM’s latent angularity (and in particular, Jason Black’s bubbly, almost funky bass, which has never sounded less suited to an HWM song). “Drown In It” is as dour as its title would indicate, a minor-key dirge with a vague, hungover, Social Distortion vibe—but in the worst sense. Singer-guitarist Chris Wollard—always more melodic than Ragan—no longer take advantage of his and Ragan’s once-thrilling interplay, either vocally or instrumentally; “Wrong Way” is as close as they come, but even that promising song quickly fizzles into a drab slog of busy yet aimless angst.
A handful of tracks manage to convey some sense of energy and urgency. Few of them, though, rustle up the dark hooks that used to be HWM’s greatest strength. “State Of Grace,” “Safety,” and “The Traps” are the closest to vintage HWM anthems that Exister can muster. But even then, they feel flat and forced. It’s telling that one of the disc’s best songs, “Pledge Wore Thin,” barely sounds like HWM at all; instead, it owes a huge debt to the group’s friends in The Gaslight Anthem. As much as Gaslight is partially influenced by HWM, though, the younger group’s ringing, rousing Springsteen-isms sound downright corny when appropriated by Ragan and crew. Added to Exister’s overall lack of luster, it helps make for a confused, conflicted, and muddy album—one that, as its name implies, seems far too content with the simple fact that it exists.