Picture the scene: it’s Sunday night at Download 2013. Rammstein – metal’s all-conquering, fire-breathing kings of spectacle – have just finished one of the most intense live shows ever brought to Donington’s iconic stage. Pyro, smoke and explosions are all delivered with precision timing, and in perfect harmony with the tightest set you could ever hope for. It’s yet another masterclass from the Germans, and the fanatical English crowd lap it up.
This time, however, it’s not just the Donington faithful that are left picking their jaws up from the field. Somewhere within the army of 90,000-plus delirious fans are five friends from the other side of the world. Unlike the countless screaming, shit-losing metalheads around them, this particular quintet are left not only speechless, but deep in contemplation. For them, this wasn’t just a pretty show. It was a wake-up call that would come to define the next part of their lives.
“That Rammstein show was a really big turning point for us,” reveals Parkway Drive’s Winston McCall today, as we catch up via a phone line from Australia’s Byron Bay. “None of us are massive Rammstein fans, but it was the best show I’d ever seen. We all watched it and were like, ‘Did you guys all just experience the same thing?’ Because it was an experience, and that is what heavy music is capable of. Everything worked together; the music, the production, it all worked so fantastically to engage 90,000 people who didn’t even speak the same language – and they play slow, simple riffs! That’s what this shit is capable of, and if we wanna do something different and of that calibre, then why the fuck not?”
Shit was about to get very interesting…
Let’s backtrack further for a moment. When Hammer last properly caught up with Parkway Drive back in late 2012, the guys had just released fourth opus Atlas; an album that, as Winston explained, was forged in extremely difficult circumstances, with deaths and illnesses among their friends and family hanging heavy. Despite that, in career terms it was a knockout for the band, continuing their seemingly unassailable ascent up heavy music’s ranks with spots in the UK Top 50, the US Billboard Top 40 and an impressive Number Three on Australia’s ARIA charts. While peppered with a few interesting experiments (Wild Eyes’ crowdbaiting vocal chants and delicate atmospherics, and female vocals on The River), the record’s success primarily came from the same, solid metalcore formula that had already seen them become one of modern metal’s biggest players. Crowds continued to grow, venues continued to get bigger, and festival slots continued to get higher, with a hugely successful 24 months capped off with a mindblowing, pyro-fuelled showing at London’s beautiful Roundhouse at the end of 2014. As it had been for most of their 10 years so far, it was a case of So Far, So Good.
“It’s very easy to get complacent when you’re releasing records that have got better and better, and you’re playing shows that are getting better and better,” admits Winston today. “You’re thinking, ‘I know how to do this, that’s it.”
As they reflected on another touring cycle which had brought them even closer to greatness, and with that epic Rammstein show still burning away in the back of their minds, Parkway looked at their body of work and felt faced with a choice: continue ploughing a tried-and-tested formula and hope that things would continue to go accordingly skywards, or mix it up a bit and take a left turn, making a true departure for the first time to grab that brass ring floating precariously above their heads.
“We were like, ‘What the fuck are we gonna do?’” admits Winston. “We had a band meeting, and it turned out all of us were thinking the same thing: none of us would get creative fulfilment out of writing another Parkway metalcore album. It was a really odd point to be at; we didn’t want to stop what Parkway was about, but at the same time there had to be a different way of doing it. It took a hell of a long time to get our heads around what that actually meant.”
Given how much success their formula had brought them thus far (we first remarked that Parkway’s popularity was “growing unabated” way back in issue #181, August 2008!), it’s somewhat surprising to learn that Parkway have felt the need to break down and switch up their sound in such dramatic fashion. But then, these friends have been in each other’s musical pockets since high school. At an age most young men will still be trying to shave in the mornings without leaving their reflection looking like Freddy Krueger, Parkway (completed by guitarists Jeff Ling and Luke Kilpatrick, and drummer Ben ‘Gaz’ Gordon – bassist Jia O’ Connor joined three years later) were already stringing together songs that would form a template for their career for the next decade. It makes sense, then, that a band might fancy refreshing their sound after a decade together, but what’s more of a shocker is the end result of that decision. And, as it happens, it was the dodging of a potentially career-ending bullet that set them on their way.
