Fair warning: Crooked Doors, the second full-length from Atlanta’s Royal Thunder, contains at least three songs that will burn into your unconsciousness with the ease of candy-coated crack to haunt your waking and un-waking hours. I wish someone would have warned me, but there’s little time – it happens almost instantly. The first song, “Time Machine”, offers diminutive chords that sneak in and are just begging to explode: then Miny Parsonz’s magnetic, soulful voice comes in; and then everything gets to the point of ignition. I’m expecting to hear what Royal Thunder does best and what keeps their debut, CVII, in rotation: some kind of primordial blues, a hungry, mouth-gaping riff, a shatteringly simple backbeat, and that voice, echoing and snarling, that puts a huge curse on the world.
Then the chorus kicks in.
Oh, it’s damn tasty, and it’ll bounce around your head, as it did mine, but then after sweetness, more singing. Then more. The band is doing stuff back there for seven minutes, but it’s hard to make out under all the vocals, beyond a few fuzzed-out bridges that feel weak for Royal Thunder.
I’m another two songs in before I notice a guitar solo with any presence to it, and there’s not really a discernable riff to be seen. There are some jangling guitars in there, some chuggy distorted ones, but there’s rarely a moment when Parsonz’s not singing, harmonizing with herself, or even ‘ooh’ing and ‘ahhh’ing in the background. True, Parsonz’s voice is one of the best parts of Royal Thunder, but here everything is forced to take a back seat to her.
I’m realizing that this is a different album than the debut, significantly so, and that my earlier warning has another application: the songs are all based on Parsonz’s big voice. Everything else here is leaner overall: shorter songs, bigger vocal hooks, quirky-fuzzy guitar tones, drums that have that grunge feel to the echo – the realization hits that this is a rock album, complete with ballads. It’s what could be cruelly classed as ‘adult contemporary’ with slightly more swagger than your average blues-based Saturday night bar band. Crooked Doors isn’t an exceptional rock album either, just an okay one that mashes up a bit of grunge and blues into a showcase for Parsonz’s pipes. The musical interplay that made “Blue” from CVI such a psych-blues ritualistic acid trip and worth the nine-plus minutes is missing. The attraction for that song wasn’t the banshee-wailing vocals, but those vocals combined with reverb-sick guitars and a bottomless low end working the fuck out of a song. Here, the importance of the music, and what the band is doing, is minimized in favour of Parsonz’s melodies. Sure, the guitars and drums are thudding away the whole time, but they’re merely providing a vehicle for vocals.
While songs like “Wake Up” and “Forgive Me, Karma” are fine examples of rock songcraft with some shiny moments, they’re too far removed from the ferocity and passion of CVI for me to celebrate the change as progressive or positive. We’re being pushed with too much of a good thing. Royal Thunder’s focus has shifted, and they’ve become a different beast, one called Miny Parsonz and the Royal Thunders. I’m almost through the album, and I’m wishing for some reprieve to just hear what’s going on besides singing. The finale, “The Bear I” and “The Bear II” are a slow let-down, a doo-wop sad song. Plinking pianos, some random string accompaniment, and brush-stroked snares decline until they stop… eventually, Parsonz’s voice does, too. It’s a last gasp when a shout, or a crescendo, would’ve been preferable.
Some songs on Crooked Doors are successful, but I’m hoping that this is a transition record. No doubt some tracks will become live staples, and in a just world they’d be played on regular rock radio. Royal Thunder might be comfortable with that, even if it means I stop paying attention.