Content warning: this story discusses suicide.
For the first time in far too long, heavy music is back in vogue. This year alone, Ed Sheeran has collaborated with Bring Me The Horizon, Willow married Top 40 pop with palm-muted chugging on the single ‘Maybe It’s My Fault’, and Eddie Munson became a Hawkins hero by shredding Metallica’s ‘Master Of Puppets’ in Stranger Things.
Locally, for the entire stretch of this year’s NRL Finals, promos have been soundtracked by songs from Parkway Drive’s career-defining seventh album, ‘Darker Still’. It’s an epic achievement for the band, befitting an epic album: from the thrash-metal thrills of ‘Ground Zero’ to the smoky slow burn of the title track, all the way to the blistering breakdowns on ‘Soul Bleach’, the album shows Parkway at their peak.
As we’ve come to expect from Australia’s biggest metal band, it’s also been an immediate hit, debuting at Number One on the ARIA Top 50 Albums chart – their third consecutive LP to do so. But ‘Darker Still’ has been a hard-won victory, its recording dovetailing with the most excruciating period of Parkway Drive’s history. As frontman Winston McCall puts it, it was the painful culmination of “20 years worth of stunted personal growth, and everything that comes with being a bunch of kids that just go out and tour the world, and never look back.” To put it simply, ‘Darker Still’ is the album that came close to destroying them.
Parkway Drive formed as teens in 2003, playing their formative shows at youth centres around Byron Bay. Before they could even graduate to their local pub circuit, they had become one of the buzziest names in Australia’s burgeoning metalcore scene. Their debut album, 2005’s ‘Killing With A Smile’, put them on the cover of scene bible BLUNT, and took them global on the legendary Taste Of Chaos tour.
Cracks in the Parkway Drive monolith – galvanised by a decade of world-touring, records that surged up the charts, and a veritable avalanche of other accolades – began to show around the end of the touring cycle for 2015’s ‘Ire’. But with its follow-up (2018’s ‘Reverence’) on the horizon, McCall remembers, the band “just kind of slapped some band-aids on it all and rolled on with business as usual”.
When NME caught up with McCall in January 2020, he was chipper. “We are more inspired and invigorated than ever about what we get to create,” he declared then. “By now we could be burnt out and creatively spent, but everything around the band – the records, the shows – is bigger than ever.”
McCall had spoken way too soon. The world tour they’d announced to support their third feature documentary, Viva The Underdogs, was scrapped due to the pandemic, which – as it did for countless other artists – continued eating away at their plans for the next year and then some. Though they hadn’t planned to start on their next album for a long time yet, Parkway rushed into the studio in late 2020. They felt, as McCall says, “pressure upon pressure upon pressure”, and the recording sessions soon turned ugly.
According to McCall, tensions came to a head between himself and lead guitarist Jeff Ling at the start of this year: “He was really broken at that stage, because of all the pressure he felt and being overworked in the studio, and he didn’t know how to cope with it. Basically, the way he coped with it was by lashing out really badly – at various people, but mainly me. And it was one of those situations where it was like, ‘I don’t have the tools to respond to this.’ So I’d just kind of cop it and feel like shit afterwards.”
Reflecting on his mental state in the ‘Darker Still’ sessions, Ling cites a “bottleneck” of visceral burnout and stressors “both within the band and in my personal life” for the way he acted. “The only thing I had the capacity to think was, ‘I hate what this band’s become. I never want to record again.’ I was just at my complete wit’s end at that point – and it just so happened to be that Winston and I were in the studio a lot together at that point.”
“It took a little while for us to bring our walls down and face our vulnerabilities, but once we did, it was pretty amazing” – Jeff Ling
Parkway Drive were falling apart, and it showed in the lyrics on ‘Darker Still’ – even if they were written more than a year before, as McCall says, “the shit hit the fan”. On the searing opener ‘Ground Zero’, the singer spits about “the fights, the falls, the scars and broken bones” and how “beneath it all, the cracks begin to show”. Right after on ‘Like Napalm’, he declares it’s time to “burn the bridges” and “fan the flames”, likening himself to “a car bomb burning at heaven’s door”. Later, on ‘Soul Bleach’, McCall’s insecurity rears its ugly head when he quips that “a little trust is a dangerous thing”, seeking solace in the dark notion that “extinction’s a blessing”.
“Over the last couple of months, I’ve looked back at the words I wrote and realised that this entire record, on a subconscious level, was basically showing us where we were at,” he says. “Now that I look back at it, the whole record has taken on a new meaning… I’m looking at these lyrics and going, ‘Yeah, that’s actually what I was feeling, and now I know why.’ I just couldn’t express it any other way than in the lyrics.”
