Half-Life – Parkway Drive

Parkway Drive have come a long way since the days of all-ages, community center shows at which I became acquainted with them. For one thing—going by the banner picture above—drummer Ben Gordon is now rocking an impressively luscious set of golden locks, while guitarist Jeff Ling is showing his seniority by way of his own graceful, silver tinge. Looks aside, the band have been set on a seemingly-unending, upward trajectory throughout their decade and a half career that shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. This past week saw the release of the first single from their presumably-upcoming sixth full-length record. “Wishing Wells” showcases some of the heaviest material the band have come up with for some time, in contrast to the more overtly positive tone taken on their most recent record—with frontman Winston McCall describing the track as “the compression of grief into song”. However, while the shift in tone is striking, it’s just one more twist in what has been a deceptively varied and illustrious career.

Don’t Close Your Eyes (2004)

As early career releases go, Don’t Close Your Eyes is pretty rough. The production is rather crude, the songs are fairly basic, the lyrics are cliché and the vocals just aren’t there yet. Add to that the general air of immaturity brought on by titles like “Looks Like Yoda” and songs being introduced by snippets from End of Evangelion and old, Nokia SMS tones, and it’s hard to deny that this EP is very much a snapshot of a band in its infancy.

Having said that—and maybe it’s just the nostalgia talking—is still a fun listen, and it also features glimpses many elements of the band’s sound that would come to fruition over the following releases. The emphases on rhythm and tempo-changes and the knack for lyrical sloganeering that continue to make Parkway Drive stand out from the crowd are all firmly in place here, even if they’re not fully developed. Likewise, there are hints of the metallic edge that would become more prevalent on their early full-length releases in the occasional leads that pop up here and there. The roughness also has its own personal charm, however. To this day, I still prefer the more jagged and rudimentary version of “Smoke ‘Em If Ya Got ‘Em” that appears here over the squeaky-clean version on Killing With A Smile and, as unsophisticated as they may be, “Looks Like Yoda” and the title track still feel like they deserve a place in the Parkway Drive canon.

Don’t Close Your Eyes was re-issued in 2006, along with bonus tracks taken from the Australian hardcore compilation What We’ve Built and their split with I Killed The Prom Queen (both 2003).

Killing With A Smile (2005)

For an album that was, in its time, both so popular and critically revered, Killing With A Smile is an incredibly underrated record. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s not only Parkway Drive’s best album and a stone cold genre classic, but that it has a strong claim to being the best metalcore debut of all time.* Bands are often defined by their early records, and genres are often founded upon great debuts. However, this isn’t the case when it comes to metalcore, especially the twenty-first-century variety. Many of Parkway Drive’s contemporaries and predecessors took at least an album or two to find their footing, but the Byron Bay quintet knocked it out of the park right from the beginning.

In retrospect, it’s crazy to think that this album came out just a year after Don’t Close Your Eyes. Obviously, the studio intervention of Killswitch Engage mastermind and producer Adam Dutkiewicz had a lot to do with this; and—while I’m sure there are many people with an aversion to his ultra-slick production style—even by his lofty standards, this record is a true highlight when it comes to sheer sonic presentation. Yet, regardless, the sheer jump in songwriting quality between the two releases is virtually palpable. Killing With A Smile is a damn near perfect record. Even its weaker offerings (“Blackout”, “Picture, Perfect, Pathetic”) tower above all but the absolute best of the band’s modern output, and the same could even be said of their genre as a whole. This is an album made up of back-to-back classics, and the fact that its true standout moments (“Pandora”, “A Cold Day In Hell”) have seemingly gotten lost amid more immediate genre staples like “Romance is Dead” and “Guns For Show, Knives For A Pro”, is both a travesty and a testament to the album’s near-unrivalled consistency and quality.

Yet, even the band themselves seem to have all but disowned this record. If you went to see them live these days you’d be lucky to get “Romance is Dead” or “Smoke ‘Em If Ya Got ‘Em”, let alone the likes of “Mutiny”, “Pandora” or “A Cold Day In Hell”. It’s not uncommon for band’s to neglect and/or distance themselves from their early material as time wears on, and it’s understandable, given an artists’ general desire to push their craft forward—not to mention the fatigue that can set in from having to hear and play their old songs all the time. However, it can be a real shame for longtime fans and, at the end of the day, it’s often these songs upon which the band have built their legacy. Having a debut as seminal and fully-formed as Killing With A Smile is something that ought to be lauded, rather than swept under the proverbial rug.

*Bullet For My Valentine’s The Poison (2006) and Misery SignalsOf Malice And The Magnum Heart (2004) are the other two I think would maybe be in contention, but Killing With A Smile is better than both of them anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.

