Squeezing past someone smelling of eggs and opener Gladie front woman Augusta Koch, I wait with a sold-out Tuesday night crowd for DIY punk icon Jeff Rosenstock.
His beat-up Vox amplifier sits in front of a creatively customized pride flag and is adorned with peeling white duct tape letters spelling out "HELLMODE" – the title of his latest and best album yet. "HELLMODE" is a fiery, pre-apocalyptic escape plan, a collection of vignettes written during COVID-19 and California wildfires, facing the end of the world with cathartic joy and rage.
The album was recorded at EastWest studios, the birthplace of legendary records like The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ "Californication". "HELLMODE", however, successfully dodges all the traps of big-budget studio rock, such as that inexplicable temptation towards follies like puréed EDM-rock with a rap feature (sorry, Fall Out Boy).
Rosenstock’s songs on this record are radically lean, prioritizing tight structure and explosive hooks over heavy-handed arrangement. As a result, "HELLMODE" was the most fun I’ve had listening to a Rosenstock record in a long time – it is unpretentious, unpredictable and wildly catchy.
Death Rosenstock, his acclaimed backing band, perform at the speed of light for their first show back in Richmond since 2016, balancing crushing buildups on bangers like “FUTURE IS DUMB” with critical delicacy for tender moments on “HEALMODE.”
Halfway through the show, however, Rosenstock’s veteran pedalboard malfunctions, abruptly cutting off his guitar.
Before awkward silence swallows the crowd, Rosenstock discards his pedalboard and plugs his guitar directly into that Vox AC20 amp, turning it up and launching directly into the next song, shooting crunchy tones into rafters, igniting mosh pits throughout. Standing on a riser at The Broadberry atop a sea of outstretched hands, one of them mine, Rosenstock asks us to “speak, even if it feels weird [...] to be yourself.” We scream.
Throughout "HELLMODE", Rosenstock tackles police brutality, broken government systems, classism and consumerism, but he also laments the overwhelming weight of trying to fight all the bad all the time, asking “If I can’t help myself from freaking out, how am I gonna live?”
This is a question we’ve all asked ourselves at one point within the past few years or another, but Rosenstock also has an answer: untethering. In the lovely “GRAVEYARD SONG,” battling social media doom scrolling and self-doubt, he details the importance of building a “graveyard for the things that need to die.” This to Rosenstock means leaving behind unhelpful connections and accepting the lack of meaning inherent in the human experience, practicing necessary nihilism as fuel for self-growth. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at this heavy existentialism, as there is much more to Rosenstock than meets the ear - he’s recently received an Emmy nomination for his work scoring the Cartoon Network show Craig of the Creek, he is founder of the first donation-based record label (Quote Unquote Records) and he’s an outspoken advocate for musicians everywhere.
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This depth is on full display on “HEALMODE,” Rosenstock’s most vulnerable song, where lyrics about California rain are mirrored by warm synths and soundscapes that remind me of raindrops on window screens. In between songs, he tells us a story about a vandalized “Virginia is for Music Lovers” sticker outside of The Broadberry.
“Someone changed it to ‘Virginia is for music losers,” Rosenstock laughed. “And I want to shout out whoever did that, because that’s exactly who we are - a bunch of music losers.” A music loser like Jeff Rosenstock is exactly the best kind to be, and Richmond was lucky to witness HELLMODE.
Contact WDCE Music Director Toby Tate at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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