By the end of the recording sessions, it had become “incredibly mentally draining” to be a member of Parkway Drive, Ling says. Weeks after they finished tracking ‘Darker Still’, Parkway effectively began the process of breaking up – the discussions they were having, McCall says, were about “every single member not wanting to be in the band anymore”. This culminated in a long, tense and volatile meeting where, according to Ben Gordon, “we realised that we were broken beyond repair”. ‘Darker Still’ was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, the drummer says, and their tensions “all kind of exploded” as they laid down the finishing touches on the record.
So began a period of limbo where the fate of Parkway Drive was unclear. In this time, McCall’s mind raced. The idea of “life after Parkway” terrified him, because for the past two decades, this band is all he’s really known. He reluctantly humoured the prospect that “if Parkway stopped, I would figure out something else and do music in a different way, because music is a part of me that I can never escape”. But as he turned that over in his mind, he realised it wasn’t actually music he truly loved – it was Parkway Drive.
“We still loved doing what we do, it was just that everything behind it had been mangled beyond the point of recognition” – Winston McCall
“I love these guys,” he says bluntly to NME now, “and for all the years we spent fighting – for the friendship that was frayed and fractured and all of that – there’s a connection between us that I know I would never get with anyone else. It felt like a sledgehammer had been taken to all of our worlds, but the art that we create together, we’re incredibly proud of. We still loved doing what we do, it was just that everything behind it had been mangled beyond the point of recognition.”
In NME’s interviews with Ling, McCall and Gordon (which were conducted separately), all three credit Parkway’s rhythm guitarist and in-house manager, Luke Kilpatrick, with saving the band. It was Kilpatrick who suggested the band see a counsellor – an idea that initially received mixed reviews, but, as Gordon notes, “turned out to be a really, really good thing”. In April (the same month Parkway cancelled an American tour), they began to meet a professional mediator. In these weekly sessions, often exceeding five hours in length, they meticulously deconstructed, analysed and rebuilt the very foundations of Parkway Drive.
The members were encouraged to identify and unpack exactly what emotions these heavy conversations brought out of them. “It took a little while for us to bring our walls down and face our vulnerabilities, but once we did, it was pretty amazing,” Ling says. “It’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done in the band.”
“It was proper therapy,” McCall adds, “laying it all out on the table to see how far back it all goes, all the way to your childhood and who you are as a person. We had a session, a couple of weeks ago, that literally changed my perspective on life. It answered questions about myself that I’ve had my entire life – and when you have something like that finally click, it changes everything. It’s like pulling the blinders off, or erasing the question mark from a sentence. And that was missing from our entire existence of being in Parkway Drive… And it’s been an intense existence.”
‘Darker Still’ explores the concept of “the dark night of the soul” – a loose adaptation of the 16th century poem by St. John Of The Cross, but more substantially, an intimate chronicle of McCall’s stormy experience with ego death. The first few tracks reflect “the confrontation and destruction of self, trying to hold on to your perception of identity and having it all stripped away”, before plunging the listener into “this spiral downwards into the darkness, journeying through the darkness, and then finally arriving at a new sense of self”.
Weeks after the record’s release and months after its production wrapped, Parkway Drive are still refining their new senses of self. When McCall looks at the state of Parkway now – midway through their first tour in over three years, a run of UK and European arenas – he sees a band in their strongest form. “The best analogy would be the Japanese art of kintsugi, where they make pottery, smash it to pieces, and then bind it back together with gold. We’re in a better place now, knowing that the cracks are there and how they were formed, and knowing that the bonds we’ve been able to create from them are going to make something much better in the future.”
Opening up about their trauma, too, has been liberating. Ling notes that he’s not usually keen on interviews – “all I care about is writing music and playing shows” – but after starting counselling, he’s come to appreciate his platform as a way to start a much-needed dialogue.
“We didn’t understand how important it was to work through our issues, and I don’t think a lot of people do,” he says. “The tools [that allow people to manage their mental health] are just so important, and things can get dangerous without them. So if there’s some way that we can help other men – in Australia particularly, but obviously across the world too – to seek help or confront their issues the way we have, I think it’s important that we do.”
He openly admits that as he and his bandmates stared down the last years of their thirties, they found it “kind of hard to put a finger on what’s OK and what’s not”. And you can’t fully fault them for that: Australian boys – or men – aren’t often taught how to responsibly process their emotions, nor are they clued in to healthy strategies to navigate turbulent situations. Australia’s struggle with toxic masculinity, and how it undermines mental health, is alarmingly real: men accounted for an average seven of the nine Australians who died by suicide every day in 2020.
