DISCOGRAPHY DEEP DIVE: Royal Thunder
Three albums, two EPs, and more gritty passion packed in those than most bands achieve in a lifetime.
Welcome to our first discography deep dive! Basically every once in a while I’ll pick a band and just go through all of their records, telling you my opinion on each of them. Full disclosure, yes, I did consider doing a “best to worst” sort of thing, or even rating each album out of 10, as I’ve seen on a few outlets that feature articles similar to this, but in the end I opted for a simpler, less gimmicky, here’s-all-their-music-and-what-I-think-of-it kind of approach. I’l love to hear your thoughts on what are your own favourites out of each discography and all the points where you both agree or disagree with me, feel free to leave all that in the comments!
All full-length albums of the artist in question will be featured always, and whenever relevant - as it happened in this first pick - I’ll also look at other releases that might be important to the whole timeline of the thing. If there’s a particular band you’d like me to do this for, feel free to let me know, either hit me up over email or comment, and I might just grant your wish.
So, the chosen band for the first discography dive here on The Devil’s Mouth is…
It’s fair to say that, ever since their inception in 2004, Royal Thunder - always centred around the core duo of guitarist Josh Weaver and bassist/vocalist Mlny Parsonz - have been one of the most exciting, reliable and promising rock bands in the world. Sabbathian grooves, grungy melodies, psychedelic vibes, proggy flourishes, raw emotion - they really have it all for any self-respecting fan of heavy music. Mind you, when I said reliable, I meant in terms of the quality of every release, because unfortunately the personal trajectory of these people has been fraught with a few trials and tribulations along the way, including the divorce of the main duo which informed a lot of the lyrical concept of the second album, ‘Crooked Doors’. Fortunately, they could chalk it up as life experience and move on with the band, and even with a few line-up changes happening around Weaver and Parsonz and the occasional periods of silence, Royal Thunder are back on the saddle again in 2022, writing demos for a new album and with a brand new/good old line-up in the form of Weaver, Parsonz and Evan DiPrima, who actually played on ‘Crooked Doors’ and 2017’s ‘Wick’ before leaving the band in 2018.
Things are indeed looking good right now for Royal Thunder, as Mlny herself told The Devil’s Mouth when she was a guest on episode #87 of our podcast, which I also urge you to check out if you’re a fan or want to discover more, as it provided a remarkable insight into the creative mind of this unconventional artist and frontwoman. So while we wait for the next chapter of this rocky but fascinating road, let’s give Royal Thunder’s past a long, hard look, starting in 2009 with a little unassuming EP, self-released on a cardboard gatefold, that Relapse’s typically well tuned radar didn’t let slip.
(2009, self-released / 2010, Relapse)
I was visiting London, as I did often during my Terrorizer days, and when meeting up with my dear friend/brother/colleague/mentor Jonathan Selzer, one of the first things he told me, in a sort of hushed, conspirational tone, was “there’s this band that I think you might like.” Now then, as you might imagine, I have people telling me that there’s this band they think I might like literally everyday, and more often than not it’s their own or someone they work with. Which is fine, it comes with the job, I almost always do check out the bands that are recommended to me (even if it’s out of self-interest) and I’m not complaining - I’ve discovered tons of awesome music that way. But you do have to take it, generally, with a little grain of salt. With Jonathan, however, it’s different - not only is he one of the writers with the finest tuned musical taste you will ever meet, he knows what I like better than almost anyone. So when he recommends something, you’d better sit up and listen. I did almost that - in fact, I sat down and listened, as soon as we got to his place and gave the promo for the (still unreleased at the time) Relapse reissue of the EP a spin, and as that hushed, barely-there intro (which, upon later investigation, turned out to be an important part of the first song itself, with beautifully sinister lyrics as well, look at this: “I beckon thee oh sleeping witch / I’ll hunt you I’ll find you / The sea is black the night is still / I’m longing to bind you / I crave the gold that’s in your blood / My legions defy you / Come to me in dark or light / I stand before the shore line / Unafraid I sway in time / Await the answers wait and cry / A kingdom sleeps a kingdom falls / A servant begs a servant crawls.subsided into”) segued into ‘Sleeping Witch’, where Mlny starts singing softly, I must have done that little half-turn with the head, as if to signal an unspoken“hang