I could easily introduce Hot Water Music as one of my favourite bands, and the one that changed my attitude to a rock world full of high-pitched whiny brats. Their first proper record, Fuel For The Hate Game is raw, powerful, and a fantastic exponent of dual guitars rather than the more familiar rhythm-and-lead combination that we’re all familiar with, and that these chaps eventually succumbed to, to an extent. Whilst the band went on to produce a number of good records, there were naturally relative highs and lows, and the bands swansong (at the time) The New What Next was a major disappointment for me, and the least impressive in their canon.
I can think of at least five records the band put out that are better than A Flight And A Crash. Perhaps all of them, besides that final outing. Whilst the band still kept ties to their local No Idea Records, their first four proper full lengths had each been released on a different label. This fourth record was their first on Epitaph, that increasingly questionable flagship for punk-related genres. At the time, Hot Water Music were one of the least dubious acquisitions, having released No Division in 1999, a positive record that made them the rougher, tougher brother of frequent tourmates (and then labelmates on Epitaph) The Bouncing Souls. However, it’s pretty clear that the band were experimenting with new sounds, and it also appears that the experiments hadn’t led to a clear direction by the time this album was released, and the fruit borne from this work wasn’t shown until Caution the following year.
The vibes of hope and good faith seem to have evaporated, A Flight And A Crash sounds like the band had been betrayed by all the friends from No Division at times. Well, at least the vocals and guitars, George Rebelo’s drums are as composed as ever, and Jason Black’s bass doesn’t stray too far. “A Flight And A Crash” sees singing guitarist Chris Wollard tell a tale of just that. The immediate guitars bludgeon as aggressively as anything HWM put on an album, only “Free Radio Gainesville” and “Three Summers Strong” really come close (songs on singles and splits like “You Can Take The Boy Out Of Bradenton” and “Elektra” take the biscuit though). The onslaught doesn’t relent. While the vocal tones do contain leitmotifs, there isn’t a chorus as such, and even the brief input of some backing vocals doesn’t throw it off track. The title track isn’t designed to do anything other than rock. It really does, and it’s been a popular choice for opening up the band’s live set since the album was punched out in 2001. “Jack Of All Trades” takes the foot off the pedal a bit, but you don’t really notice it. The guitars are a little more forgiving and the opening riff and outro are quite subdued. However, although Wollard delivered the opener with some real gusto, Chuck Ragan’s unforgiving rasp leaves everything in its path left buried balls-deep in gravel, and he’s not even singing as brutally as on older records. Every time the song threatens to slow down, it picks right back up again, until it actually ends. Maybe not in the same direct way, but it’s another fist-pumping rocker.
So many of these albums that fall into the “not their greatest work but not all that bad” pit have a weak track early on, and it’s usually the second one. This one saves it until the third track, though. “Paper Thin” isn’t a grossly terrible track, but it’s just not right. Some of the guitar work and the chorus sound more like Sham 69 than Hot Water Music, and the chorus lyrics are pretty annoying, too. Wollard does occasionally impersonate himself, which makes the song sound more experimental than an Oi! tribute and keeps the track loosely involved with the album.
Many will be confused at this point. We have a song called “Instrumental”. It has lyrics though, and they’re not about instruments, instrumentals, or measuring things. If you were smart like me and picked up the Never Ender compilation with the bonus disc of demos, you’ll have noticed that the first track, titled “New Instrumental”, is in fact this song in instrumental form. One could extrapolate that words were added later and the title just wasn’t really changed. Almost as brutal as the title track, and even shorter, being the band’s briefest at just ninety-eight seconds, it’s a real smack in the face following the benign “Paper Thin”. It’s sung in duet fashion throughout save for a Ragan half-line, and sounds lyrically like it could be the result of the song being co-written. “Swinger” was presumably titled after the bassline rather than anything else in the song. Black’s given us a few funky riffs in his time, but nothing HWM put out is quite as danceable as the first half of this song. Damned if I didn't shake my fat arse around when I saw these guys play this in London in June 2010. The guitars do a lot of jangling above it. It doesn’t quite sound like your typical four-piece indie-rock song (why are those bands called indie or indie-rock anyway? They’re all on major labels rolling in dough), but the combination of the arrangement and a more laid-back Wollard wail do take it in that direction. The song changes direction halfway through, Ragan’s morose backing vocals kick in and the music gradually descends into a din, starting off a small series of songs that seem to end this way.
Ragan’s muffled guttural bellowing starts “A Clear Line”, and for the most part it’s quite boring. Defiant, positive lyrics are delivered unconvincingly to an even less convincing soundtrack. The attempted harder-shouting bit comes near the end, misses the mark, and gives way to some distorted guitar for another bland end. “Choked And Separated” brightens things up a little, despite beginning with a rare Wollard roar. It doesn’t carry any positive message of hope, but it meanders through different moods for the minute and a half that makes up the song itself. Two more minutes of outro music that fades into a wall of noise and overlapping tape loops, but with some layered vocals, it’s much more interesting than “A Clear Line”.
