Royal Thunder sing the Blues on CVI

The wind charges past outside as I sit drinking whisky at my desk this evening. The cold gathers, with frost’s fingers tapping at my curtained windows. But the mounting winter shall not distract me tonight. I am about to listen to Royal Thunder’s CVI, released on Relapse. I have already heard it, but always when working and having to divide my attention, so this will be the first time I’ve listened to it.

As the opening track Parsonz Curse rears in with doomy blues, straight away I’m telling myself, that’s one hell of a voice, rough and smooth like honey on tree bark. What becomes clear after listening to the album a couple of times, is that whilst Royal Thunder have no shortage of excellent riffs and song writing ability, their biggest asset is MLny (that’s how it’s spelt) Parsonz’s voice. It feels that there are few modern metal or even retro rock bands with a truly excellent singer (off the top of my head I can count the number of bands with this quality with one hand), as opposed to excellent shouters and screamers, and this is a talent which serves to distinguish them from the pack. They’re one of the few bands I like that I’m confident I could play to a wide variety of friends, and would appeal to the the majority of them. Obviously, whilst popular success and acclaim doesn’t define talent or quality, occasionally there does seem to be a heavy band who manages to appeal across boundaries. The vocal style varies between and within songs, Whispering World featuring captivating shifts between soft whispers, clean singing and a bluesy scream, with a real back of the throat sound. It is Parsonz’s howl, along with the song writing, that makes a couple of these tracks anthems.

By and large, CVI is mid–paced to slow, rather than featuring the excesses of speed that are often part of metal. Royal Thunder only play two or three fast riffs on the whole record, and this is to their advantage, as the blues influence is what gives them their own sound. Rushing over this would take away the character of the riffs and vocals, and would also take away from the layering of background vocals and interweaving guitar lines. There are little weaving jazzy parts that suddenly crop up at the end of a riff, bar or section, reminiscent of Hendrix’s sonic agility, and the bass guitar pulses underneath, occasionally uniting with the six string here and there to give a particular riff drive, giving the song writing a real tight feel, and then back off to do its own thing. Shake and Shift captures all of these touches, with a bluesy guitar intro charging into a metal riff, until that goes, down, down, down…into, rather unexpectedly, several guitar layers shimmering off each other. The pace is kept low and slow, and the vocals stay clean, with the lead guitar building under mounting vocals, into a juddering break, which rolls into a descending, rolling, chest–out lead guitar moment.

Lyrically, throughout most of the album, the narrator faces internal and external conflict from some malignant force, or forces. Given the name of the opening track, I’m going to unimaginatively assume that the ‘Parsonz Curse’ is directly applicable to vocalist Parsonz’s life; ‘This curse is following me/I will break it setting us free/I know just where we are going/Old bonds still holding me’. These forces are greeted with an air of opposition; ‘you’re running away, you’re not fooling anyone’ is repeated on Drown, whilst Minus, the gentlest and shortest song on the album, with just vocals and a single clean electric guitar backed up by an acoustic, sighs ‘I don’t want you anymore/I can feel your heart break/But we need this’, feeling every bit the goodbye. As to whether this opposition lays between two people remains ambiguous, but the implication is that of a failing relationship ending on spiteful terms. Royal Thunder reach back to traditional blues material and form for No Good, with a driving background piano, blues rock feel and a conversational tone, with Parsonz ripping out lines like ‘I don’t like you leave me alone/you’re no good’.

There a couple of thematic breaks; Sleeping Witch is presumably the tale of a ghost ship, with it slow mournful call of ‘there’s cheap wine romance and you’, although the bluesy doom feel remains. The pacing and cello is reminiscent of Earth, the only other band I could draw comparisons to besides Hendrix. Blue has a mystic and otherworldly, rather than an confrontational, tone, with its chorus of ‘Swallow me up, take me up’ at odds with the other song’s rebuttals. Black Water Vision crashes in, a definitive statement after the gentility and cleanliness of Minus, and then slows, slows it down, into epic doom headbanging, evoking voodoo imagery, with lines like ‘There’s a coin on my neck…glowing white light surround me’ and ‘a language pours from my lips/Like hot oil from a jar’. Then back into a jazzy riff, descend into doom…the last line is ‘my spirit is possessed’…and we’re out.

