Watching Parkway Drive go from playing the kinds of suburban all-ages gigs my friends and I would go and throw down to every other weekend in highschool to worldwide arena and festival headlining superstars has been one of the most satisfying things I’ve witnessed throughout a lifetime of listening to and documenting heavy music. It couldn’t have happened to a better or more deserving band and, although any mainstream ascension inevitably invites accusations of “selling out” or “watering down” a sound for commercial gain, Parkway Drive handily refuted such allegations by making Reverence (2018) one of the darkest, most ambitious, complex and – let’s not forget – best albums of their career. It’s follow-up, the suggestively-titled Darker Still, is a similarly ambitious affair that solidifies the Byron Bay bruisers’ transition from rabid, riff-driven hardcore to anthemic arena metal. Yet, while broadly successful in its execution, the album also sees Parkway Drive beginning to repeat themselves somewhat.
The majority of Darker Still sees Parkway Drive firing on all cylinders. The awkwardly clean-sung, lullabye-like opening of “Ground Zero” can be confronting on first listen, but it’s not long – thirty seconds to be exact – before frontman Winston McCall switches into a harsher gear with a roar of “Explode” and the rest of the band drop the beat like the proverbial time bomb he was warning you about all along, and it’s only another sixty before you’ll screaming the same refrain along with him at the top of your lungs. It’s an oddly comforting moment, and here’s plenty more throughout the record that provide similar reassurance as Parkway Drive take you through yet another album that’s a far cry from the earl-2000s Byron Bay hardcore scene that birthed them. Yet, for all its oddities, there’s something unshakably safe about the ostensibly confronting Darker Still.
The majority of the album’s songs are built around the kind of folky heavy metal guitar lead that made “Prey” such a stand out on Reverence. None pop nearly as hard, however, and the saturation of the style rather takes away from its memorability. Similarly, obligatory second-track rager, “Like Napalm” erupts in a flurry of wah effects, which are both original and invigorating, but the prevalence and arguable overuse of the wah throughout the rest of Darker Still again detracts from its singularity. The lyrics to “Like Napalm” also recycle the bomb-dropping imagery from “Ground Zero” and Reverence‘s “Absolute Power” so that it seems like more of a crutch than a knowing callback. “Glitch” more effectively builds on the distinctive riffing style of Deep Blue‘s “Sleepwalker” by mixing it with a compelling nu metal bounce that manages to overcomes it’s rather cliche lyrical content through another massive, sing-along chorus and captivating verse melody. It’s bouncy closing beatdown, however, sounds almost identical to that of regular set-closer “Bottom Feeder” even sharing a similar mosh-call and tempo change. The same can be said about the end of “Greatest Fear”, whose the sullen delivery of “In death…” during its build-up sounds exceedingly similar to the one of “In time…” at the end of Reverence‘s “Chronos”, so that while it constitutes Darker Still‘s most complex and compositionally ambitious offering, it also comes across as its most expected and uninspired. The stomping verse riff of “Land of the Lost” is also exceedingly similar to that of live-staple “Crushed”, and awkwardly titled album closer “From the Heart of the Darkness” is cut from a similar cloth, …except with a wah-drenched solo and “Bottom Feeder”-style beatdown at the end. Its use of symphonics also arguably cheapens the distinctive texture they brought to Reverence, as does Darker Still‘s continuing and more blatant lyrical focus on religion. Each individual instance is well crafted and entertaining, but the the continued reuse of specific elements from recent records and even songs within the album itself leave Darker Still feeling like it’s retreading rather than breaking new ground.
The album is most interesting at its most idiosyncratic. The title track is a predominantly clean-sung dirge, backed by whistles and an acoustic guitar. While McCall isn’t the strongest singer, his sullen delivery works well here. The lead work throughout is also phenomenal, with the song’s final cathartic solo giving lead guitarist Jeff Ling the worthy “Fade to Black” moment he so clearly craves. It’s a moment of almost hair-metal-level bombast that perfectly fits where Parkway Drive are at in their career, while also feeling like the true realisation of the ill-fitting “Writings on the Wall” from when the band were first dipping their toes into this sort of thing on 2015’s Ire. More interesting, though less effective, is “If a God Can Bleed”, which draws on McCall’s long-professed admiration of Nick Cave to deliver something almost Zeal and Ardor-like in its defiant, chant-like delivery. McCall’s overly affected snarl here isn’t as effective as his pained delivery during Reverence‘s spoken sections and the song’s seamless shift into “Soul Bleach”, rehashes Reverence‘s similar transition from “Cemetery Bloom” into “The Void” while also undercutting what just might be Darker Still‘s strongest offering. For all the album’s grandiosity, Parkway Drive are still at their best when they simply hammer it out. The verses of “Soul Bleach” sounds like a mash up of Drowning Pool‘s “Bodies” with Slipknot‘s “Custer” delivered with all the pigheaded aggression that implies. “Imperial Heretic” is another stronger, more straight-forward offering that trades the soulless extravagance of “The Greatest Fear” for a gargantuan arena-rock chorus that you feel every single second of. These two tracks, along with “Like Napalm” and “Darker Still” go to show that you don’t always have to reinvent the wheel, you just have to drive with conviction.
Darker Still‘s greatest sin is that it sounds perhaps a little “too much” like Parkway Drive, which is hardly a damning criticism. The risks they take are largely successful, if fewer than they could be. Similarly, while McCall and Ling both overdo it a bit throughout the record, there’s no denying the talent and magnetism that underlies their performances. McCall might not have his idols’ poetic chops but it’s his delivery that makes him one of the most magnetic frontmen in modern metal. Similarly, Ling’s solos are consistently outstanding and the band is at their best when he really leans into his guitar heroics, it’s just that they’re dampened by an overabundance of effects and reliance on an established tone that leads to diminishing returns. Darker Still is a perfectly satisfying record full of stand-out moments Parkway Drive fans will be screaming along with for years to come. Nevertheless, the band have been in a similar position before with Atlas (2012) and Deep Blue (2010), which led them to change tack on Ire, and it will be interesting to see whether they and their fans feel the need for another shake-up for future releases.
Darker Still releases September 9th on Epitaph Records. Preorder one of the many vinyl variants here.