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02. Boy, You're Gonna Hurt Someone
03. State of Grace
04. Down in It
05. Drag My Body
08. Wrong Way
09. Take No Prisoners
10. Pledge Wore Thin
11. No End Left in Sight
12. The Traps
13. Paid in Full
It really shouldn't be any sort of surprise that Hot Water Music barely miss a beat on their first studio album in nearly eight years. While the members of post-hardcore's most celebrated act laid the Bukowski-cribbing name to rest for several years, they all stayed busy: Vocalist/guitarist Chuck Ragan released scores of material under his own name, developing a dedicated cult following in the process; other vocalist/guitarist Chris Wollard formed the alternative-flavored Ship Thieves; bassist Jason Black joined (and remains in) Senses Fail over at the other end of the post-hardcore spectrum; and drummer George Rebelo did a stint in another of punk's beloved, Against Me!. Everyone but Ragan knocked out that solid record under the Draft, too, of course. It's not as though they disappeared from music—they were as prominent and active as possible. Exister, then, is predictably great in more than enough ways to satisfy.
While last year's The Fire, The Steel, The Tread / Adds Up to Nothing 7" was a great, teasing return, it arguably sounded closer to a Chuck Ragan/the Draft split than a pair of brand new Hot Water Music songs. Thankfully, Exister solves this minor crisis. It sounds far more collaborative, and that makes sense: Where the single was the result of sharing song ideas both written and recorded across the country and patching them together, the band were physically together in Blasting Room Studios recording Exister. And it shows, with a muscular, rock-driven sound bearing a different twist on the band's smart dynamics for all of Exister's very fast-moving 38 minutes.
Of course, then, Exister is more for the fan of the Epitaph years than the earlier, rawer records on Toybox, Doghouse and Some. Two adjectives that could have always been applied to the band—"catchy" and "rock"—are in greater effect here than ever. Hell, Exister seems to skew far closer to Foo Fighters than Fugazi ("Wrong Way" is the best song missing from Billboard's rock charts). And while it does seem to forgo the Leatherface-based roughness of the band's pre-Epitaph work, as well as leave behind the darkly brilliant, brooding restraint of 2004's The New What Next, it's an enjoyable compromise.
Exister might be HWM at their most immediate (check out the urgency of the title track and its barking call-and-response chorus, as well as Ragan's darker bite for leave-you-wanting-more closer "Paid in Full"), but there are plenty of subtleties: Wollard's understated snarl in the verses of "Boy, You're Gonna Hurt Someone"; the nimble riffs of "Drag My Body"; and Black's noticeably steady rhythmic basslines in "Drown in It" and "Take No Prisoners," and impressively complex work in "Drag My Body" are just a few examples. And if anyone is concerned that a reunion record such as Exister may not carry HWM's signature passion and intensity, their fears should be absolved quickly—perhaps the most evident display being Ragan's completely free and loose, raspy catharsis in the bridge of "Drag My Body."
Bottom line: Exister's title not only proves an obvious clue to Hot Water Music's status—it affirms they're in one of their finest forms as ever.