In a particularly heavy moment, McCall, fighting back tears, explains that he’s “lost friends to circumstances where they [felt like they] haven’t been able to talk over the last couple of years”. One event that hit “really, really close to home” was the death of Sean Kennedy, former bassist for I Killed The Prom Queen – a split CD with whom marked Parkway’s first-ever release – who ended his own life last February at the age of 35. With a weathered sigh, McCall says it “never gets easier” to learn of a colleague succumbing to their personal demons: “You’ve always left with a question mark. It’s heartbreaking, every single time.”
On how common that terrible feeling can be and how hidden the signs often are, McCall admits, “I’ve had friends ask me, ‘Did you realise I was thinking about ending it?’ And I’d be like, ‘No, I’m glad you didn’t but I had no fucking idea.’ And it makes me think, if I missed it in them, maybe I’m missing it a lot closer to home.”
Despite what mainstream pop culture would rather us believe, Australian men are far from invulnerable. According to Beyond Blue, one in eight will experience depression in their lifetime, while one in five will endure an anxiety condition. These statistics are likely conservative, too, given that only one in four Australian men will even seek help for the symptoms of a mental health disorder.
No member of Parkway claims to have all the answers, but drawing from his own lived experience, Ling offers: “I think we’ve got culture problems. I think we’re too far in that direction where no-one’s got the guts to be vulnerable. Everyone thinks that if someone has an issue, they’re considered weak by their peers, or even by their family. You know, my parents are Baby Boomers, and I can just see that’s been hard-wired into them – anything bad, they go, ‘Woah, push it away, you can’t have that!’”
“There were all those classic ‘toxic masculinity’ moments in our early stages of being a band – those moments that you think about as an adult and just go, ‘…Yeah’” – Jeff Ling
Such attitudes were especially prevalent in “the scene” around the time of Parkway’s formation, when “people would get hurt and they’d have to pretend they weren’t, because they wanted to be considered tough or manly [to boost themselves] up in the hierarchy”. Ling cringes when he reflects on his and his bandmates’ old mentalities. “There were all those classic ‘toxic masculinity’ moments in our early stages of being a band,” he says,; “those moments that you think about as an adult and just go, ‘…Yeah.’”
Gordon hopes that by opening up about Parkway’s struggles, the band can help change attitudes towards mental health in metal culture, where “from a generalised point of view, guys in heavy metal bands are supposed to be tough and never show weakness”. He continues: “For us to say, ‘Hey, no, we’re humans as well,’ it might help to break that barrier down a bit. Because no matter what your profession is or what your interests are, you’re a human, and you have human emotions that are going to be difficult at times – because life as a human being can be hard. And there’s no shame in that. There’s no need to hide that.”
The metal scene that forged Parkway Drive – for better or for worse – has long been dissolved. The one that stands in its place is more inclusive, more open about its mental health, and more staunchly opposed to gatekeepers. But it would be nothing without Parkway, who opened the floodgates for a new generation of bands – like Polaris, Pridelands, Windwaker, Alpha Wolf and The Last Martyr – to not only represent Australia in the global metal macrocosm, but damn near dominate it.
What advice does McCall have for the bands speeding down the trails Parkway blazed for them? “Learn to communicate with each other, learn to ask for help when you need it, and reach out to a third party to help that band dynamic. Because you need to have other people to lean on. We always knew [the music industry] was isolating, but you never know what that isolation does to you until you realise the only people that you can talk to about this shit are the people you don’t want to talk to about this shit.”
When the topic shifts to Parkway Drive’s future, its members all grimace. Ling says he’s yet to even think about the concept of “an eighth album”, but teases that “Winston said he’s already thinking about ideas and directions” – a claim the singer wastes no time in shutting down. “This is the first album I’ve ever walked away from thinking, ‘I don’t know what the next step is’,” McCall says. “If we’ve spent our existence [in Parkway] watching the doors slowly creak open with every album, this is the one where the doors got ripped off the hinges and left us with this giant void. And that’s awesome, because through that void is where anything is possible.”
For now, Parkway’s sights are set on taking ‘Darker Still’ to stages all around the world. Their first tour in support of the record, McCall says, has delivered “some of the best shows I think we’ve ever played”. He teases a cinematic spectacle of pyro, costumes and choreography – even a string section! “I look at this set,” he continues, “and I see the most cohesive thing we’ve ever done as a band, in terms of how we’ve visually captured this album on the stage. And it just feels awesome to perform… I’m very excited to bring it back to Australia.”
Parkway Drive’s ‘Darker Still’ is out now via Parkway Records.
For support and assistance with mental health:
Support Act: supportact.org.au | 1300 731 303
Head To Health: headtohealth.gov.au
Lifeline: lifeline.org.au | 13 11 14
Beyond Blue: beyondblue.org.au | 1300 224 636
MensLine: mensline.org.au | 1300 789 978
13YARN: 13yarn.org.au | 13 92 76