Sound — 8
I wasn't exactly sure what I was expecting when this album started playing. Over the last two or three years, there's been a rise in "trad metal," of which most of the bands have been uninspiring or locked away in their nostalgia caves.
But perhaps I should fear not, for Royal Thunder's "Crooked Doors" breaks away from the confines of genre so easily that it's quite hard to place where they even start in terms of influence. Beginning with a base of classic hard rock/metal a la Sabbath, and I'm talking really early Sabbath, then apply the riffs and atmosphere of Alice In Chains but twist it around with some Mastodon of all things, and I guess that would be a basic summation of this album sound. There are less straight up riffs, and more textural chords and patterns, which is a thing I personally love.
It's a little more complex than that, of course. There's a very strong modern prog vein that is completely infused into the songs, just enough to spice the songs but without making them sound forced into the progressive side of things: It feels natural. An example song would be "Forgive Me, Karma" with its spirally, dissonant riffs that lead into a sort of proto-soul verse and very Brann Dailor-sih drum patterns. Somehow that song flows really well despite constantly switching between those two different moods. When the distorted riff kicks in, it transcends into some sort of "triumphant doom metal."
As another example, "Forget You" is a chunky riff-a-thon piled high with feedback and the expectation that Phil Anselmo will suddenly jump in at any second to tell me I'm a literal sh-t. However, I really enjoy this track for being a little smarter than that. Main riff aside, there's a very strong "Crack the Skye" vibe in this track, tinged with subtle guitar layers and emotive harmonies. The vocal performances and layering in "Forget You" also really give it a "massive" feeling despite the relative intimacy of the production and mix.
Speaking of which, Joey Jones at Aria Studios, producer for "Crooked Doors" apparently also worked with both Alice In Chains AND Mastodon, and you can definitely argue that there's some production crossover here. That snare drum tone: it's undeniably similar to "Leviathan." Perhaps I'm making too much of a thing over the Mastodon similarities, but to "Crooked Doors" credit, if there was ever a good band to emulate, it would be Brent Hinds and co.
This album feels very nicely stripped down: All the instruments are very real (a blessing after listening to Within The Ruins beforehand), cleanly recorded performances, few uses of harsh overdrive or distortion make it a very powerful album in terms of dynamics and the comfortably loud bass fits in perfectly.
Lyrics — 8
One of the other things of recent "trad metal" is the prevalence of female fronted bands. Bands like Huntress, Purson and Devil that fall into the nostalgic pitfalls I mentioned in the beginning. However, Royal Thunder kind of override this particular trend with their vocalist Mlny Parsonz (I'm just assuming that's her Xbox tag).
She is absolutely great on this album, a really powerful Janis Joplin style performance. Aggressively passionate is how I would describe her on this but there are a few times where she's more calmly introspective during intimate moments on the album such as in "The Bear II" and the intro to "One Day." One of the other strong points of the vocals on this album is the particular way they've written harmonies and how the vocals intertwine with guitar layers. I think "One Day" showcases this strength the most, incredibly memorable.
I'd say the one downside to the vocal performance is that the proportion of aggressive vocals to softer instrumental parts is a bit off, mostly because the cleaner guitar tones and slightly muted sounding drum tones aren't as aggressive as the vocal delivery. It only really pays off during a song climax, and by then, all is usually forgiven.
Lyrically, if I recall correctly, there's some hints to Mlny's past in being in a religious cult of some kind, most present on the track "Floor." "Forgive Me, Karma" deals with a similar topic, although it seems to be more focused on personal destiny and striving for a better day. On the inverse side to that, I wouldn't say that the overall lyrical tone is "bitter," but there's some sadness going on at least, balanced with hope and self-improvement.
Overall Impression — 8
I think that it's a very strong album. Distinct variety, strong songs balanced with welcome and unique progressive influences, amazing vocal performance and goes well on a playlist with gritty, "southern rock" or metal where the blues scale is king and everything is riffs (for counter-balance, you dig?).
Perhaps not ground breaking? Doesn't matter, musical evolution, much like actual evolution, moves with small steps towards a bigger picture and "Crooked Doors" is a welcome mutation.
Songs to look out for: "Time Machine," "The Line," "Forgive Me, Karma," "One Day" and "The Bear I & II."