What did you do when the world stopped working the way it should, and everything you've ever known came crashing down from the clouds? Some kept their cool, carving out new chapters in a new world; others went stir-crazy, climbing up walls from being stuck inside for too long. And Parkway Drive? They made music like it'd be the last thing they'd ever release.
"When everyone realised it wasn't going away - that Covid wasn't stopping cause holy shit, here's another wave, and maybe music's not coming back - it's like, okay, this could be the last album you ever write. You'll never get to play it on stage, so what do you want to do?" says Winston McCall, all the way from his home Down Under.
"I was like, let's go really fucking nuts and aim to achieve all those things we've never had time to achieve previously. Let's go down every wormhole of sound, let's drive ourselves insane creating this album, and that's what we did."
2018's 'Reverence' saw Parkway Drive enter arenas, invade charts, and top festival bills the world over. Any band sensible enough might've played it safe, stuck to their guns, and delivered something similar. But Winston – joined by bassist Jia O'Connor, drummer Ben Gordon, and guitarists Jeff Ling and Luke Kilpatrick – saw the bigger picture. That, or they just fancied battering eardrums with brand new sounds every second song.
"You get two songs where you feel like you know what Parkway is going to do, and then we throw a stick in the spokes, we hit you with a baseball bat and push you over into the mud," he grins, a glutton for dishing out punishment to background listeners. 'Darker Still' demands attention and pulls no punches in throwing curveballs you didn't see coming.
"Watching people react to the singles, it's like you guys have no idea what's coming at you, like you poor people, you have no fucking idea what this thing is. We're forcing people's perception of this band into a place they're not used to, and it's undeniable we're not trying to do what we've done before."
Their deathcore days were left behind long before singles 'Glitch' and 'The Greatest Fear' were even riffs in a rehearsal room, having swapped their sound for a more accessible metalcore approach on 2015's 'Ire' and 2018's 'Reverence', and 'Darker Still' is a different beast entirely. While 'Like Napalm' and 'Imperial Heretic' shatter windows with thunderous breakdowns and lightning-flash synths, bookends 'Ground Zero' and 'From The Heart Of The Darkness' are towering anthems built around hooks so infectious they'll shutdown venues.
You might trace the start of this journey back to 'Ire', where they first started working with long-term producer George Hadji-Christou. But for Winston, this wasn't a couple of albums in the making. This was a couple of decades.
"This is the first album we've ever finished where I can't imagine what the next step is. We've pushed so far on this and ticked off a bunch of boxes in terms of songwriting and concept that, when we started, we knew existed, but we saw as unattainable because we didn't have the skill or ability to write music in that capacity. This album has taken us twenty years of doing what we do and being dedicated to playing, learning, and pushing music."
Parkway Drive's dedication and desire has pushed them to the top of the pile. They've climbed the mountain, making leaps and bounds for Australia's place in the heavy metal hierarchy, and made the album they've always wanted to. But if it started two decades ago, what would the Winston who could only make 2005's 'Killing With A Smile' say if he could hear it?
"To show that to me back then and say 'one day you'll be able to make music like this', I'd have laughed and told you to hop back in your time machine, whoever you are, buddy. Stop fucking with me!" he laughs, almost in disbelief that present-day Winston is experiencing this album. "It makes me proud because I know what we've put into this, and it feels pretty nuts to be able to finally reach our goals, which were so far out of reach that it wasn't even a drum when we first began, just something that existed in another realm."
If your expectations for 'Darker Still' aren't giving you vertigo to match Parkway's lofty ambitions, you might be wondering just what those goals are. They're simpler than you think: to become this generation's legendary band.
"We're referencing bands like Metallica and Guns n' Roses. These are legendary bands who've written not just iconic metal songs but iconic pop culture pieces. They're fucking royalty, and when you look at the songs they've written, the idea of doing something like that, you don't even look at it as an influence on your writing because you've got no fucking idea how to do something that incredible. With this record, though, they're the influences, and we're not going to shy away from the challenge."
It's a challenge every band who's ever heard 'The Black Album' or 'Appetite For Destruction' dreams of conjuring up. But so few ever actually go and do it. 'Darker Still' dazzles with its anthems, but it's the title track that takes home the trophy. A monolithic seven-minute marathon that whistles its way into life before strings and synths serenade us out the pearly gates and into the depths of hell below. It's the most ambitious song Parkway Drive have ever attempted and their most personal – on all levels.
"I did the same thing for 10 years: screaming with no vocal training. I didn't express myself in any other way because I honestly thought I'd destroyed my vocal cords. And after 10 years, I got my throat checked out, and they're telling me I'm all good, so I was like, 'holy fuck, maybe I can learn how to do something else,' so I went to a singing coach."
That singing coach, whoever they may be, singlehandedly shaped the future of Parkway Drive in just a handful of sessions. And it's all thanks to a question: What do you want to do? "I said one day I want to write a song that sounds like this, and I showed them 'Nothing Else Matters' [by Metallica]. That singing style was something we tried on 'Ire' and couldn't pull off, and we tried on 'Reverence' and still couldn't pull it off."
