Dave LePage

Parkway Drive’s Playground

The time has come and all is right in the world: Parkway Drive has returned and are finding more joy than ever in their groove-meets-thrash sound.

Taking some time off from the music business and space from bandmates to rest, reevaluate, renew friendships, and regroup can do wonders for a band. Such is the case with Parkway Drive. The newly reinvigorated, Australian metalcore group recently took a six-month break and released Darker Still, its seventh studio album, last fall. 

It’s a stellar record, an emotional ride that lyrically and musically tells a dark night of the soul story of entering a place of darkness and coming out more alive and determined than ever. The narrative of Darker Still is based on Parkway Drive’s trials and tribulations. It’s also a universal story relatable to the band’s myriad metal fans. 

Album opener “Ground Zero” sets the stage for the album’s musical and lyrical themes. Dueling melodic guitars immediately establish an anthemic feel before giving to way to powerhouse riffing and lyrics that begin the protagonist’s coming struggle with the darkness as cracks begin to show and scars, hurt and hate rise to the surface. 

Singer Winston McCall’s furious and clean vocals, the six-string attack of guitarists Jeff Ling and Luke Kilpatrick, and pounding, pulsating rhythm section of bassist Jia O’Connor and drummer Ben Gordon draw listeners in. Darker Still is clearly an immersive experience best listened to in its entirety.  

The title track, also the album’s centerpiece, sees Parkway Drive exploring bold, new, passionate directions. The band reach new heights on the song with delicate, acoustic guitars, an impassioned guitar solo, Ling’s sober whistle and McCall’s clean vocals in fine form. Album closer “From the Heart of the Darkness” sees our protagonist beginning to emerge into the light, accompanied by a skull-crushing, mid-tempo riff and feverish vocals that reflect both the climactic track and the entire, triumphant, album. “Darker Still” is an achievement.

Parkway Drive is touring America for the first time in four years and you can catch them on February 11 at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ. We recently chatted with Winston McCall in Australia via Zoom. 

Parkway Drive recently took six months off to reflect and reenergize. What caused you to take a break?  

Basically, like 20 years of being in a band kind of took its toll, and I don’t mean to say that like, “Oh, we did this for 20 years and we’re tired.” It was a case of you start something when you’re 21 – and in our drummer’s case, 16 – and you do something for 20 years, and you don’t really take the time to grow as people. You just try and survive the grinding machine that is the music industry. You grow into some pretty toxic habits just out of survival and those habits just brew into dysfunction and resentment and a whole bunch of stuff we never really dealt with as friends. 

We dealt with everything to make the band work but we never really dealt with the personal stuff just for the sake of continuing on as a band… because you feel like you have to keep that full momentum going. If it stops, you can’t start it up again. It came to a point where everyone in the band loved the band but did not want to be around the people in the band. It’s an ongoing process, basically catching up on 20 years of emotional growth, and the lack of emotional growth that has caused to all of us. 

Do you feel a new sense of urgency and camaraderie now?

100%. I feel as though I’m in a better place and everyone else has said the same thing to me, which is really nice. It allowed a connection and a reconnection with my friends in this band that I’ve never had before. Instead of being at cross-paths and cross-purposes and a lack of understanding, once everyone is on the same page and is able to provide everyone that support and a common goal, the momentum surge was even more, which is really awesome. I’m glad we did [take a break] and I’m really stoked to be able to bring back a new and improved energy. To be able to have a resurgence of energy 20 years in is a really cool thing because; honestly, when we started this we didn’t think the band would survive one year – let alone 20 years.

Tell us about the importance of this headlining tour in the States, your first U.S. tour in four years, and getting the word out about Darker Still.

Four years is a long time. It’s a combination of us being psyched to tour again and coming back to a place that’s been so good to us. It’s showing we’re not done. The fire is still here. It’ a consolidation of where we’ve been and the next step begins. This is kind of that next step. We love America. It’s like the population is vast compared to anywhere we go on the planet and very, very passionate when it comes to the shows. It’s been a place where we’ve been able to see, like culture in general. 

American culture influences the planet so to be able to go to the home of that and tour and have people give you respect and to be able to grow a career around touring a place that is not your home soil is a big deal. I don’t know how many places we’ve played in North America – how many towns, how many cities, the smallest places and the biggest. The iterations that we’ve had over 20 years, having gone to playing to 15 people in the back of a laundromat to playing big shows. You start with a very genuine connection with a population whom you feel welcomed by and that passion grows and grows. I’ve always found America incredibly warm and incredibly welcoming, and they just go mental when you play.

How important is Darker Still in Parkway Drive’s evolution as a band? 

It’s really important. The band’s entire career has been one of evolution from day one. It’s been us chasing new ways to express ourselves and also to entertain ourselves when it comes to writing and creating our music. Every time we do something it adds a string to the bow.  This is probably the one that drew it the farthest apart, the light and the shade of this album are further apart than anything we’ve done. 

There are a lot of arrangements and concepts that are far more varied than anything we’ve done before, that sound like nothing that we’ve done before. Most of this album was built upon groove. We went for groove over thrash for the first time ever in Parkway’s history. I’m really stoked that we’ve been able to push ourselves that far and being able to execute it as well as our imaginations could put it together. There were no shortcuts. We committed ourselves to creating something that was unique to Parkway and also unique within Parkway. At the end of the day the only thing we judge it on is: did we have fun making it and do we like playing it? It ticked all of those boxes so I’m really, really happy with that. 

