It's been a long time coming, but once the "whoa-ohs" in the chorus of opener "Mainline" kick in, any doubts that it would be worth the wait are silenced. After teasing fans with a mouthwatering two-song seven-inch late last year, Hot Water Music has finally dropped Exister, the group's first full-length album in eight years. It's a record that touches on the many phases of the band's career to date without feeling like a retread of past glories, and it's a record that the band should be proud of.
While this writer has always been a bigger fan of Chris Wollard's deep yet melodic vocals than that of his more gravelly counterpart, I have to hand it to Mr. Ragan; he absolutely kills it on this album. While it would be an understandable assumption that his country/folk solo career would influence his work in Hot Water Music, that is clearly not the case. He brings the ruckus full-force on tracks like the aforementioned "Mainline," as well as closer "Paid In Full" and standout/first single "State of Grace."
Which is not to say that Wollard doesn't shine on Exister as well, because he does. Songs like "Drown In It," "Safety" and "Wrong Way" are all excellent continuations of the sound he presented on The New What Next, and further developed with 2/3 of his band mates in the Draft. He adopts a more restrained vocal approach for most of the record, and it's effective, but it would be nice, even just once or twice, to hear him belt it out like he did on "It's Hard to Know" or "220 Years."
Hot Water Music has long had one of the best rhythm sections in punk rock, and their contributions on Exister cannot be overstated. Jason Black's bass fills on "Drag My Body" and "Pledge Wore Thin" are nothing short of mindblowing. It's also great to hear George Rebelo playing some more complex beats after his fairly standard rock drumming performance on Against Me!'s White Crosses.
Working out of the famed Blasting Room in Fort Collin, Colo., Bill Stevenson has provided Hot Water Music with the slickest sounding record of their career, and arguably the slickest of his own production career as well. The songs on Exister sound huge, they're ambitious and the production suits them perfectly. It allows the songs to "breathe," and lets the listener fully appreciate what each instrument is doing.
It's worth noting that for the first time since the Live at the Hardback LP the band has opted to utilize someone other than artist Scott Sinclair for album cover duties. That someone is Richard "HORSEBITES" Minino, and the album art is a departure from his usual style as well as the band's past aesthetic.
Even though it's been nearly a decade since their last proper full-length, Hot Water Music haven't missed a beat. This is an example of a band where every member is an essential piece of the puzzle, and all four members are on top of their game. The musicianship is sharp, the songwriting is filled to the brim with hooks, the production only serves to highlight the performances. This may not the group's best album (Message board junkies still haven't come to a consensus on what is), but it's a solid record front to back with moments of greatness, and it's hard to imagine anyone who was on board for the band's Epitaph years not enjoying Exister.