Berkeley's On Fire
Fueled by Ramen
After Oakland-based punk-rock group SWMRS signed with New York City–based record label Fueled By Ramen and released its record label debut and overall third LP, “Drive North,” the band has returned to the punk scene with its follow-up, “Berkeley’s On Fire.”
The band itself initially got attention because of its drummer, Joey Armstrong — Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong’s son — but “Berkeley’s On Fire” combines eccentric tracks that blend together a multitude of punk, alt-rock and surf-rock elements, giving the band a separate, personal identity.
The LP starts with the title track, “Berkeley’s On Fire.” This track is attention-grabbing from the get-go, with intricate, hard-rock guitar riffs and groovy drum beats. Vocalist and guitarist Cole Becker references the 2017 riots at the University of California, Berkeley, after alt-right political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak at the college. This fits the overall message of the song — a massive middle finger to President Donald Trump’s administration and the alt-right political movement. These elements, along with a catchy chorus that is easy to sing and dance to, make this an addicting, impressive way to begin the album.
The next song, “Too Much Coffee,” is also a captivating track. The guitar riffs are the strongest aspects here. There are three riffs varying in pitch and complexity, and when blended together, the song flows thick and sweet like honey. The addition of high-pitched background vocals in its introduction is a delicate touch and shows off the range of the band’s vocalists. However, the use of two lead vocalists — brothers Cole and Max Becker — can prove to be a disadvantage at times, especially in this song. Lead guitarist Max Becker’s voice sounds incredibly nasal and off-putting, an issue which reduces the overall quality of the song to a mediocre pop-punk track.
Though the “down with the government” innuendos common in punk songs are still scattered across this LP, some tracks show that SWMRS can address deeper emotions through its lyrics. The band’s Billboard-charting single “April In Houston” focuses on depression and despair (“Everybody wants to get me high/ But where will they go when I’m low”), while “Bad Allergies” discusses insecurities that vocalist Becker has while being with his lover (“I got bad allergies in the springtime/ And sometimes I can’t remember names”). These lyrics, incorporated with a mellow acoustic guitar riff and Becker’s smooth vocal range, make “Bad Allergies” Becker’s strongest song.
The final track, “Steve Got Robbed,” provides an unexpected twist and is an intriguing way to end the LP. It pulls on variations of a gritty, hip-hop sound to their usual punk sound, giving it a Rage Against The Machine vibe. More importantly, it shows off the band’s versatility in style and that it’s not afraid to experiment with genres and subgenres.
“Berkeley’s On Fire” is, without a doubt, a high-energy, memorable album. Though SWMRS exudes punk rock, the band is not afraid to experiment — much to its own benefit. Though it may sound like a cliche punk record to some, this LP is unlike any album released in 2019 so far, and it is fair to argue that SWMRS is unlike any band in the current alternative scene.