on…”. It’s a spectacularly teasing song - for its first half, the main riff is sort of just playing along in the background until it rises to the forefront for a bit, on the 1:40 for the first time, and then it quiets down again for another softly sung part, and then from 3:27 onwards the song really explodes, and it’s the riff and Mlny wailing and choruses and an epic climax, while she’s throwing you lines like “There's cheap rum, romance, and you / You / Then I called, but you did not answer your sleeping witch / We’re dead / you’re dead”. It’s a hell of a way to kick off your very first release, and I can say that I was hooked pretty much for life on this band from that magic moment onwards - and it didn’t hurt that I got the advance promo for it on that very same London weekend, so it was waiting on my inbox as soon as I got back home, so I could just keep listening to it over and over and feed my newfound addiction. Royal Thunder is in fact a very good example of why I chose to not rate or do a “best to worst” kind of thing with this feature - with a band like this, with a damn near perfect discography, how do you order it? Every single release is essential, why have one linger in the “worst” bracket when it’s just as good as the others? Preference in this discography is a mere question of personal circumstance - this EP and ‘Sleeping Witch’ in particular will always be my emotional Royal Thunder favourites because of the tremendous power of having been the first things I listened to. The song and album you discover a band with has an immense grip on you, if you think about all your old favourites. Anyway, there’s much more than ‘Sleeping Witch’ to the EP - the bouncy, blood-pumping ‘Mouth Of Fire’ comes next and it’s still a live favourite of theirs to this day, as is the incredible ballad of sorts ‘Hotel Bend’. Even the less celebrated tracks are out of this world - closer ‘Deacon’, which to my knowledge has never been played live since the release of the EP (there’s a video of a live performance of it in 2008, and that’s it, not even an entry on their setlist.fm), has dynamics to die for, ranging from beauty to savagery to sadness to menace often within the space of a single breath. It’s no wonder Relapse, which would become their home up until ‘Crooked Doors’, signed them and reissued the EP the next year. I said up there that “ever since their inception they’ve been…”, and I meant it like that - it’s like Royal Thunder already appeared with this amazingly unique personality fully formed and ready to go. Not to say that there hasn’t been evolution, and a lot of it, but very few bands roar out of the gates like that, and keep it up for the rest of their careers.
Wanna know how much I loved that little initial EP? So much that I was actually disappointed with ‘CVI’ at first. Sometimes certain records raise your expectations for a band so high that no matter how good the next one is, it won’t hit you the same way. It sounded to me at first that Royal Thunder were doing too much, embellishing the songs unnecessarily, taking away some of the rawness that appealed to me from the EP. On top of it there’s a different version of ‘Sleeping Witch’ that I really thought was very inferior to the original, so the first few days with ‘CVI’ weren’t the best. However, as it sometimes happens with records you can’t get into at first - and this is a sort of relationship with music that has become sadly dilluted as attention spans have gotten shorter and instant availabilities have become norm -, perseverance sometimes pays off and your opinion eventually swings to the opposite corner. Royal Thunder had enough credit with me for me to not give up on the album straight away, and it was actually a little journalist perk that ended up providing the important click - I was fortunate to interview Mlny for Rock-a-Rolla magazine (I published an old article from it here, in case you don’t know it - it was the sort of mag the world needs right now), and a very interesting thing that happens sometimes is that, once you get the insight and a little more background on a piece of music by one of its authors, you might see and hear it in another light, and you might even go back and enjoy it in a completely fresh way. It wasn’t anything she said in particular - we mostly nerded out about how the band was put together in the first place, and about the strange meaning of the number 106 in their lives, stuff like that -, but the first spin of ‘CVI’ after that chat really nailed it for me. I couldn’t believe how the shouty intensity of opener ‘Parsonz Curse’ didn’t get me straight away, or how the unbelievable catchiness of ‘Whispering World’ (which became one of their signature songs) hadn’t laid its hooks in me. Even deeper cuts like the smokey ‘South Of Somewhere’ or stompy, bluesy closer ‘Black Water Vision’ still sound fresh and engaging to this day, if you’re not too hung up on an earlier favourite release to notice it. Lesson learned.
