Sometimes, the difference between a good and a great record is mere conviction.

It’s an easy trait to convey onstage, where real musicians strum and smash and batter real instruments, where arms swing and heels kick and a frontperson must scream to be heard. But this sort of sincerity isn’t always as easy to capture on a recording. Sometimes, those same bands who explode beneath stage lights barely pop on an album; sometimes their songs feel deflated or hollow or stiff; sometimes, it’s enough to question their integrity.

Other records, however, crackle with natural conviction. Take Rhombithian, the first full-length by Chicago’s Sincere Engineer, who’s brand of rambling, rambunctious punk-rock is balanced with candid introspection and dire storytelling.

Much of Sincere Engineer’s power comes from singer and guitarist Deanna Belos, whose rough-hewn voice instantly emerges as the band’s most distinct feature. In songs like “Shattering,” above smudgy guitars, she sings, “I’m gonna jump in Lake Michigan and swim out as far as I can / And you should come with me, you should come with me.” On paper, the sentiment seems sickly sweet, but the way Belos’s snarls these lines tells another story. The song ends with Belos comparing herself to the empty bottles shattered at the bottom of the lake; here, the drums kick into a dusty gallop, the guitars shuffle frenzied, and Belos pushes her voice into a melodic roar.

Clearly, it’s not just the way Belos sings—not her voice’s raspy desperation—that conveys conviction; it’s also her honest and uncompromising approach to each song’s subject. In fact, the deeper one dives into Rhombithian, the more cynical and self-depreciating the record becomes. Songs like, “Overbite” (on which Belos’s chorus evolves from “I don’t care about anything as much as I used to,” to “I still feel just about as dumb as I used to”) don’t feel pessimistic, though; its lyrics, which explore and rationalize her difficult decision not to pursue higher education, are more about keeping the flame flickering than rejection—though they are somehow about both.

Others, like the swooning “Ceramic Tiles,” invites the listener to inspect Belos’s bloody mouth with her after yet another reckless night. On “Candle Wax,” with its kicky beat and gunky chords, Belos confesses, “I guess I only like things that destroy me / ‘cuz everything else seems so boring.” And then there’s “Keep You Company,” where Belos paints a desolate self-portrait as she drives down the street of a lost love; “If you’re lonely, let me keep you company,” she growls, her offer so nonchalant, though it’s evident that she is, in fact, the lonely one. Each of these songs—and, really, all the album’s tracks—showcase this same trampled speaker as she examines yet another sorry situation. But there’s a subdued sort of victory buried in each as well; if it’s not there in the lyrics themselves, then its in evident in the way this woman reclaims these failures and bellows them back to the world.

Musically and lyrically, Rhombithian sounds like the bratty grandchild of midwestern emo—one who might sneak out of the house to attend a Prawn show wearing a Pears shirt. Indeed, with her band behind her, Belos would fit equally well on a bill with Braid as she would with the Lawrence Arms—in fact, Evan Weiss from Into It. Over It. even contributes a guitar part on the breezy “Here’s Your Two Dollars.” But, as with all the best bands of either genre, the emotion emerges not the style of the music a band plays but from the conviction expressed by the musicians. In the case of Sincere Engineer, it’s a brutal kind of conviction, one that may ring too true for some—eliciting knowing nods and guilty smirks—but that makes this debut truly great.

TOP TRACK: “Screw Up”

Purchase the album here.

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