No matter how highly old punks may think of themselves, they’re as likely to have preconceived notions as almost anyone. Especially when it comes to the preciousness with which they treat their own genre—judging what does and doesn’t live up to their standards as “punk” can be a favorite pastime. Those old punks may want to skip Berkeley’s On Fire, the new album from Oakland-based quartet SWMRS, out February 15th.
With their sophomore release (under this name, though their fourth full length since their inception in 2004), SWMRS have taken what a lot of people think they know about punk rock and turned it on it’s head. Berkeley’s On Fire is undeniably catchy—so catchy, in fact, that if one isn’t careful they may mistake this as a pure pop album. The mistake is forgivable, as this album owes as much to an act like Fall Out Boy as it does to the Ramones or the Sex Pistols. In fact, it is due in part to the merging of those influences that SWMRS have seemingly come into their own.
The title track kicks the album off with handclaps and a beat that’s downright danceable, balanced with angry, politically charged lyrics that combine to make…aggro pop? Dance punk? Whatever you call it, SWMRS pull it off brilliantly.
From there, Berkeley’s On Fire rarely lets up, making for an album that’s more than the sum of its parts—even the few weaker songs that don’t hold up as well on their own (Too Much Coffee, IKEA Date) still hold up just fine in the context of the album as a whole. And while the juxtaposition of the slower, softer songs mixed with the more uptempo, raucous stand out numbers like Hellboy or Trash Bag Baby could be a disjointed mess in the wrong hands, SWMRS weave from one song to the next effortlessly, making for an album that endures repeat listens with ease.
Between pointed lyrics (2019 is a fuckin’ disaster/Dear Vladmir Putin, stop fucking up my shit/because I know I can fuck it up faster, Cole Becker sings on Lose Lose Lose) and hooks as infectious as the measles around an anti-vaxxer’s toddler, this album gives slight nods to the past and, better yet, creates something entirely new. Purists may cast it aside as pop trash, but for better or worse this may be the future of punk as we know it, and Berkeley’s On Fire is an early contender for album of the year.
9/11 Ringing Ears