Horizons (2007) 

For all my love of Killing With A Smile, if there’s a definitive release in their catalog then it’s probably Horizons. It’s also probably the heaviest and most “metal” release in their discography as well. The blistering tremolo assault and thundering beatdowns of “The Siren’s Song” sets the tone for the record, and that colossal opener is followed up by what is essentially a thrash metal song with a few breakdowns thrown in “Feed Them To The Pigs”. This isn’t to say that the album foregoes any of the band’s melodic expertise, however. “Carrion” and its gigantic chorus is probably neck-and-neck these days, with “Romance Is Dead”, for the title of the most well-known Parkway Drive song (even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of “Pandora” before it), and “Five Months” and the title-track are built around similarly-catching, melodic refrains.

Yet, although it’s a certified classic in its own right, Horizons isn’t quite as bulletproof as the band’s phenomenal debut. Even though it’s only a track lengthier than Killing With A Smile and—at just under thirty-nine minutes—narrowly edges it out as the band’s shortest full-length outing, Horizons a touch less consistent than its predecessor. The solid-if-uneventful “Moments of Oblivion” gets somewhat lost between the superior offerings of “Breaking Point” and “Idols and Anchors”, and “Frostbite”—although fantastic in its own right—feels similarly superfluous in light the more monumental closer that follows. Furthermore, a lot of the songs feel like similar takes on templates already established on Killing With A Smile: “The Siren’s Song” = ”Gimme A D”, “Carrion” = ”Pandora”, “Dead Man’s Chest” = ”Mutiny”, etc. Each of these songs also occupies an identical position in the track listing as their counterpart(s)—excluding the introduction of “Begin”—so that the record also feels similarly structured to its immediate antecedent.

Although Horizons can be considered, in many ways, to be a repeat affair, the existence of a “Killing With A Smile, Mk. II” certainly isn’t a bad thing, and the record’s enhanced aggression lends it its own distinctive personality as well. For their second record, Parkway Drive effectively took everything they’d done beforehand and simply did it harder and faster. The result is a pair of records that cemented them at the forefront of the modern metalcore movement, and which I would argue is second only to Killswitch Engage’s Alive or Just Breathing (2002) and The End of Heartache (2004) as the best back-to-back releases of their kind.

Deep Blue (2010)

Ok, unpopular metal(core) opinion time: Deep Blue is a bad album. It may have been the record which took them from being this almost cult-like Australian band and broke them on the world stage, and I’m sure there are many who came to Parkway drive on this release who would claim it as their magnum opus. However, I suspect a lot of Deep Blue’s success can be attributed to the goodwill bought by the band’s previous two records.

Firstly, the mixing/production on this album is atrocious. Although Joe Barresi has worked on some of the greatest albums of all time as a mixer and engineer (most notably Kyuss’s Blues for the Red Sun (1992) and Welcome to Sky Vally (1994)), his production career is patchy at best, and his name is often attached to records which are considered either low points or lesser entries in their respective artist’s catalogues (From Beale Street to Oblivion, The Age of Nero, Year of the Black Rainbow).* The relative lack of success of those records rarely has to do with their sonic palate. However, in Deep Blue’s case, it is utterly crippled by it.

I could talk about how the guitar tone is stale and the vocals are too high, but none of that even matters when it’s all buried behind the world’s most obnoxious kick drum. The concussive nature of the mixing/production renders otherwise serviceable fare like “Unrest” and “Sleepwalker” utterly unlistenable, and whatever inherent impact “Deliver Me” obviously carries is all but done away with in its oppressive setting. I hate to harp on about the production so much, but I honestly think Deep Blue would be at least twice as good a record if it shared the same aesthetic as Horizons and Killing With A Smile. Going from Dutkiewicz’s pristine production to this only adds insult to injury, and spoils even the best of what the album has to offer—in the oddly Kreator-reminiscent early cuts “Wreckage” and “Deadweight”, and later highlight “Karma”—which truly comes to life in the live setting.

The presentation isn’t the only thing bringing this record down, however. The songwriting is, for the most part, woefully basic—doing away with a lot of the complexities nuances built up over their first two records. Even when its unending barrage of interchangeable chugs are effective, they feel recycled. “Home Is For The Heartless” is the most contrived composition the band has ever put their name to and is only made the more offensive by its continually forced inclusion in their live set. Likewise, the impact of “hard-hitting” opener “Samsara” is all but lost the moment you twig that it’s just the Terminator 2 theme with the worst case of “cookie monster vocals” layered over the top of it—an effect severely exacerbated if you’ve heard the Austrian Death Machine rendition even once.

This record is an obvious attempt by Parkway Drive at recapturing their hardcore roots. However, it’s telling that the record’s most successful regressive offering (“Hollow”) is a re-recording of an earlier number (“Hollow Man” from What We’ve Built), and—although it catapulted the band to the world stage—it ushered in an era of stagnant creativity that the band are only now beginning to shake off.