Ragan brings a more familiar song structure back with three songs in a row, beginning with “Old Rules”. The guitar riffs seem a bit messy, but on the whole it’s crisp and energetic, which is what the album needed. The song also evolves a fair bit in less than three minutes of existence, nothing sounds too protracted. The lyrics are both written and delivered in a more convincing style reminiscent of previous records, but the defiance fades and the moody “Sons And Daughters” cruises in. Sullen verses sandwich a more aggressive chorus, but it isn’t the beefy chorus that’s of interest here, nor the sandwiches. The riffs in the instrumental section are decent enough but do seem to go on a bit, and the ending is a little bland. “Sons And Daughters” is one of those songs that start off well but fails to blow you away, but you’re left fairly satisfied anyway because what has been different about it has worked out alright. A stop-start bass riff leads “Sunday Suit”. Think “Difference Engine” given a shot of adrenaline and two doses of Prozac. The song’s quite bouncy for the most part, and although the song’s a bit hit-and-miss with moodswings and stop-starts, it’s quite enjoyable.
Wollard follows up with a pair of his own, bringing the slowest and fastest tracks to the table. “She Takes It So Well” features a more minimal instrumentation from the more familiar instruments in the band, and the inclusion of a piano and the sound of a guitar pick on strings in the mix make the downbeat track a rather disorienting affair. It’s not a bad song, but it doesn’t really feel like it belongs on the album, despite the loose boundaries afforded. The same could almost be said of “One More Time”, with its demonic surf guitar rapidfiring all over the place. The rhythm guitar chords and chorus keep things in check enough, but the two songs don’t stack up to some of Wollard’s contributions to the first half of the album, and as the last two songs aren’t identifiably his, there’s no chance of a turnaround.
Some eerie reversed guitar, or something weird, buzzes in, but don’t worry. Carrying on in the same vein as “Swinger” and “Sons And Daughters” but a class above, “In The Gray” is a great song that veers more towards adult alt-rock than the brand of punk and hardcore-infused rock that Hot Water Music fans are familiar with. The stop-starts seem to be in all the right places between the ringing and jangling riffs, and Ragan provides some particularly haunting vocals. It’s one of the few songs on A Flight And A Crash where most of the ingredients seem to have worked. Some dual vocals halfway through signal that the song will be going into shutdown mode at this point like several songs before, but the song finishes on a relative high. My only gripe would be that the riff is faded out rather than the song being given a proper compositional ending, which bugs me in all forms of rock (ZZ Top’s Greatest Hits is an absolute nightmare for that, I think only two tracks on there actually have an ending), but the song’s good enough to be forgiven. “Call It Trashing” tries to end the song on a more powerful note. It goes about this by pointing fingers at the generic posers in the rock world. It’s not the worst track on the record by any means, but it lacks any real bite. The brief dual vocals don’t really work, and although the trading verses and call and response bits are a nice idea, this is one of the few vocal performances on the record where Wollard actually needed some more grit, and he didn’t come up with it.
Vinyl-only bonus track, and you know how I love bonus tracks. The band released the vinyl versions of their ‘00s albums on their old No Idea Records, and I presume the bonus track is one of those loyalty things. The bonus track is available on the Till The Wheels Fall Off compilation, so don’t fret if you’re not partial to wax. “So Many Days” is quite slow and relaxed, with a grooving bass. It’s nothing supreme, but it’s fairly lighthearted and would have broken up the middle section of the album quite nicely.
A Flight And A Crash is more than just that experimental album that Hot Water Music made that was such a racket that it split the head of Scott Sinclair's loose-limbed chap on the front cover. There are snippets of top HWM material in amongst the din, and it also has the distinction of Wollard often singing in a consistently rougher style and Ragan frequently smoothing the edges off of his own voice. There is a heck of a lot to latch onto if you’re looking for it, which is why this album is still pretty damned good despite not even being in the better half of the band’s catalogue.
Personal picks: Jack Of All Trades, In The Gray, A Flight And A Crash
Picks for others: Swinger, Old Rules, In The Gray
Relative weaknesses: Paper Thin, A Clear Line
01 – A Flight And A Crash
02 – Jack Of All Trades
03 – Paper Thin
04 – Instrumental
05 – Swinger
06 – A Clear Line
07 – Choked And Separated
08 – Old Rules
09 – Sons And Daughters
10 – Sunday Suit
11 – She Takes It So Well
12 – One More Time
13 – In The Gray
14 – Call It Trashing
Vinyl bonus track
15 – So Many Days