After five tracks of soaring, gut-punching hard rock, Royal Thunder's third full-length collapses in the best way possible. The band make a U-turn on "Plans," a soulful, stirring ballad about feeling lost after a relationship's end. Frontwoman Mlny Parsonz – whose raspy, powerful wail is one of the most moving voices in rock right now – sounds as though she's banging her head against a wall in frustration as she pleads, "Come back." On any other record, it could come off like an Adele torch song, thanks to its ethereal "ohh" background vocals, or something by Alabama Shakes with its southern looseness, but there's a fragile earnestness in the way Parsonz pleads with her lover that makes the song unique.
Brittle emotions have been Royal Thunder's calling card since they roared their way out of Atlanta with their 2012 breakthrough, CVI. That record, with all of its different shades of nervous breakdowns, sounded a bit like an alternate universe where Janis Joplin fronted Led Zeppelin. Their second LP, 2015's Crooked Doors, was less focused – likely because it reflected the real-life breakup of Parsonz and Royal Thunder guitarist Josh Weaver – but its psychedelic overtones and curious lyrics about escaping a cult ("Floor") made it one of the better hard-rock releases that year. Now it feels like Royal Thunder has found its sound.
Although Wick is still flawed – its track list puts three weak, sort of aimless cuts up front and some of the songs could use some editing – it suggests greatness. It's middle-section could make up one of the best EPs in rock this year. Beginning with the bluesy, tumultuous fourth track, the soaring, beautiful "We Slipped," the band hits a confident stride that carries into a swinging number, "Sinking Chair," that hints at boogie-woogie rhythms without going full cornball. "Anchor" is a slinky, shamanic tune with a springy, catchy "round and round and round" chorus. There's something almost upbeat about these songs, not the least of which is the way the band can play in major keys and yet still sound gutsy. Even their dourest offering, "Wick," which basically lists all the ways Parsonz feels disaffected amid sheets of distortion, has an uplifting guitar solo.
The back third of Wick drags a little, as the group gets lost in moody chording ("Push") and muddled, ill-conceived tempo changes ("We Never Fell Asleep"). But the galloping chorus of "Turnaround" ("Resistance is building ... ") transcends the gloominess and the moody, meandering "The Well" features downright pretty guitar lines and backing vocals that make lines like "I won't be there when you wake up alone" feel all the more cutting. They have the sensibility and the songwriting, and, with more focus, Royal Thunder could be the much-needed antidote to the blustery machismo that dominates active-rock radio.