Royal Thunder’s self-titled EP, released late in 2010, was an unassumingly excellent first statement from a young band bristling with potential. The Atlanta, Georgia band’s earnest, soulful take on Southern-inflected rock with a rippling undercurrent of doom hinted at great things in Royal Thunder’s future. With CVI, Royal Thunder has taken the basic premise of that previous EP and exploded it in a hundred beautifully unexpected directions. While these songs clearly remain the work of the same musical imagination, Royal Thunder’s prior succinctness has yielded to a glorious sprawl, and CVI sets an absurdly high standard for good goddamned rock and roll in 2012.
The most important change, of course, is that Royal Thunder has gone from a power trio to a four-piece, though that requires a few caveats. First, the band has a new drummer in Lee Smith, but its now-former drummer Jesse Stuber is responsible for the drumming on eight of CVI’s ten songs (all but the closer, in fact, because “Minus” is drum-free). Smith has some big kicks to fill, too, since Stuber’s finesse is one of the key ingredients of CVI’s resounding success. (Take a listen to Stuber’s phenomenal fills throughout “Whispering World,” for example.) Second, although the band has added Josh Coleman on rhythm guitar, lead guitarist and band founder Josh Weaver recorded all of the guitar tracks for the album, whose songs certainly bear the mark of having been written with two guitars in mind.
Apart from those personnel changes, bassist and singer Mlny Parsonz, whose voice was already the band’s greatest asset, has gone from being simply charismatic to a woman possessed of an unmistakably commanding vocal instrument. Her voice is sheer, bloody guts throughout CVI, careening from bluesy holler to lilting flutter to ragged sneer and all points in between. The human voice is capable of a great many affectations, but one of the purest pleasures will always be hearing a singer dig as far down in the diaphragm as possible to wrench up a belted-out melody like her entire goddamn world will collapse if she doesn’t let it out. Parsonz’s is a voice that grabs you by the ears, shouts “SHUT UP AND LISTEN,” and doesn’t care if you like it.
Royal Thunder’s swing is loose and elastic, but huge when they need it to be, as seen on opener “Parsonz Curse.” It really is a hell of a thing, entering simply with a three-beat click and a guitar that slides down to find Parsonz in some scuzzy bar, wailing like some biker femme fatale. It doesn’t take long for the song to work itself up to a proper lather, and when the band unleashes its full force with Parsonz’s voice bouncing off the walls – “You can run, you can hide / But I swear it, I swear it / All these walls will tear you down.” – there is no longer any mediation between band and listener, artist and consumer: you yourself are implicated in the birthing (and possible banishing) of these blues.
Throughout CVI, Royal Thunder is entirely unafraid to use proper dynamics, both within songs and between songs. “Whispering World” has a jaunt in its step, in contrast to the darker tone of “Parsonz Curse,” and when Parsonz breaks out into full on riot grrrl mode, it sounds like Bikini Kill covering the Allman Brothers in the best way possible. “Sleeping Witch” is the only song reprised from the self-titled EP, although here its tempo is dialed way back, so much so that the song’s deliberate opening could’ve popped up on any of the more recent Earth albums without so much as raising a drone-twanged eyebrow. Still, the real surprises on CVI are the lengthier pieces where Royal Thunder finds their highway legs, and the patient build, bait, and burst is deployed to devastating effect. This is particularly true of the gloomy epic “Blue” and early album highlight “Shake and Shift,” which transitions effectively between its thick, surging chorus riff and the delicate, chiming echo chamber effect of its early verse section. Josh Weaver’s shit-hot guitar tone during the mid-song staccato section is a crackling joy, and the keening overlay of his intuitive, wailing guitar work for much of the rest of the song lives in that sweet spot halfway between solo and lead.
Simply put, CVI is a magnificent rock and roll album; it’s better each time I hear it, fuller, sadder, more joyful, and it’s better than any of these bullshit words. Each song is a proud scar, and Royal Thunder bears its blues with a wounded swagger. Just as all swaggers are somehow wounded, though, so does the spark of defiance gleam in every drop of sweat glistening on the skin of a hard-working rock band kicking up some shit in a messed-up world. Point your ears at this and brace yourself; this noise is electric.