Released: 2015, Relapse Records
Reviewer: Peter Atkinson
Atlanta's Royal Thunder made quite a splash with their debut full-length CVI in 2012. It's blend of sludgey, Southern-style heavy rock, elegant melody and retro chic set the band apart from the bevy of droning beardo stoners popping up like, umm, weeds to the delight of burnouts and hipsters everywhere. The follow-up, Crooked Doors, should be put more distance between them.
Royal Thunder scale back the sludge, and some of their thunder as well, here and give melody and more streamlined rock-song structure greater prominence. And when you've got an absolutely dynamite frontwoman like bassist Mlny Parsonz, a strategy like that just makes sense. To keep a leash on or overpower a weapon like Parsonz would be foolhardy, and the band – or at least she and guitarist Josh Weaver, since the lineup has been overhauled with guitarist Will Fiore and drummer Evan Diprima coming aboard since CVI - seem to realize that here.
Parsonz' evocative lyrics and vocals are given extra room to breath and the songs have more focus and purpose – with many of them dealing with the implosion of her and Weaver's romance after CVI, which brings some additional drama to the mix. But perhaps not as much as there could have been, which was a smart move.
The songs seem to be more melancholy and reflective than an outright hostile airing of grievances. Whatever anger there is is often tempered by sadness or resignation. It's way more like therapy than verbal warfare - “Just relax, it's gonna fade” Parsonz repeats, mantra-like, on “Time Machine” – which could explain how the pair managed to keep working together, as well as the somewhat restrained musical approach.
“The Line” rides a shuffling backbeat and a thin jangle of guitar before its brash chorus, recalling a country ballad channeled via Soundgarden, whose influence, conscious or otherwise, reveals itself a few times here. Indeed, “Forget You” has a gritty, crunchy groove that recalls Loud Love and the rather epic opener “Time Machine” builds on its earnest intro before eventually erupting in a squall of wah-wah guitar as Parsonz vocals grow to a pronounced Cornell-ian wail.
“Wake Up” and “Forgive Me, Karma,” by contrast echo The Pretenders – Parsonz smoky/sultry voice have a pervasive Chrissie Hynde-ness, and that's a compliment - with their more ethereal ballad treatment, although their rousing verses or choruses certainly boast more muscle. Meanwhile “Glow,” one of the album's harder-edged tracks, has a Skynyrd-esque feel with its slide-guitar histrionics.
It's easy to almost miss Weaver's subtle flair given Parsonz' captivating voice and the often hypnotic melodies they are built around, but he is a crafty, soulful guitarist who works wonders here while also exercising restraint. And by opting for a more Black Crowes/less Black Sabbath sound, Weaver and Fiore give Crooked Doors the texture and depth that just wasn't there on the more leaden, jammy CVI. There's no meandering eight/nine-plus minute epics here, either, and Royal Thunder are all the better for it.