Kudos to the guys and gal in Royal Thunder and the folks at Relapse Records for their intelligent pre-release strategy for the band’s anticipated sophomore album, Crooked Doors. A series of track-by-track streams preceding a generous full album stream a solid week before release, coupled with some excellent album bundle options, resulted in a refreshing way to promote the release and perhaps put the smallest of dints in the piracy epidemic. The Atlanta four-piece’s stunning debut full-length CVI blew me away in 2012, a superb album that saw Royal Thunder expanding upon the potential from their debut EP a couple of years earlier and fleshing out their music into the sprawling and dynamic rock ‘n’ roll sound of CVI. Sure there were nods towards the past and a healthy classic rock influence, but Royal Thunder’s formula was no retro sounding retread, but rather a hard rocking contemporary beast with an endearingly vintage feel, led by the gutsy and charismatic vocals of Miny Parsonz.
Riding a wave of turbulence generated from the relationship break-up between Parsonz and lead guitarist Josh Weaver, along with a couple of line-up shifts, Crooked Doors represents a melancholic, tumultuous and emotion-charged chapter in Royal Thunder’s career, where relationship fractures have been patched up in the name of unity, while the scar tissue remains raw and sensitive. Musically, Crooked Doors takes a slightly different and reflective song-writing approach from CVI, exploring more diverse terrain without straying far from Royal Thunder’s signature sound. Whereas CVI had a revved-up growling engine, Crooked Doors by comparison is a smoother, well-oiled and more refined machine, featuring a complex emotional core and confident, matured sound. Many of the elements that were so crucial to CVI’s success are retained, from the band’s wily compositional prowess and wonderful handle on song-writing dynamics, to the impeccable balance between their charged-up hard rock roots and the moody restraint and vaguely psychedelic musings that defined slow-burning epics “Shake and Shift,” “Blue” and “South of Somewhere” from CVI.
Parsonz remains Royal Thunder’s focal point and the bleeding heart core of the band’s sound. Here she sounds positively inspired, delivering an incredibly emotive, biting and at times fragile performance. Her predominant and signature belting vocals shine on cuts like the seething “The Line” and heavy first single “Forget You,” and she frequently demonstrates her improved croons and melodic vocal lines on songs like the pop-infected dynamics of “Wake Up.” However, the most telling example of her growth as a singer is featured during two part closer, “The Bear I” and “The Bear II.” The former is a somber, bluesy ballad led by a heart-wrenching vocal, while the latter is even more sparse and stripped back, as Parsonz’s soft and emotionally raw voice rises and falls against a backdrop of haunting cello and piano lines.
Not to be outdone, Weaver, joined on second guitar by new member Will Fiore (Zoroaster) and backed by a solid rhythm section, gets wonderful mileage out of his instrument. His expressive guitar work combines simplicity with more intricate and eerie melodic passages, particularly on moodier offerings, “Forgive Me, Karma” and “Ear on the Fool.” A couple of slightly less remarkable songs aside, Crooked Doors keeps the momentum going consistently, with the track sequencing well constructed, the execution top-notch, and loads of variety in the song-writing department. There are plenty of gems, though perhaps the album’s finest moment is epic opener “Time Machine,” a hazy, nerve-poking rocker with a haunting psychedelic groove and sublime chorus.
Arguably some of the individual song peaks reached a little higher on CVI, which had an edgier sound, both sonically and musically. Regardless Crooked Doors is by no means a disappointment. Front to back it’s a more consistent and diverse album, while the emotional side cuts deeper due to the dramatic circumstances surrounding the album’s conception. This is a highly anticipated album for me, and while I can’t proclaim Crooked Doors to be quite as powerful and impactful as its predecessor, it’s a fine sophomore album nonetheless. Crooked Doors marks the sound of a wounded and resilient band pushing through the turmoil to deliver a dynamic and cracking hard rock album, signalling a confident stride forward for the band.