The title track off the newest SWMRS album, Berkeley’s on Fire, paints an eponymous image none of us are going to forget. It is also one none of us would like to remember: chaos descending upon the UC Berkeley campus in the form of protests that gave way to clashes, and our reactions to it all. The Oakland-based punk band, formerly known as Emily’s Army, has a lot to say on this new release.
Yet, for as much as SWMRS laments the distorted version of events broadcast on people’s screens, the band does not waste any time getting bleak, as they acknowledge that sometimes a little havoc is merited to keep oppressive forces out. “We’ll be alright,” they assure their audience repeatedly during the chorus of “Berkeley’s On Fire,” along with frenetic guitar playing and crisp drumming. Indeed, it is one of many contradictions that create the overall frantic image behind Berkeley’s On Fire. One that has you trying to keep your head above such a sea of issues.
While this ten-track album shows that one should seek joy, it also illustrates the necessity to refuse acknowledgement of this choking sea’s power. “Trashbag Baby,” for example, has them championing for growth in one’s life that requires the removal of toxicity, whether it's present in someone close or one’s own behaviors. Regardless of where the toxicity comes from, it’s something that should be addressed. And it really speaks to the talent and strength of SWMRS through their combination of crunchy and vibrant chords. Cole and Max Becker’s back-and-forth lead vocals and straightforward but sharp lyricism show they are able to make it seem like a struggle that can be overcome without difficulty. A message that one can easily get behind.
But one should make no mistake, the breezy 35 minutes that make up this album are not at all a taxing affair. It’s safe to assume that SWMRS were more set on making an album you could beat up your problems to. For example, when the record reaches its last leg on “Hellboy,” what’s unleashed across its three minutes are waves of pure, un-distilled punk that is guaranteed to pump an unrelenting energy into any crowd. Anyone seeking to get a good workout in while constantly flashing the devil’s horns should listen to this track on replay. The power of “Lose Lose Lose” comes from its multiple explosive moments scattered throughout, which are masked by a recurring bass-line, sleek and subdued in nature. And when it comes time to slow things down, SWMRS embrace the very light and soft aspects of punk’s poppier side when they get hopeful, but also kind of melancholy on “Bad Allergies,” and the moments this cut contains are every bit as welcome as its more abrasive companions.
With this fourth studio-album under their belt, SWMRS make note of the obvious fact that bad situations can feel heavy. And the best way a punk rocker can find comfort for situations like these is through the acceptance and acknowledgment that these struggles exist. That doing something about it, or at the very least addressing them has an impact. That sometimes diving headfirst into the mosh-pit to let out every bit of bad feeling is the answer. And with the way this album presents itself, how it begins, and how it concludes, there is no shortage of such opportunities. “We’ll be alright,” to put it simply.
Jose currently resides in Boston, Massachusetts. When he is not draining his phone battery listening to his favorite artists, you can find him either at his local movie theater or holed up in his room hard at work on his creative writing MFA.