“I had to do some vocal training, and I had to go and make sure I hadn’t done any irreversible damage [through my screaming],” reveals Winston for the first time. “There was a moment where I had this camera down my throat, and the whole time I was just counting down, like, ‘Thirty seconds until he tells me I’ve got throat cancer and my life is fucked…’ But then he was like, ‘Everything’s great! Cords are really strong, nothing wrong here!’ The whole time I’ve been in this band, I’ve thought that all I could do was scream, because I’ve never learnt how to sing or control my voice in any way whatsoever, and I thought that because what I was doing was so harsh, the damage I’d done meant I’d never be able to do any of that stuff. For him to say nothing’s wrong, I was like, ‘Maybe this is a door opening, and maybe if you go and apply yourself, you can learn something new.’”
And so, with Winston given the all-clear, the quintet set about crafting the album that could very well define them. An album that, as you’ll soon discover, is so brimming with ‘What the fuck?!’ moments that it’s not so much a dip into uncharted waters as a 200ft elbow drop into the middle of the fucking ocean.
“Basically, one of the main things that we tried to figure out was what just makes Parkway work,” explains Winston of the writing process. “Forever, people have always said, ‘What’s the thing about Parkway that people like?’ and we’ve been like, ‘We don’t know, we just write these songs and people go mental, and that’s it!’ We had to work out what functioned in the band, and we knew that our melodies came from the guitars, so we wanted to make sure that we maximised that impact that the melody had, to make sure it carried, which a lot of the time meant taking the drums back a bunch. We reassessed the way we wrote songs so that those melodies will shine, so that everything can drop back and the guitar lines will be simpler.”
Bigger. Bolder. Simpler? It was an interesting approach to take, and it wasn’t too long before the experiment bore its first fruits: Vice Grip – a track that dropped back in June, almost two years to the day after Rammstein first set those wheels in motion. Featuring a video portraying the band making a very literal leap of faith via a stomach-spinning skydive, the music, too, represented a jump into the unknown. Gone was the catchy, KSE-inspired noise that so vividly defined their sound to date, and in its place was an old-school-slanted heavy metal banger that evoked a kind of gung ho heroism more reminiscent of the NWOBHM than chaotic Aussie metalcore. It was still Parkway Drive, but it was a Parkway knee-deep in unfamiliar territories. In a rare occurrence for the band, the track prompted a ferocious reaction from their fans, many delighted by the band’s unique take on a classic formula, others outraged at such an unexpected shot out of leftfield.
“That reaction was exactly what we were hoping for,” beams Winston, his grin almost audible down the phoneline. “It was exciting; we knew people were gonna have opinions on it one way or the other.”
If Vice Grip served as an eyebrow-raising hors d’oeuvre, then the main course will have everybody choking on their own disbelief; Ire isn’t just a considerable sidestep, it’s the sound of a band reborn. While the album is still stacked with moments longtime Parkway fans will appreciate (see the crushing Dying To Believe or breakdown-heavy neck-snapper Bottom Feeder for proof), the likes of Destroyer and Vicious are a radical departure from their usual metalcore template; filled with galloping tempos, twin guitar attacks and enough chest-beating bravado to run a Spartan ship. Then there’s Winston rapping over eerie monastic chants on Crushed, and the swaying, acoustic-heavy A Deathless Song. The centrepiece of this transformation? Writings On The Wall: a slow, methodical, gloomy stomper packed with tribal beats, hand-claps, chants, violins and enough brooding menace to make Thanos look like Winnie The Pooh. It’s not a million miles away from some of the material on last year’s King 810 debut (though Winston insists its inspiration came from listening to “a shit-ton of Tom Waits”), but even within an album filled with surprises, it’s one of the most out-there moments any band in our world has offered this year.