Only after sitting down and listening to this album, and looking at the song lengths at the end, did I realise so many of them are so long; three of them break the eight minute mark, and another four over five minutes. They flow so smoothly and remain engaging that even at these lengths they pass by effortlessly, like …And Justice For All, The Blackening or Physical Graffiti. The songs all sound different, as rather than rely on the intensity of heaviness or extremity to fill an album’s worth of space, they create a diverse bunch of well-written and propulsive songs, with the song writing building climaxes, with riff after riff. I’m looking forward to a few dark nights spent spinning this these tracks.


Black Tusk Tend No Wounds

Since first listening to Taste The Sin two years ago (lots of walks to the insurance office job listening to that), and which has been on regular rotation ever since, Black Tusk have matured on my musical palate, like a fine (read: any) whiskey. They draw comparisons to Motörhead in that they are heavy rock, scuzzy, not diverse, and a permanently distorted bolt of energy, albeit a bolt of energy that warrants repeat listening throughout each day. When I first listened to the album, I expected Metallica and Baroness–esque compositions. What there is, is distortion, pounding beats, riffs sometimes a little slower, but never clean, and vocals like the bark of a dog, relentless and and rough, like listening to a motorbike. I have received Tend No Wounds expecting a similar listen. The style of the artwork is similar, although by Brian Mercer rather than John Dier Baizley. The macabre anthropological figure still stares at you, the lush detailing is present, as are the insignias of bones, parts of animals, hovering threats from tribal weaponry, all wrapped into circles with Black Tusk rotting but still clear across the top. Stylistically, no change is suggested, but looking at the song titles, the abandon of Taste The Sin, with its concept of a final, frenzied motorcycle ride (for my money, anyway), at a preliminary look seems to have been replaced by a slow fight into a dead end.

We are greeted with A Cold Embrace. It opens with tremolo picking, lasting, lasting, until the drums carry it into a lurching mid–fast swing, guitar and bass in unison, ebbing and flowing into different sections, cutting back to single layers and driving forward, into an abrupt end. The mood is set, and the mood is decisive.

Enemy Of Reason maintains the pace, using drums to alter the texture, suddenly going into a swinging riff. It’s heavy and dense, bass–heavy, and the momentum keeps up, with the breathers simply suggesting a clam before the storm. Then yelled vocals enter, the opening lines declaring reason to be the enemy, but in contrast to Taste The Sin’s sense of abandon, with lines like ‘Storm is brewing, no control, embrace the madness, in your soul’ and ‘Where am I at, where do I go/Don’t know where I’m going, but I ain’t going slow’, Tend No Wounds sounds more defensive; ‘recoil/backed into a wall/recoil, the pressure of it all’ being one example. Enemy Of Reason has riff after riff after riff, with a tone almost chewable. Then the The Weak And The Wise has a violin intro. On first listen, I stopped what I was doing – has the radio come on? Where is that noise coming from? Are those strings – a goddamn oboe? This isn’t like the other songs. Cool. A descending bass pedal riff underneath, and its brooding, introspective, but then we’re in, satisfying lead guitar work, good mosh moment at 2.30. No choruses, bridges, or verses as such – more just riff after riff.

I suppose this where a feel a similarity to Baroness to exist, in the structural freedom and liquidity that they use – or, rather, that just comes to them. Drummer Jamie (only first names are given in sleeve notes) loves his toms, and rolls off them a lot, and his ride for breaking suddenly. Internal/Eternal bludgeons for a long time before the vocals enter, with sweet, piercing lead guitar, followed by writhing riff, then descending into sludge. Truth Untold has massive drums, distorted bass (distorted in a way that suggests, rather than precise calibration of tone, the bass guitarist taking a swig of beer,  slinging on his heavily gaffer tape–repaired bass, turning around, giving the E string a pluck, nodding with approval at sound the row of southeast pointing dials are making), smoking guitars. It’s almost thrash when the vocals enter and a clarion call to the days of evil approaching, thick as syrup, rough as tree bark. In Days Of Woe (Outro), easily the best riff so far kicks it all off, a swaggering, spinning riff, growing through layers, until it straightens out. A single line, repeated as a mantra. The end is downcast, times are getting tougher, there is no comfort to come, and nihilism is the here–apparent solution. The truck cuts to single guitar, and is then snuffed out before the build–out can even finish. That’s it, we’re done, we’re outta here. It clocks in at 23 minutes.