Album Review: SWMRS – ‘Berkeley’s On Fire’

Posted: by The Editor

The punk idealogy has, seemingly, taken many dips and dives over the years. The once personal expression that praised itself on slicing through social attitudes, refuting willful ignorance, and asking questions has become bogged down in corporate discombobulation that presents the punk subculture as a marketing ploy to garner sales and hype without following through on what made punk rock so vital to music, in the first place. The burning motivation of using music as a vessel to open conversations about societal injustice and complacency has all but been extinguished as most bands that wear the punk badge, proudly, shining it up anytime they can, use it as a simple accessory to bolster their image without actually committing to the role that they so readily emulate. So, when bands like SWMRS rise onto the scene, a punk-rock group that represents the core foundation of the subculture yet doesn’t dangle their genre in anyone’s direction that’ll listen, heads turn and people take notice. Because, SWMRS doesn’t have to pin a label to their chest to make a statement or sell records. Because, SWMRS doesn’t use punk’s name to sensationalize their brand. Because, SWMRS doesn’t intentionally place themselves under the punk-rock catalog heading. They just are. They so cooly reflect the attitude and awareness that is ingrained in punk that they, almost, effortlessly allow the label to pin itself to them instead of the other way around. In fact, with the group’s sophomore release, Berkeley’s On Fire, the badge is cast aside, defiantly -allowing SWMRS to fully give the middle finger to punk masqueraders that came before them.

 “A song for every type of person, for every mood, for whatever playlist you want, for different life situations. An album that pushes the envelope of what music can be in 2019” is typed under an Instagram post from one of the group’s main vocalists, Max Becker, as he describes the dream SWMRS had as they began writing Berkeley’s On Fire. And, he’s not wrong. With how isolated and small-framed rock has proven to be, the inflammatory masculinity that saturates it has pigeon-holed the genre -something that SWMRS has tried to dismantle since tumbling into the scene. From frontman, Cole Becker, performing, triumphantly, in dresses to wide-spread inclusivity that the group calls for, the out-spoken mindset drips into every crevice of their art. Berkeley’s On Fire only further extends that. This is reinforced with the nervy opener, “Berkeley’s On Fire,” that not only acts as inspiration taken from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964, but reflects a war-like march, itself, that leaves no questions as to SWMRS purpose for the record. They didn’t come to play, and they want to make that clear.

While their debut record, Drive North, skimmed the surface of the rowdy-rough energy the group possessed, offering a pop-rocks-like sizzle to the scene, Berkeley’s On Fire is an explosive chemical reaction that leaves residue in its wake. With anthemic tracks like “Lose, Lose Lose” that rattle about, inciting chaos from its first few seconds, it’s hard not to imagine the charge the song will have in a live setting. Even when Cole Becker cooly addresses Vladimir Putin -“Stop fucking around with my shit,” the vehemence is felt regardless of the charming mellowness of the statement.  

The heat of the record continues to glow hotter through tracks like “Hellboy” that are reminiscent of the infectious chants that settle in English rock band, Blur’s, melodies, the deep-seeded rumbling of “Lonely Ghosts,” and the laidback yet still resistive melodic undertakings that are featured on “Too Much Coffee.” Even in wavy tracks like “April in Houston” that take-on a grungier approach, the sound still burns an ember.

Yet, the blazing freshness is especially spectacular when it ties together the rough corners of SWMRS’ sound with the smooth sandings of Max Becker’s tender vocals. A highlight that was also something to take notice of on their debut, SWMRS has a stellar track-record of marrying the disparate sounds of the Becker brother’s voices. The fun-grooving “Trashbag Baby” features both singers swapping lead-vocals, seamlessly, through a dreamy musical landscape, while the acoustic-tendrils of “Bad Allergies” plays out as an elevated version of Drive North’s “Lose It,” proving to be Max Backer’s best vocal performance to date.

As an album, Berkeley’s On Fire is a powerhouse. Grafting itself together like a hodge-podge science-fair project, the record isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s not meant to be. The colors are meant to bleed, the scissor lines purposely jagged, and the information raw. It doesn’t stand out for its polished appeal. It stands out for its deconstruction. As Cole Becker stresses on “April in  Houston,” “Modern music makes me sick,” and that could be due to the cookie-cutter projects that keep bombarding the airwaves. This exhaustion of the same glossiness SWMRS hears around them, though, revved the group to new heights. Pushing back against the superficialities in modern music gave rise to a sophomore record that fully gives the band their own corner in the punk-rock scene. Berkeley’s On Fire curates everything SWMRS seems to think is missing in society’s musical climate, and they do it in a killer way. Dropping a socially conscious, inclusive, and genuinely electrifying record is something that SWMRS can praise themselves for. Berkeley’s On Fire is fun. It’s invigorating, and it definitely wins the blue-ribbon prize.

Disappointing / Average / Good / Great / Phenomenal

Hope Ankney | @hope_ankleknee

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