There’s a certain academic fascination surrounding SWMRS and how they’ve managed to get as far as they have. Nepotism can only be accounted for so much leverage, and while the initial buzz of Joey Armstrong (son of Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong) on drums was the original lead-in back when this band was still called Emily’s Army, they’ve not offered much of a reason for anyone to stick around. Operating on a brand of garage-rock that’s offered very little vibrancy or distinction would be enough to keep the vast majority of bands down for good, but SWMRS have seemingly thrived from it, landing a deal with Fueled With Ramen and an inexplicably huge fanbase off the back of it. And yet, everything that Berkeley’s On Fire has demonstrated so far has felt like a band hell-bent on murdering their own momentum, moving towards alt-pop and pop-rock (which, with Fueled By Ramen at the helm, is not a shock in the slightest), but doing it in the messiest, most slapdash way possible that’s produced even less in the way of likability than the rest of their material up to now. If FIDLAR have proven the right way to make such a shift, Berkeley’s On Fire looks to be kneecapping any progression that SWMRS have made in one fell swoop.
Obviously immediate flaming out isn’t realistically how these things work, but it’s a bizarre state of affairs that an album like this that clearly has a major push and budget behind it ends up as messy and unlikable as this. Here, SWMRS have clearly been thrust into a position they’re both uncomfortable with and incapable of delivering to a high enough standard, and the final product lacks any real driving force or cohesion to latch onto that, at the very least, they had some semblance of in the past. Compared to FIDLAR who kept their work tight with a noticeable, consistent thoughline, Berkeley’s On Fire feels like a graffitied indie-punk experiment that views musical diversity and modernity as smashing together sounds with little forethought about how it could possibly turn out.
And the biggest culprit of this is just how much SWMRS have been squeezed through the alt-pop filter that’s never been beneficial to a band clearly specialising in rougher, scrappier material, and yet none of that has sunk in here. It’s why we get the clanking mess of a title track to open things up, or April In Houston trying to marry breezy surf-pop with taut trap snares that have such a greasiness to them. On the whole, the best way to describe this album would awkward and misguided, clearly trying to follow some kind of vision but without any sort of knowledge of how to achieve that manageably, and thus leaving the final product to be as sloppy and borderline lazy as it is. It doesn’t help that the mixing feels incredibly wonky either, putting the trap beats at the same level as the admittedly solid guitar rollick of Lose Lose Lose to highlight how conspicuous they are across the board, or throwing together a leaden hip-hop beat and squealing guitar on Steve Got Robbed that feels so lumbering and unpleasant. They’re amateurish decisions that feel more like the work of a major label forcing what’s popular regardless of whether it fits or not, to the point where anything successful feels like a total fluke. Trashbag Baby and Hellboy are left alone for the most part and are allowed to be simple, decent indie-punk tracks, and while Too Much Coffee and IKEA Date are both kind of basic, Max Becker taking up vocal duties gives them a much more wistful, hazy air thanks to his breathier vocals. But of course, because this album hasn’t been mismanaged enough, it’s up to his brother Cole to do most of the work in terms of frontman duties, a considerable step down with obnoxiously sloppy diction that makes the title track and Steve Got Robbed feel skin-crawling, and a general air of dejection that tries to put up a facade of sincerity but rarely gets all the way there.
That can really be applied to what this album is trying to say as a whole, especially when SWMRS are pulling hard and fast on the tropes of fashionable millennial dejection struggles to eke out much mileage at all. To give them credit, their political statements aren’t nearly as embarrassing as some in their field on Lose Lose Lose and Hellboy, but the cluttered, almost flippant introduction of these themes with the title track make them seem like off-handed remarks rather than topics to dedicate serious thought to, while the gauche attitudes towards modern life and technology on April In Houston and Lonely Ghosts have been absolutely beaten into the ground at this point, and there’s nothing that SWMRS can bring to the table to save them. This is clearly an album that wants to deliver some kind of highfalutin, populist message, but when it’s executed in such a slapdash way or lacks any serious human quality, it’s almost impossible to find anything that synthesises without feeling overly cynical or just outright laughable. With that in mind, tracks like Trashbag Baby and IKEA Date could’ve been lifted from a totally different album; their personal, inward focus benefits them greatly, and the fact that they rest on one distinct sound instead of being cobbled together from multiple actually allows them to connect and have a longer-lasting impact.
As for Berkeley’s On Fire as a whole though, it’s a hard album to like and an even harder one to understand. Sure, SWMRS are looking to branch out and operate on a wider scale, and while the seeds of that can be felt here, what they feel they can achieve in the long run with a messy, unfocused and tonally dissonant album feels like a band over-extending their reasonable capabilities. What’s worse, though, is the fact that those capabilities never really amounted to much in the first place, and that brings out a further layer of this album throwing everything at the wall, only for very, very little to stick. It can’t be denied that there are moments of quality, but they’re a distinct minority in an album that has plenty of ideas, but either can’t follow through with them, or fails to stop and consider whether they can be reasonably pulled off.
For fans of: FIDLAR, The Wrecks, Dune Rats
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Berkeley’s On Fire’ by SWMRS is released on 15th February on Fueled By Ramen.