ALBUM REVIEW: Parkway Drive – ‘Darker Still’

A humanoid head inside an iron maiden shaped like a human head

Remember the narrative around Parkway Drive in the run-up to Ire in 2015? About how much they were selling out by daring to do something even marginally outside the realms of metalcore (which, as we all know, is such a flexible genre anyway)? Well, to an extent, they’ve not been able to really escape that mindset. 2018’s Reverence mightn’t have fully matched up but was still good, though still got pilloried by certain sections of their listener-base; as for Darker Still, the knee-jerk quip of “gone nu-metal” doesn’t seem far behind any mention of it.

The thing is, it’s almost always used as a pejorative, and rather unfairly so. Yes, no act is immune to criticism of any kind, but when such blanket jabs are lobbied at Parkway Drive of all bands—whose recent output has been coloured more by expanding than reflooring—it can feel disingenuous. Both Ire and Reverence still clean house for the majority of their respective runtimes, and there’s barely been a dent in Parkway Drive’s live reputation off the back of either. The fact that run also saw them pass the live DVD milestone with 2020’s Viva The Underdogs is proof positive of everything previously said, that Parkway Drive aren’t on the downswing those compulsively maintaining their hate-boners want to believe.

And with that in mind, here’s Darker Still, the album that’s going to convince approximately zero detractors that they’re wrong, even though they still very much are. It’s easily the furthest from traditional metalcore that Parkway Drive have ever been, another step in the direction their last two albums began to chart, and possibly the most sure-footed and certain example of the three. Maybe not the best when it’s still pipped by Ire, but the refinement they’ve undergone speaks for itself, particularly when that power-metal battle-cry of a guitar tone still cuts through so effortlessly.

You know immediately when you hear it, as Ground Zero simultaneously soars and roars into life with the sort of exalted metal stomp that’s right in Parkway Drive’s arena-friendly pocket. It’s cool that they can pull it off while avoiding any cheesiness or hokiness; maybe it’s how the chug and stomp underneath it serves as a firmer bedrock for that particular brand of haymaker. They’ve fully nailed the technique of wringing out as much colossal mojo as possible from their work, perhaps at the expense of some of their most brutal frills, but they aren’t taken away without replacement. As a band who’ve openly stated they’ve outgrown metalcore, the completed metamorphosis on Darker Still feels like a natural and vital next step for them.

And that’s where the inevitable ‘nu-metal bad’ accusations will come in to muddy the waters, and to be fair, Parkway Drive aren’t too good to hit a dud every now and then. Here, that comes in the form of If A God Can Bleed, the weird King 810 pastiche that this trio of albums is apparently obliged to feature, creaking along in its dark, hanging pianos and portentous drums without a modicum of real threat behind it. So yeah, a King 810 pastiche then, but between Winston McCall trying far too hard to sell a thread menace that’s not in his natural wheelhouse (the way he says “Fat little piggy”—or even just the line itself—is pure David Gunn), and the fact that the title track is an exponentially better example of this sort of thing, it’s Darker Still’s most heavily-drawn black mark.

But going back to that title track, it’s an example of how magnificent Parkway Drive can be when allowed to deviate from their ‘normal’ style. It’s easily the most grandiose cut on an album displaying that quality fairly prominently, as the acoustic guitar and strings sway by mournfully, and break into metal balladry par excellence in the swell and drama of it all. The seven-minute run is perfectly timed too; it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and on an album not averse to letting its metallic expanse luxuriate a bit more, it’s an ideal high point to have.

In fact, if there’s one thing that stands out about this album most of all, it’s the sense of triumph that Parkway Drive have clad themselves in. It’s all tangibly so, overcoming demons and nightmares that gnaw away at the subconscious in a society that subsequently feeds off that uncertainty, and coming out with a ruthlessness to power through and cut a swathe through the malignancy. It’s a sentiment entirely fuelled on power, and thus when the ‘becoming the villain’ block gets hit on If A God Can Bleed and Soul Bleach, it’s a bit iffy but not that surprising.

At least elsewhere, it’s sold with the necessary vigour that can power past some of that, mostly because Winston McCall has tremendous presence in all vocal styles that he tries. He’s always had stronger diction is his delivery, even in his more ferocious performances, and that’s no different here, though mostly that manifests in the snarls of Glitch or Imperial Heretic. Add on the gang vocals that buoy it up even further, and there’s no contest that, among the bigger modern metal bands currently actively, Parkway Drive’s command of size is about as good as it gets. To gripe slightly, maybe the production could afford to be a bit heavier to get even more of that fire to rage, but there’s still very little to sniff at when it comes to hitting a stride with this sort of confidence and formidable manner.

Really, for a band ageing like this and coming up to two decades of metal institution status, it honestly doesn’t feel like Parkway Drive should be anywhere else. They’re still an emboldened presence within their genre, exciting and sharp-edged at practically every turn, and maintaining that excitement this deep in is something that most wouldn’t be capable of. But here they, continuing to add to their sonic arsenal and prevailing royally, with Darker Still acting as yet another glowing achievement to add to their already swollen roster. The reductionist, preemptively negative jibes it’ll inevitably field isn’t accurate to an album with plenty more to offer than that; just like the last two, the best way to find out is to dive right in.

For fans of: Slipknot, Iron Maiden, Lorna Shore

‘Darker Still’ by Parkway Drive is released on 9th September on Epitaph Records.

Words by Luke Nuttall

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