On this album, you at times juxtapose melodic guitars and urgent and catchy choruses with serious, tortured lyrics. You start off the album with “Ground Zero,” which has those elements. Is that track meant to set the tone for Darker Still?

Definitely. It’s really interesting because I’ve found that there was intent behind everything we do, especially track ordering. I found that the intent became even more apparent after we finished the album. The idea of the album is definitely a journey into darkness; it’s about going through the dark night of the soul. “Ground Zero” is the anthemic intro where it begins to show that the cracks are there. Essentially I wrote that song trying to show vulnerability. It just isn’t encouraged; strength is encouraged and showing vulnerability is seen as weakness. We wanted something that was still rousing in that Parkway kind of way. It has a lead guitar line that screams Parkway and you can’t get it out of your head. It just stomps the entire way through.

The first five songs give you the peak feeling and then it slowly morphs into a different, darker version toward the back end of the album. It is still anthemic, but it becomes more twisted and darker. That was kind of the thinking behind the entire process of it: keep everything Parkway but slowly start drifting into those changes until you become uneasy by the end of the album.

Darker Still is a very different Parkway Drive song, with acoustics, whistling, and clean singing. What kind of mood and vibe were you setting out to create? How did the idea for the song come about?

We started off as a band that would just like… write everything based on adrenaline and go as fast as we [could] and do as much as we [could] within like two-and-a-half minutes. No song structure – riff, riff, riff, riff. That’s all. The challenge for us has always been slowing down as we go and finding the weight and the value in melody and simplicity. The biggest step for us has always been trying to find a longer form of song that is softer and more simple but still has the power behind it. It wasn’t something we could achieve at first because, A) I couldn’t sing well enough to do it previously, and B), it’s a difficult thing to write, at least for us, to write a ballad. 

It just happened to be as soon as Jeff came to us with the main melody and the main riff we’re like, “That’s it, that’s what we’re basing it around. It has to be this kind of song.” We shied away from it several times in the process on other albums, like, “It’s too hard to write a song like this. Let’s just make it a radio banger that’s like a rock song because it’s got a really big riff!” We screwed around with it and we’re like, “We’re doing this song. If not, we’re doing a disservice,” but it had to be a bigger theme. The riff is too evocative, so we just worked our asses off. Jeff as a guitarist has made no secret about his favorite band and his biggest influence being Metallica. We grew up in the nineties when rock ballads and metal ballads were all over the place. “Nothing Else Matters” was all over and all those things, so we’re like, “Why can’t we do something like that? We’ve got to try to pull it off.” We’d backed away from it on two records previously. Now it’s, “We have the time, just commit to doing it.” That’s what we did and I think we executed it exactly like how our imaginations came up with it. 

You have “Darker Still,” “Imperial Heretic,” and “If a God Can Bleed” all in a row. All reference religion. Is there a religious connotation to the album? 

It’s less about religion and more that I use religious metaphors a lot in my music. I’ve actually noticed a lot of people over the years just going, “Man, he really hates religion.” Actually, I hold no one’s religion against anyone. I hold people’s actions against them, but not their beliefs. The thing that I do love about religion is the universal nature of the iconography. You’re referencing a God or a devil or a heaven or a hell or a miracle or a damming that immediately is incredibly evocative. I’m just a fan of it. It’s invoking something so grand that it’s beyond humanity in the first place. So I always kind of swing back to it because I really love the imagery. It has inspired artists forever, and some of the most amazing art created across every medium was created by people using religious iconography.  

The album ends on “From the Heart of the Darkness,” a heavy, skull crushing, mid-tempo song.  You talked before about track order. Why is this song the way to end the record?

It’s almost just one riff – one crushing riff. We have a habit of leaving the last song to something grand and epic. You have to have the last song on the album be a statement and something that ends on a high point. This one’s high point happens to be a sledgehammer through the brain. That was one that we started working on early on and the riff was really bludgeoning. Then we started with the idea of adding the growing tension through the strings and the symphonic elements and bringing in the horns. That’s a song of victory and of triumph coming through the darkness and the rebirth through that. The journey does end the way that the journey of the period of the band ends. It really carries the weight of the entire album.

What do you think when you consider the band has been together nearly 20 years?

It’s really, really crazy. It’s far exceeded anything we could’ve imagined. This is a strange time for reflection for us. Nostalgia is a strong thing and when go you through something like we’ve gone through as a band and you allow yourself to feel a lot closer to the people you’re around, you start reminiscing on some of the really amazing aspects that you may not have time to take in as you went. Right now, I’m more stoked to be doing this band than I’ve ever been, and that goes for everyone else in the band. 

We’ve been able to grow as artists not only in the music, but the way we present the band, the way we represent our shows, everything to do with it. We’ve played arenas and stadiums, which is beyond anything we could have imagined. I think we can operate from either – put on the show in the back of a laundromat or put on a show in a stadium and both of those things will give us equal joy. Moving forward we just want to keep expressing ourselves and enjoying what we do: simply being five guys being on a weird trip. The musical world is our playground.