Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Hot Water Music - The Fire The Steel The Tread

After a triumphant return to the stage, the members of Hot Water Music got together and put out a couple of studio recordings. The first was a cover of “True Believers” by The Bouncing Souls, a song that they’d played live, which was released as a split single with that band covering “Wayfarer”. We were never going to learn too much about what the band would sound like from this 2010 release, and so it was the next year, along with promises of a 2012 full-length release, that we were treated to a new 7”/download. The first new material since the achingly disappointing The New What Next in 2004, it could have gone anywhere. Would it be a salute to the days of old? This was unlikely given the band’s personal preference for their Epitaph-era work. Would it sound like The New What Next or their previous, better Epitaph work (A Flight And A Crash and Caution)? Would it sound a bit like Chuck Ragan’s solo material, which had gone from just the vocalist/guitarist and an acoustic to a full-blown country backing band? Would it draw from the other three members’ time spent playing as The Draft, or other vocalist/guitarist Chris Wollard’s other work as head of The Ship Thieves?

Well, over the course of two songs, the answer is “most of the above”. The A-side of The Fire The Steel The Tread, which goes by that title, is a Ragan-penned piece that sounds like a country tune that’s been beefed up with electric instruments. Ragan’s voice sounds horribly withered, and every line is sung in dual to keep it up in the mix. The vocal melodies are somewhere between country and old fashioned road warrior rock (which shouldn’t be surprising given the title and lyrics). The classy rhythm section is held back, as George Rebelo’s drums are reduced to a sluggish pounding, and Jason Black’s bass is almost impossible to detect in the mix, so I don’t really know what he’s doing.

I have to confess to being disappointed. There are traces of The New What Next, and copious doses of Ragan’s solo work, which have been possibly the least effectual releases that any of the four members of Hot Water Music have been involved with in the ten years before this release. “The Fire The Steel The Tread” embodies elements of just about everything I was fearful of that might have gone wrong. I’d always typically preferred Ragan’s songs to Wollard’s. There’s just something about the classic anthems of hope from what used to be one of rock’s most coarse vocals that just made you believe that every word and every note was meant, and it’s all missing now, the chords, the lyrics, the voice. The only thing worth salvaging from this song was some of the higher-end guitar work, which barely hauls itself out of the mix.

The flipside is the contribution of Wollard, and I did not expect it to turn around my feelings of sheer dread for how bad the next full length would be, given my penchant for liking his songs less historically. Nevertheless, I gave it a spin. Lo and behold, all the best ingredients seem to have gone into “Up To Nothing”. The guitar work comes over as a blend of The Draft and Caution, the finest of Hot Water Music since signing for Epitaph. It’s catchy, infectious, and lively, and a much more animated Rebelo can be envisaged behind the drum kit. The backing vocals work a treat, the choral refrain is memorable, and Wollard’s voice hasn’t suffered anything like as much. Of course, there are flaws, but these are in the mix. Again, Black isn’t heard, and you get the feeling that the vocals could just be mixed a little better, but these are minor blemishes on a faith-restoring song.

I’ve learned better than to be optimistic about anything, and the label that the band signed with to release the new LP looks to be so packed to the rafters with emo bands that it makes Epitaph look like they’re still in their glory days of the 80s and 90s. I’m not sure what the label expects from the band, or is just happy to have the name of a well-known band on its roster. Where do No Idea Records come in this time? In a way I’m glad that the quartet is moving on slightly, and The Fire The Steel The Tread does at least hint that what’s to come will be better than The New What Next. However, the thought of Hot Water music drawing out a legacy of below par records, after such a golden first decade together, is a sad one indeed. There’s nothing here for anyone who’s only a fan of the 90s material. Even the artwork continues in the vein of the uglier Scott Sinclair art present in The New What Next, whilst also bearing a resemblance to the artwork on the singles that The Draft put out. If you like Caution or Chris Wollard, the B-side is of great value to you. Unless the band put out enough loose material to fill up a third compilation album, these tracks probably won’t see release on a proper record.

Personal pick: Up To Nothing
Pick for others: Up To Nothing
Relative weakness: The Fire The Steel The Tread

01 – The Fire The Steel The Tread
02 – Up To Nothing

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