Reclaiming the light: How Royal Thunder found solace in rock'n'roll

A press shot of Royal Thunder

It’s 5pm and Mlny Parsonz, Royal Thunder’s vocalist extraordinaire, is lying face down on the floor of the Spinefarm Records offices in west London. Is she suffering from emotional exhaustion, or undergoing some private form of therapy? Nope, she’s up in a flash; clearly replenished from a power nap, she’s chatty and energetic, her off-the-cuff aura of cool and her Southern twang bringing to mind a wise-beyond-their-years character from the cult Love And Rockets comicbook series. These days, she’s seemingly free from the emotional weight she exorcised over the course of three soul-scorching albums and one EP. Full of impassioned vocals, they’re the kind of records many people have found themselves holding onto for dear life.

“There was one lady at a show in Orlando,” Mlny recalls. “She had this tattoo of the cover of our first EP, with the lyric, ‘Relax. It’s gonna fade’ underneath it, from our song Time Machine, and she was fighting cancer. She said, ‘This was my mantra.’ Josh [Weaver, guitarist, and Mlny’s former husband] met someone who was going though male-to-female transition. She said that she was going to kill herself at one point, and just clung to our music to help her stay strong and keep going. I was like, ‘Holy shit!’”

Intensely personal and utterly unique, Royal Thunder’s cathartic approach to underground and classic rock feels universal and transformative, despite being forged from the most tempestuous of circumstances. Initially joining the band as a keyboard player in their early incarnation as a Christian black metal outfit called Orcrist, Mlny also joined Josh as a member of a church in Seattle that, over time, imposed all the brainwashing techniques of a cult – attempting to control all aspects of behaviour, separating members emotionally from their families, and accessing financial information. It took her 10 years to escape and bring then-husband, Josh, with her, and to begin the process of rebuilding her life. Reflective yet animated, open about her past but stressing the need to keep moving forwards, Mlny explains why she needed to start Royal Thunder.

“When I left, I was so programmed to believe and think a certain thing,” she recalls. “I couldn’t get images out of my head enough to create my own belief system, so I had to abandon spirituality completely. It was like I was drunk all the time and I felt like I wasn’t connected. I needed to connect. I can feel energies and people, so when I was feeling all that and staying ‘drunk’, I guess I was trying to find some way to use this energy that was coming out of me. I needed something to control myself and control that thing in me that I felt swirling – to feel that there’s something more than nothing.”

Delve into Royal Thunder’s journey, from the doom-laden incantation of their self-titled 2010 debut EP, its humid atmospheres redolent of their base in Atlanta, through to the progressive soul projection of 2012’s CVI, to latest album Wick, and you can feel Mlny’s process of unburdening. Her wounded searching, spirit-rending catharsis and hard-won wisdom are bound by a fierce and unflinching honesty.

“I just did not know who the fuck I was on that first EP,” Mlny remembers. “CVI was definitely influenced by leaving that cult. When I got to Crooked Doors, I had a little bit to say about it, and by the time I got to Wick, it was gone. I’d already processed all that – it’s way behind me. At one point it influenced me, which partly made me who I am today, but I just took the good from it and moved on.”

As much as we might try to change our lives, we always carry echoes of our past with us; the process of renewal is a dialogue with our former selves. For Mlny, that still manifests itself in specific ways.

“I learned how to meditate in the church, which still to this day crosses over onstage,” she says. “When monks are meditating, they’ll sit cross-legged and they’ll rock back and forth, and sometimes I catch it in the corner of my eye that Josh and I will be rocking back and forth at the same time; that’s what we used to do in that church. It was a form of staying in this centre that you find. Sometimes it will freak me out, it looks like we practise it, but it’s us trying to stay in the moment. That crosses over, and that’s really weird.”

Royal Thunder – completed by Will Fiore on guitar and Evan Diprima on drums – have grown accessible to the point where they find themselves opening up for bands such as Wilco and Halestorm. But that’s not to say that their latest album, Wick, offers any kind of easy sailing. Tracks such as the exposed, ravaged soul testimony of Plans, featuring one of the most devastating vocal performances you’ll hear all year, and the incantation of the title track, suggest Mlny is still working through her demons.

“I feel like I go through a lot,” she says. “I’ll go through something and finally get through it and be like, ‘Fuck, yeah!’, and then I’ll sit back, and then all of a sudden it’s like, next one, goddammit! Ha ha! But, you know, in all things you go through, it’s not healthy to stay in it and allow yourself to be showered with all the bullshit and the negativity. After, you have to start shedding all the negativity and look at the good. There’s always something worthwhile to come from that.”

It takes a rare courage and willingness for self-examination to find strength in the darkest of depths. Royal Thunder have proven yet again that they’re here for the long haul.

Wick is out April 7 via Spinefarm

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Jonathan Selzer

Having freelanced regularly for the Melody Maker and Kerrang!, and edited the extreme metal monthly, Terrorizer, for seven years, Jonathan is now the overseer of all the album and live reviews in Metal Hammer. Bemoans his obsolete superpower of being invisible to Routemaster bus conductors, finds men without sideburns slightly circumspect, and thinks songs that aren’t about Satan, swords or witches are a bit silly.