Garage rock gruel is back with Cruel’s ‘Common Rituals’

The Chicago-based quartet blazes through a banger of a debut that leaves a fiery trail behind, and it's a blast to get caught in the slipstream.
Rohit Bhattacharya
Rohit Bhattacharya
Writer, erstwhile musician, and intermittent content creator. Rohit is based in New Delhi, India. Contact: rohitbhattacharya@gmail.com or Instagram: robohop10

When did rock and roll singers stop using a megaphone over the mic? The instantly recognizable distorted effect it has on the vocals was all the rage in the 90s when every album from Core by the Stone Temple Pilots to Angel Dust by Faith No More to even Green by REM had at least one song employing it. Overdone and considered schticky, the practice died off for a while before Chicago-based garage-punk outfit Cruel—comprised of Michael Schrieber on vocals and guitar, Jen Ashley on bass, Brent Favata on drums, and Jack Kelsey on guitar—brought it blazing back on the opening track of their 2023 debut EP Common Rituals.

Upon first listen, what strikes immediately is the band’s fondness for the fuzz. The Bigmuff stompbox on the guitars permeates the album like Don Corleone’s vocal cords after a sandpaper wipe down—and that’s great because sometimes, you just need the old-school comfort of a deafeningly overdriven riff to keep the scary voices at bay. Back to the first song on the EP, it’s called “Gutter” and starts guns akimbo with a riff that could be straight out of an Oasis B-side before the vocals come in and make things sound more like Queens of the Stone Age. With lyrics like, “Forty hours a week I lose myself on my knees / Maybe someday we’ll find a way to make it out,” the song is a grimy dedication to the struggle to get out of, well, the gutter—literally.

If you’re a stickler for louder and more persistent riffs, then “Damage,” the second track on the album, will scratch that itch as it kicks off with a supercharged call-and-response chord exchange between the guitars. The tempo then slows down—just a wee bit, mind you—to go into more of a streamlined song structure that makes space for a haunting vocal pattern of Schrieber repeatedly barking, “Wired now, I’m just a little bit wired now.” It would definitely be one of the standouts to watch live because it’s an immersive experience, enveloping you in a swirl of noise and drone-like melodic bliss.

What defines the enduring spirit of garage rock is the sound remains fresh regardless of how many decades have flown by. Perhaps it’s because that’s the basis for how most bands start—in a cramped crawlspace with three people who crank their amps up to 11. And Cruel, with a sonic similarity to Mudhoney, is doing a stellar job of reigniting the long-extinguished garage rock flame. In fact, that Mudhoney connection is most evident in the song “Demeanour,” a fast-paced trip through an anti-establishment punk paradise with a riff that’s basically surf rock on amphetamines. The band truly belts their bones off on this one, and it’s a rush. Schrieber wears his heart on his ripped sleeves, bellowing, “Follow your leader / They got you on a leash / Like a fucking parking meter.” It’s a tune that rages against the system, flips the bird at the Man, and pimp-slaps anyone who blindly follows.

Unfortunately, the last song on Common Rituals, “Tuesday,” doesn’t have any lyrics online, but what it loses in comprehension, it makes up for in unbridled heaviness. Undoubtedly the most metal song on the project, it features a simple but effective 3-chord power pattern with a few feedback breaks that give the older listeners a much-needed pause between head-banging. Ashley indulges in some fun bass work towards the end before the song pulls the curtain on the EP with a 4-bar staccato finale.

With a runtime of about seven minutes, Cruel blazes through a banger of an EP that leaves a fiery trail behind, and it’s a blast to get caught in the slipstream. Listen to their music on your way to work, and you will quit your job; listen to them at a protest, and you will storm a building; listen to them when you’re going to bed, and hey, you might just enjoy the best nap of your life. In the case of Cruel, these are all just Common Rituals.

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