Within pop-rock, Hot Milk feel like an important band, and have done from the start. From their very first single, they’ve been the ones to beat when it comes to grasping a dichotomy between alt-pop slickness and keeping a foot in the door of rock music, and that’s been reinforced with every subsequent song they’ve released. Not album, song; in terms of a body of work, Hot Milk’s discography of releases features one EP and a handful of standalones, and the fact they’ve continued to build presence and profile across a selection that sparse says mountains about where this band are going creatively. Hell, that shift that they’ve so concisely made can basically be tracked in real time, given how the lighter, relationship-focused material of their Are You Feeling Alive? EP has effectively been thrown aside for the more charged and viscerally conscious material that’s proliferated in their singles over the past year-and-a-half. And so, going into I Just Wanna Know What Happens When I’m Dead, it feels like a release propped up by the entirety of what Hot Milk have morphed into; ignoring the preceding standalone singles is to ignore the context for where the band are going, and ultimately feels counterintuitive to Hot Milk’s overall plan as a band. Of course, having it stand on its own is still important, but there’s also been over 18 months of buildup and real-time metamorphosis for what effectively feels like the first truly definitive turning point of Hot Milk’s career so far.
And when viewed through that lens, the impact that I Just Wanna Know… has within Hot Milk’s catalogue does feel heightened considerably. This isn’t quite as vibrant or immediate as their debut was, but for a band looking to simultaneously broaden their horizons and double down on the gritted teeth that feel necessary for even the poppiest of acts these days, this is probably as good as that next step gets. For a band who’ve never made a misstep in their entire run to date—again, that in the realm of songs, too—this is probably their most definitive statement yet, both lyrically and in the sense that Hot Milk are abiding by no one’s creative path other than their own. Going on the basis of ‘normal’ career progressions, pop-rock and alt-pop doesn’t lean into this side of itself so fervently all that often, and the results when Hot Milk do it are suitably exciting as a result.
Though granted, there is a certain grading curve in which ‘excitement’ can be measured on in this case. Hot Milk are still a very sharp and precise band in the most modern of ways, and that brings with it a certain number of expectations and concessions that haven’t totally been shaken off yet. That can generally be attributed to the fact that Hot Milk are, indeed, a modern pop-rock band, and the typically maximalist style of production that brings to bear doesn’t allow much room for basslines of significant groove. To be fair though, it’s not like Hot Milk don’t have their workarounds, where the melodies are so pronounced and a newfound focus on making the guitars a bit more serrated will do enough to pull them up regardless. Finding melody has never been a problem for this band, nor is it here; outside of Woozy which takes a while to get going and feels a little hollow compositionally as a result, Hot Milk’s batting average remains pretty much uninhibited once again, where the title track and I Think I Hate Myself bring that arena-rock grandeur in terms of chorus slams, while The Good Life brings back a more obviously poppy bounce, and Split Personality dips into some harsher edges and darker tones. Hot Milk have always been good at playing in that pool where other pop-rock might falter, and on I Just Wanna Know…, they really shine with that element, in a sound that feels a bit crunchier and more indebted to alt-rock overall. There isn’t the same impression of being regimented into a neat box that a lot of other pop-rock gives off; instead, Hot Milk lean more on that creative fluidity and agency, and the music they make feels more powerful for it.
That’s amplified by the tension that regularly comes from this band’s work, especially lately, and just how far Hot Milk are pushing themselves to make that such a recognisable part of their sound. On their debut, it was more peripheral than anything, but this is a far hungrier, angrier band, caught between the twin hells of mental exhaustion and capitalistic oppression, where both feed into each other for a vicious cycle of being beaten down over and over again. It comes from a confluence of factors that just work so well together, in writing that’s far sharper and more intelligently drafted than many will likely give it credit for, and also in the layering and subtexts that push it over the top into greatness within their camp. A big part of that comes from how vocally capable both Han Mee and Jim Shaw are for what’s demanded of them, in bringing a blend of anger, ennui and uncertainty that, when played to their right tones on I Think I Hate Myself and Split Personality, can have some real resonance to it. There’s also the reckless, eternally-barrelling-forward mindset held on the title track and The Good Life, which feels neither hedonistic nor nihilistic, but the sort of dejected measure needed to just feel something that both vocalists pull off effortlessly. As an assemblage of factors looking to make a single-minded point, I Just Wanna Know… is remarkably tight on all fronts, pulled off with the dedication of a band looking to surge forward with as much power as possible.
That’s the sort of obvious tell that a band destined for special things gives off, where, on their second ever EP, they’re making real, legitimate moves that feel career-defining for themselves. There’s still room for growth (most likely when they get round to a full album), but the distances that Hot Milk have already gone when it comes to establishing themselves as a noteworthy presence in new British music is staggering, and an EP like this is only drilling down those notions even further. It really is great stuff, where any of the pop-rock shackles of old feel well and truly sloughed off, and reveals a bold, brash new persona that fits this band ridiculously well. Even with being primed to be one of the top-tier acts of the new school, I Just Wanna Know… solidifies that idea to a point of near immobility, where Hot Milk’s throne is effectively theirs for the taking. Judging by their track record, they’ll have it for a pretty long time too.
For fans of: As It Is, Stand Atlantic, Saint Agnes
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘I Just Wanna Know What Happens When I’m Dead’ by Hot Milk is released on 10th September on Music For Nations.