Jeff Rosenstock has been a DIY-er since the late 1990s. During that time, he fronted two cult ska bands called the Arrogant Sons of Bitches and Bomb the Music Industry! before releasing solo material under his name. His work has been prolific, producing dozens of punk records, solidifying him as a kind of gatekeeper to the genre. Usually one to DIY the recordings, his latest solo release, HELLMODE, gets a proper studio treatment. His chaotic blend of pop-punk, punk, and ska gets a studio polish that harkens back to the mainstream punk that ruled the early 2000s. Out of his tireless discography, HELLMODE stands to be his most illustrious album to date.
Early in his solo career, Rosenstock was known to use primitive laptop microphones to record. For his fourth album, the frontman and his crew of frequent collaborators recorded at the legendary EastWest Studios in Hollywood, Studio 2, where System of Down recorded Toxicity and Whitney Houston recorded The Bodyguard soundtrack. Longtime collaborator and Grammy-nominated producer Jack Shirley uses the new studio tools to help produce one of the fullest-sounding records in the legendary punk’s long and fruitful career. The result is nostalgia for once-connoisseurs of SoCal pop-punk.
Though things always seem bright and sunny there, Rosenstock describes the album as a reflection of the world’s affairs today. There’s chaos–war in Ukraine, fires in Hawaii, hurricanes, social unrest, and the music on HELLMODE is just as volatile and unpredictable. In its anxiousness, there is also the stubborn theme of not wanting to grow up. You can sense the Blink 182 and Jackass aura, if not in the music, in some of the lyrics when he sings, “Will you still love me after I’ve fucked up” through a tin can microphone. HELLMODE’s gang vocal choruses will make you remember the sweaty smell at a wormy basement show. Even in 2023, Rosenstock’s teen comedy anthem amuses when he shouts, “I liked you better when you were on my mind.” It’s hard to misinterpret a track title like “FUTURE IS DUMB”.
In DIY circles, selling out is the epitome of betrayal. It means supporting capitalism and joining the enemy. When punk bands do this, there’s inevitable backlash in the community; even in some ways, it feels like their hard work should pay off (Green Day). But times have changed, and Jeff Rosenstock is not in danger. “I looked at it like, well, we’re never gonna make a major label debut record,” he says in a press release. “So what would happen if we were in the studio trying to make that kind of record?”
Rosenstock cites producers Rob Cavallo and Jerry Finn, who were tastemakers in the pop-punk and emo era, as inspiration. “I feel like in 2023, you can write an unabashedly poppy punk song, and it’s probably not gonna be on the radio anyway, so it doesn’t feel like a sellout move. We felt free to make something that just kicks as much ass as possible,” he says. With that justification, HELLMODE is pop and unapologetic.
The musical style of HELLMODE takes you back to the carefree days when being politically correct wasn’t the brunt of our anxiety. It was a time when we all clung to our youth before being forced to bear the responsibilities of being an adult. But the record also reflects the anarchy of today and the precipice the world is close to falling into. Rosenstock’s choruses are catchy, the tempos are fast, and it’s an impressive proper studio performance. But does it go the length to be called anything groundbreaking? Not so much. But that’s not the point. Rosenstock has been doing this for a long time; experience goes a long way. For what it’s worth, he’s really good at what he does.