“It’s weird as hell!” Winston agrees. “That song came from me lying in bed at six in the morning, when I had these words flowing around in my head. I got up and starting stomping up and down my hall, adding a clap for the beat, and I recorded it into my phone and wrote the words down, and that was it! It was the first time I’ve ever brought a song in [to a writing session]; I’m normally the one coming in in the middle of the process, so the guys aren’t used to me doing that. I got on the mic and was like, ‘We’re gonna clap and stomp, and I’m gonna do my bit.’ So we did it, we put the vocals down, and they just looked at me, like, ‘What the fuck is that?!’ but the whole point of all this was to roll the dice and see what we came up with, so we worked on taking that and making it sound like a Parkway song. The vocals were walking a fine line between carrying the vibe and being too cheesy, so that song had its head on the chopping block right up until the day before we recorded. It all rested on the vocals, and that was a lot of pressure for me.”
It would seem that pressure is something that has laid heavy on Winston’s shoulders during the entire writing and recording process for Ire, to the extent that he feels that much of its success – or potential lack of – may lie with his performance.
“Even when we did preproduction, there were so many times when a song was done, and I’d go, ‘I swear I’ll be able to do the vocals better on the final take’,” he elaborates, showing a little bit of vulnerability for the first time today. “At the same time I’d be thinking, ‘Argh, I hope I can bring the vibe, because if it doesn’t work, this is a dead record.’ This was the first time we were dealing with a complete unknown, and having the weight of all this work, and watching all the work these guys have done, sitting on my shoulders. I was the last link in the chain, and I just kept thinking, ‘Don’t fuck it up.’”
Luckily, as they always have, the rest of Parkway put absolute trust in their singer, and the results speak for themselves. Not only did Winston not “fuck it up”, his powerhouse performance is one of the single biggest successes that Ire has to offer. His time spent taking vocal lessons has evidently paid dividends, with his trademark throaty roar accompanied by everything from gargled growls to impassioned rapping, to gruff spoken-word passages, all underpinned by a delivery so seething with contempt it’s impossible not to get swept up in its pure, unbridled righteousness. Taking lyrical aim at everything from corruption within politics, to social injustice, to attitudes towards the band themselves (see Words Of Prey, below), Winston is on white-hot form, and upon asking the frontman what has prompted him to get his rage on in such vitriolic fashion, the usually ultra-PMA frontman’s tone suddenly switches completely. Ah, there it is. That emotion. That unstoppable, untamable monster lurking under the surface. That… Ire.
“I was writing these lyrics and feeling a sense of deja vu, of, ‘Why the fuck am I still having to write about these issues?’” growls the singer. “Why am I still writing about shit that should have been sorted, that should have been fixed in the world? And yet we’re still bogged down in this fucking whirlpool of humanity that seems to be going down the drain. For so long we’ve all been aware that things aren’t right, and we keep complaining and whinging and moaning, but we’re not doing anything. It’s got to a point where I think that real anger needs to be felt.”
Parkway might not be the first band you’d associate with shaking up the apathetic status quo but, as far as Winston is concerned, it’s long past time that society started to re-engage its rage.
“It’s something that we demonise, the concept of being angry,” he muses. “Like, ‘Oh, don’t get angry! It’s one of the seven deadly sins!’, but it can be used and needs to be used as a tool and voice of frustration. If you don’t show that you’re angry and don’t realise that you need to act, then no one’s ever going to actually do anything. It’s quite obvious that whoever the fuck is controlling all of the things in the world, and making sure that these systems that aren’t working keep running, is very aware that we are not doing jack shit to stop it.”
Of course, while Ire represents the singer in angrier form than ever, Winston has never been one to hide his contempt for the state of the world – you only need look as far back as Atlas to hear him voicing his disgust at social injustice on the electric Dark Days (sample lyric: ‘There will be no future, if we can’t learn from our mistakes’). He’d rather describe himself as “socially conscious” than political, but he’s been involved in spreading the word for the greater good for practically all of his life, revealing an anecdote about his earliest foray into activism that speaks volumes about the man he has become since.
