The colossus that is Parkway Drive opted to take some major chances while creating their latest, Darker Still, which arrived on September 9, 2022, thanks to Epitaph Records. But did that courage and freedom pay off?
It’s no secret that Australia’s Parkway Drive continues to be at the upper echelon of all things heavy. Formed in 2003, in Byron Bay, Australia, the quintet has built an exemplary name for themselves with albums such as their 2005 debut, Killing with a Smile, 2010’s Deep Blue, and 2012’s Atlas. ARIA nominations and a No. 1 album followed, along with seemingly compulsory line-up changes. However, nothing has managed to dull the group’s dedication to the road, a perseverance that has seen them share stages with everyone from Suicidal Tendencies to Bring Me the Horizon.
And then there was Album #7. Produced by longtime friend and collaborator George Hadji-Christou (Protest the Hero), the 11-song Darker Still is far removed from its predecessor, 2018’s Reverence. According to quotes from the band—Vocalist Winston McCall, Guitarists Jeff Ling and Luke Kilpatrick, Bassist Jia O’Connor, and Drummer Ben Gordon—it is a realization of the sonic dreams that they have hoped to achieve all along. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the collection is far-removed from any of their previous work, occupying a space that is neither Metalcore nor Deathcore nor any ‘Core.
All bands have to grow, right? There is a point in an artist’s career where more of the same simply means death, figuratively speaking. For Parkway Drive, evolution was always the penultimate goal, so Darker Still embraces the courage to explore new soundscapes, finding freedom in its bold compositions. And Ling and Gordon deliver on the majority of tracks, offering listeners plenty of symphonic feels, shapeshifting guitars, orchestral maneuvers, and so much more. Coupled with McCall’s enthusiasm to travel new vocal pathways, the album should be a home run.
Unfortunately, from the beginning notes of the opener, “Ground Zero,” there is a sense of wrongness. No doubt it was not the quintet’s intention to concoct a song that calls the drunken pirates of Alestorm to mind, but the gang vocals and thick symphonic feel sink into the vast expanse of forgettable material. Sadly, the same can be said for the incendiary attempt “Like Napalm,” whose whirligig guitar work is the clear focus. It fails to strike the intended gut punch, a sentiment that can be attached to most of the record.
Sure, “Glitch” has its moments, and “The Greatest Fear” hits on something bizarrely intriguing with its folk storytelling elements, but it is a peculiar shift for the Aussies that is never fully developed beyond this one song. So, abandoned before it can hope to succeed, they detour into the nearly seven-minute-long titular offering, “Darker Still,” calling to mind the tempo of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” matched with the flamboyancy of Axl Rose on “November Rain.” Does it have the potential to go down in history as the band’s magnum opus? If the need to visualize McCall and his bandmates performing the song alongside an orchestra at Royal Albert Hall is any indication, then it just might echo the commercial successes of its forebears.
But this in no way makes Darker Still the band’s best album to date. In fact, one listen to the cringe-worthy “From the Heart of the Darkness” can singularly shatter that hope. And while catchy, “Imperial Heretic” feels like a leftover Avenged Sevenfold composition, thick on guitar mastery and lacking in substance. Meanwhile, the oddly syncopated vocal approach of “If A God Can Bleed” might have worked for Mike Patton because he’s, well, Mike Patton, but it’s nowhere near as successful for Parkway Drive and their wah pedals.
Forget “Soul Bleach” or the white noise interlude “Stranger,” and hone in on what could have been—we see hints of this in “Land of the Lost.” Building upon the quintet’s established sound and experimenting outside the boundaries of Metal, it provides an anthemic sing-along that refuses to forget its roots. This is not to suggest that Darker Still is a slap-in-the-face to longtime fans, rather, it’s a testament to the Aussie’s bravery in going their own route and recording the record they felt in their hearts.
No matter how you slice it, Parkway Drive is an exceptional band. Though Darker Still fails to live up to the momentum built on the powerful shoulders of 2015’s Ire and 2018’s Reverence, it proves that these Australians are hellbent on making each recording experience unique. Yes, these 11 songs take a sharp left turn that seems manufactured to titillate Active Rock radio, but if that’s what Parkway Drive is feeling at the moment, then who are we to say that it’s an inferior product? Still riding the fence, but with great reverence for these Aussies, Cryptic Rock gives Parkway Drive’s latest 3 out of 5 stars.