*There are exceptions to this trend of course, and “lesser” doesn’t necessarily imply “bad.” For instance, you can read all about my love for the last of these three examples here. 

Atlas (2012)

While my stance on Deep Blue might be controversial, I’m pretty sure Atlas is generally considered Parkway Drive’s weakest offering and, while I personally prefer it to Deep Blue it’s certainly the Parkway Drive record with the least individual identity. This record has grown on me a lot in the years since its release, and there’s at least one great moment per track on here. However, for everything it does well, it also feels like it’s been better and more distinctly elsewhere. A lot of this record just feels like Parkway Drive by numbers, and—outside of a few choice cuts—it doesn’t leave as much of an impression as the band’s other albums.

As mentioned above, there’s a ton of great moments on this record, and tracks like “Old Ghosts / New Regrets” and “Swing” stand among the best individual offerings of the band’s modern era. Yet, for all its discrete achievements, Atlas just doesn’t gel together as a whole. The record hints at a broader thematic scale via its frequent lyrical engagement with environmentalism, and there are moments such as the orchestrations on “Sparks” and the title-track, as well as the addition of female vocals on “The River” and even a turntable solo on “The Slow Surrender”. However, Atlas never coheres into an intelligible whole, and the awkwardness of its sequencing often comes off like the band constantly hitting the reset button. The transitions between the tracks are as jarring as the many staccato beatdowns that populate its excessive run-time (see the initial shift between “Sparks” and “Old Ghosts / New Regrets” for perhaps the most egregious example of this phenomenon), and it never manages to build up the kind of momentum that was so characteristically vital on earlier releases.

Atlas is arguably Parkway Drive’s most ambitious release to date. Yet it’s also one which winds up being less than the sum of its parts and—for all its individual achievements and (not so) subtle variations—what it ultimately made clear was that Parkway Drive had done about all they could by this point with their particular template.

Ire (2015)

Ire isn’t as polished, nor as fully realised, as many of the band’s earlier albums, but it’s exactly the breath of fresh air the band needed at this stage in their career. Although it’s less expansive and contains less actual variation than Atlas, the New South Welshmen’s fifth full-length feels at least twice as fresh and doubly effective to boot.

As I’m sure many other fans were, I was initially concerned when “Vice Grip” was dropped as the lead single off the record. While, theoretically, I had absolutely no objection to Parkway Drive deciding that a big fat shot of Bon Jovi is exactly what they needed (hell, don’t we all?); out of context, the song felt stilted and ill-conceived. It works far, far better in context, however, and—now that it’s had a bit of time to settle in—it’s hard to imagine their live sets ever existing without it. The song is uncharacteristically uplifting, and a similar, welcome positivity oozes throughout the record. Even when Winston McCall is carrying on about blacking out the sun on “Destroyer”, he does so with a gleeful optimism that is as irresistible as it is refreshing.

This lyrical optimism is accompanied by the introduction of many notable hard rock elements, that seem ripe to fill the ever-increasing venues the band finds themselves filling these days. Many of Ire’s tracks are built upon the foundation of a basic rock-beat, and both band and album are all the better for it. Even in a catalog that boasts both “Gimme A D” and “The Siren’s” song, “Destroyer” might just be the best album opener Parkway Drive have ever come up with, and they have absolutely no business beginning their live sets with anything else from this point on. Likewise, “Fractures” finally sees them making good on the forced pattern of “Home Is For The Heartless”, while the album’s back half sees them delivering the freshest takes on their classic template that they’ve come up with for some time in “Bottom Feeder”, “The Sound of Violence” and “Dedicated”. Furthermore, “Dying To Believe” is the most savage outing they’ve delivered since “Feed Them To The Pigs”.

Nevertheless, not all of the record’s experiments are successful. Although “Crushed” is a potent concoction, it succeeds mostly by blatantly channelling the likes of Heaven Shall Burn and Rammstein with little of the band’s own spin thrown into the mix, and the sullen “A Deathless Song” seems trite in many of the same ways the band’s attempts at similar compositions on Atlas did before it. “Writings On The Wall” is the record’s one true stinker, however, with McCall’s gruff, self-important delivery bringing to mind Christian Bale’s Nathan Explosion-channelling Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy far more readily than it imparts the sense of impending drama it so longing craves—and it’s somewhat concerning that it’s this song that their newest offering most closely resembles out of their back catalogue.

Only a couple of misses on an album as daring and pivotal as Ire is hardly a bad strike rate. After a few of years and records-worth of perceived stagnation and diminishing returns, Ire has left Parkway Drive in the most exciting place they’ve been in a long while. Just when it seemed like the band was perhaps down and out, this record turned everything around and has made their forthcoming record one of the most anticipated heavy music records of 2018.

My pen halts, though I do not. Reader, you will walk no more with me. It is time we both took up our lives.