Atlanta’s Royal Thunder was a young band searching for a voice when it recorded its 2012 debut, CVI. Driven by the brilliant wail of vocalist Mlny Parsonz, the album was a heavy Southern trip, sounding a lot like the band’s fellow Georgians Baroness and Mastodon — maybe too much alike. Royal Thunder was reflexively pegged into the “Southern metal” scene, and with that came the mega-corporate festivals, metal touring circuits, and the expectations of being a big bad metal band signed to Relapse. There was an image and style to maintain.
Not that they cared. For Royal Thunder’s sophomore album, Crooked Doors, chief songwriter and guitarist Josh Weaver took an “anything goes” approach, creating naturally and instinctively to avoid the “Is this metal enough?” mind trap. The resulting record is closer to the real Royal Thunder, the sound of a band no longer searching for a voice but instead just being itself, trying on different moods, textures, and genres with the brazen confidence of the inspired, unforgiving artist.
That said, Crooked Doors’ crunchiest, most metal tracks are its weakest. “Time Machine”, “Glow”, and “Forget You” are Relapse-approved kosher, with Weaver’s guitars spitting Molly Hatchet-isms and Parsonz’s voice in full flight. It’s the CVI sound, and it’s a sonic shrug for Royal Thunder at this point: loud, heavy, and dull. Surrounding these tracks are so many weirder experiments and deviations that recall the adventurous guitar bands of the ’90s in an almost open defiance of the metal that launched the band. The sinister “Wake Up” twists and turns like early Afghan Whigs; “One Day” is a broody guitar pop nugget worthy of The Breeders. Most notable is the album’s romantic, two-part closing suite, the brief “The Bear I” and the five-minute “The Bear II”, a sparse piano ballad that showcases Parsonz’s full vocal range as she guides the record to its conclusion with a smoky croon.
These tracks are infinitely more appealing and memorable than everything else Royal Thunder has written. Only when they fully embrace these idiosyncrasies will they make a classic record, and they’re not quite there yet. Crooked Doors stands as the transitional sophomore record where a band appears set to define its own identity, yet still hasn’t completely shed the safety net of its earlier, tamer sound. Next stop: metal transcendence.
Essential Tracks: “Wake Up”, “One Day”, and “The Bear II”