This time they most certainly have. So much so that it manifested itself not only into the album title, but into everything 'Darker Still' represents musically and thematically. Like sailing the seven seas in search of treasure, listening to this album is a journey through uncharted emotion.
"It's about the journey that I'm on, which is one of recognising that the older you get, and the more that you take on in your life, the more you realise about the world – the weight doesn't get any less, ignorance really is bliss. The most ignorance you have is when you're a kid; the older you get, the more friends you lose, the more things start to decay, and it grows darker."
'Darker Still' might be written with Winston's journey in mind, but it's one we all universally experience. The growing pains of growing up leave scars on all of us, yet it was Covid that shot everything into focus for Parkway Drive.
"The big thing in Covid was like, 'we can't wait to get back to 2019 when this shit wasn't around' - there's no going back. You don't get to go backwards. You only go forwards, and walking through that darkness is part of life, and it gets darker still – it's just learning to see in the dark and learning that it's not necessarily bad, it's just a part of life."
For Winston, that realisation wasn't an overnight fix or spiritual epiphany; instead, it's an ongoing journey of self-discovery. However, like all life lessons, it starts with a concept. For Parkway Drive, the concept that underpins 'Darker Still' comes from the same space that started Winston's journey: the 16th-century poem 'The Dark Night Of The Soul' by Spanish mystic John of the Cross.
"It's where you reach a point in your life where you're confronted by an undeniable event, which tears down everything about you and everything that you see in the world and your perception of everything that you hold there, and you're left with nothing.
"And then you go on a journey to the rebirth of the next part of your life through the darkness. You have to find yourself and put the pieces together to form the new you, and that's what this album is about. When I came across this concept, I was like, holy shit, because I've been going through that since all of the grief, and it's something I'm still going through to a degree."
If there's anything we do know in this life, it's that true art reflects its creator's reality. 'Darker Still' is written in the blood, sweat, and tears of a band who've been through grief and trauma like they're muddling through trenches. It's an album that reckons with its demons, that puts your understanding of faith to the test. As much as there's hope of walking through the darkness, there's a nihilism that lurks in the shadows.
"'Imperial Heretic' is a turning point," Winston reveals. "It's where the nihilism part starts coming in. I wrote it in the middle of COVID, watching George Floyd get murdered on live television as the world goes up in flames, and shit is not okay on any fucking level. It forces you to look at the way the world is operating because right now, the whole thing's malfunctioning."
Winston's inner nihilist was vying for attention as the world collapsed around him. Rather than let it consume him, he rallied around his bandmates and created bangers built on strongholds of trauma. "You have to sit there and say, 'well, this is what the empire is', but I was like, 'no man, I'm going through a mental fucking breakdown, everything is fucked'. When you're at rock bottom, it's very easy to see what is wrong and when there's more wrong than right, you can write a pretty damn good anthem about it."
Writing anthems is Parkway Drive's way of coping when life gives them lemons. But they know that 'Darker Still' has a deeper role to play than letting them launch some bangers at a crowd of people for 90 minutes. It's the next step in their journey as role models, as conduits for raising awareness of mental health and destigmatising it.
"Pain and suffering is something you want to escape from," Winston muses. We're never taught to embrace it or express it. You're taught it all – don't cry, don't show weakness, don't acknowledge it; just cheer up and put a smile on your face. When we're confronted with the undeniable, art is the voice of the imagination, and the imagination is there because you don't have a way of expressing something no one ever truly explained to you, so it comes out of these dark times. People are going through trauma, and people with traumatic experiences write some fucking awesome records. That's what we're trying to do."
Parkway Drive pull no punches when it comes to mental health. They don't hide behind lies or don't spin stories through smiles. This is a band who cancelled a tour and told everyone the truth: we're not okay right now, so we're going to work on ourselves. It was a pivotal moment that underpins 'Darker Still's learning curve.
"We wanted to set an example, that it doesn't have to be the world is ending, like Parkway's about to break up, and someone's done something irreconcilable blah blah blah. It's just that we know we need to work on some shit, and if we don't work on some shit, there's a good chance mental health will take its toll and none of us will want to do this anymore. No one wants that".
When a band like Parkway Drive can sell out arenas and headline festivals while still singing songs for the common people, then it's our duty to do what we can to protect them. But mostly, it's so they can continue to spread their message - to be the voice of hope when all we see is darkness. Ultimately, that's what 'Darker Still' exists to do, and what Parkway Drive have always done.
"There's plenty of people in this world that just need someone to be able to go 'yo, it's acceptable', and it's okay to let someone help explain why you're thinking that way, or feeling the way that you do, or even just give you a helping hand. Because life can be tough, man. I'm turning 40 in a month, and I've been doing this for 20 years, so to think 20 years has had no impact on me would be very, very naïve."
Taken from the October issue of Upset. Parkway Drive's album 'Darker Still' is out 9th September.
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