A little three-track digital thing that I include because it reinforced the strength of their songwriting in a very clear way. ‘CVI:A’ takes what are arguably the best three songs from ‘CVI’ - ‘Parsonz Curse’, ‘Whispering World’ and ‘Black Water Vision’ - and gives them the fully acoustic treatment, making a few strong points along the way. First, how rich the guitarwork is, as it manages to stand out and get you to headbang and nod and hum and get all worked up all the same even without the power of electricity behind it. Also, what a truly singular force Mlny is - more of a loose cannon, vocally speaking, than usual, she croons and sings and shouts and wails and hushes her way through these three songs, a reckless heart-on-her-sleeve free spirit, very close to how she approaches live shows and live in the studio performances, of which there are a few worth watching (we’ll get there in a minute). It was also drummer Evan DiPrima’s first recording with the band.
Though framed by many as a “break up record”, given as how parts of it at least seem to allude to the core duo’s separation as a couple, and while there is necessarily an element of that in there somewhere, most of what’s been said and written about this album has been largely a product of misinterpretation. To quote Mlny herself on an interview at the time, “A lot of people assume that certain songs mean certain things. I actually have read things where people have interpreted my words and said definitively, 'This is about this or that.' It's really interesting to me, but I guess that's just the way it is, but I have decided what little I have shared, people have taken that and turned it into something, and acted like they know what's going on, but they don't. (…) I've come to a crossroads with many things, whether that be in my personal life, my relationships, whatever, I've live that up to people to decide what they think. It's just hard to say a lot of things I want to say while being cryptic, and I wasn't able to be as cryptic as I was with things on CVI. I did want to be more honest, but that comes with a price." Worst of all, this (very human) focus on an event from people’s personal lives seems to have overshadowed a little of what is one of the great rock albums of this century. The fact that ‘Crooked Doors’ didn’t turn this band into the biggest rock act in the world is proof that there is no justice and everything is random and meaningless. Balancing their increasingly abundantly clear 70s rock influences, their personal Southern tinge, psychedelia and a sort of folk sensibility all of their own, Royal Thunder reached almost impossible heights with songs like the delightfully breezy-feeling singalong (until you read and feel the melancholy of the lyrics) ‘Time Machine’, the classic-sounding open riff of ‘Floor’, or the gut punch that are the three last songs - ‘One Day’, where Mlny channels some chanteuse from decades ago, and the pure, raw, nearly violent emotions contained in the two parts of closer ‘The Bear’. These two songs are pure magic, and anyone with a functioning heart will feel it slowly being ripped away through the chest. They show yet another side of Royal Thunder and Mlny in particular, and I won’t go too far into detail about them because, well, there’s a surprise coming next week and you’ll hear more about them from someone who actually knows what they’re saying. Watch this space.
So ‘Crooked Doors’ didn’t send them on the arena tours with, like, Deep Purple and Skynyrd opening for them, like they so richly deserved, but it still remains a career-defining album. Not that ‘Wick’ is predictable or a rehashing of it in any way (it really isn’t), but Royal Thunder feel like a band that has found its voice, that has a solid platform to evolve from, rather than the freeform wandering they sort of did until then. This is of course a rather vague interpretation, and even if acknowledged to really being like that, both methods of navigation have their merits, but regardless how you contextualise it, ‘Wick’ can’t really be denied. If you still needed any more proof of Josh Weaver’s unbelievable talent as a guitarist and songwriter, of how he makes intricate melodies and harmonies seem simple and straightforward and supremely engaging, look no further than opener ‘Burning Tree’, by the end of which you might be humming that one little guitar part you might not even have consciously noticed it was there on the first listen. Adding another signature song to their arsenal with the iconic ‘April Showers’, with that line that will not fail to chill you down to the bone regardless of what it might mean to you (“You were never really innocent / But you were given the gun”), it is yet another unbeatable, varied (how about a little gospel at the end of the last song?), heavy and poignant collection of brilliant tunes, to the point that it’s becoming harder to write about them because you just want to throw your hands in the air, switch off writer mode and just go like “they’re awesome, okay? Just go listen, leave me alone!” Mlny once again manages to steal the show with the quiet, all-alone despair of ‘Plans’, a song so naked and so straight-to-the-gut that you have to wonder how she’s even capable of performing it like this, for example.
While we wait for the new album, which we now know it’s coming so the wait is less agonising, here are a few heartily recommended performances and curiosities to further discover Royal Thunder:
Daytrotter Session - 8/8/2018
NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert
Mlny solo - ‘A Skeleton Is Born’
Mlny singing three awesome covers on Two Minutes To Late Night with Mutoid Man:
’Wrecking Ball’ by Miley Cyrus
’Ace Of Spades’ by Motörhead
’Bastards’ by Kesha
Find Royal Thunder on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Bandcamp.