“I was six when my mum dragged me to my first protest,” he begins. “We were protesting nuclear warships docking in Sydney Harbour. We marched through Sydney with rainbow-coloured flags, and I just remember thinking, ‘Fucking hell, this is more people than I’ve ever seen in my life!’ My parents explained to me what it was about, and I may have never fully understood the system that was involved, but I still understood that things don’t just happen in the world. There is a way and means that we have to get stuff in society done.”
It’s a tradition Winston has long since continued.
“Six months ago, we had a rally in Byron, because we have a massive problem with corruption and development in our town,” he adds. “We had to have a demonstration, and we shut down the main street and marched through it. I was the guy that had to hold the megaphone and shout and chant through it. It was wild; really crazy. They were like, ‘Winston, you hold the megaphone because you’re the guy that knows how to speak!’”
It would seem that Parkway aren’t the only Byron natives that have come to recognise Winston as a natural leader. Over the past decade, his demeanour has grown from that of a lovable, easygoing dude to a confident voice of reason in a world hellbent on flushing itself down the shitter. In an era that will see the band not only take their biggest risk yet, but assert themselves as a source of inspiration for countless disillusioned and disorganised fans, it could be a trait that comes to define him and the band itself. Is he ready for the challenge of a lifetime? For all the excitement involved in taking a risk such as Ire, they could well be gambling their very career on this. What happens if it all goes wrong?
“That’s a big question mark,” he admits after a pause. “The reason we got to do this in the first place was that we’re lucky enough to have four albums that are going great, and if this all goes to Hell and nothing gets to be played, we still know we have a setlist which we can keep playing for several years, which is fantastic! But after that, when it comes to the actual writing, we’re not sure. We literally said that this is it. If we’re gonna throw something out there that’s wild, now the time’s to do it, because we at least have a tiny bit of a safety net. Then again, we’d love to do something more. It’s that point of saying, ‘Here, are you happy with what you’ve got, or do you really wanna push it out there?’ And we all sat there and watched Rammstein at Download and said, ‘That’s what we wanna do.’”
Parkway are reaching for the stars, and it looks like they may well have the firepower to get there.
*Ire* is out September 25 via Epitaph. Parkway Drive hit the UK in February
Words Of Prey
*On Ire, Winston is more fired up than ever. We got the singer to tell us the story behind some of its more evocative lyrics.*
‘To the left I see the rats and to the right I see the snakes/In my ear they’re whispering sweet sermons of cruel hate’
“That’s aimed at our system of politics. Around the world it seems you have a two-party system, and you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The way to win someone over is by demonising one person, and it’s either bullshit or it’s spitting complete hatred. It’s fucked.”
‘Seven trumpets sound their discourse, nine circles of our devise/Messages writ within our columns of fire/No life blooms from the ashes of ire’
“It’s about us destroying the place we live in. The creation we have turned out to be, for better or worse, is not doing wonderful things for the environment that we live in. I wanted it to seem like it was something that conjured up images of end of days, images of nine circles of hell, images that cast heat.”
‘They’ll give you all the answers, so you don’t ask any questions/Then they’ll march you with a smile into the ground’
FROM: *WRITINGS ON THE WALL*
“It’s about how the news is pure drivel, simply for distraction. It’s the idea that people have been told, ‘This is what’s right, you’ve been told what’s going on, don’t question it.’ It’s the illusion of education – in the end, you die just as stupid, but with more information.”
‘I see a kingdom of closed minds and shallow hearts/So tell me this, would you fall in line/Or rip it all apart?’
FROM: *THE SOUND OF VIOLENCE*
“The song’s about this band. We grew up punk rock kids playing metal in a hardcore scene, being told, ‘This isn’t hardcore’, ‘This isn’t metal’. I’m sick of being told about all the genres we’re supposed to subscribe to, that are supposed to stand for these morals and have such ‘open minds’, and yet they’re pushing all this shit on us. I’d rather walk our own way.”
‘Let me beat in your heart/Be your drum of war and love’
FROM: *A DEATHLESS SONG*
“That was actually a love song for my wife! I’m not very good at writing ‘positive lyrics’, but we’ve been together since before this band started, and I tell her every time that she’s the reason I can do this. She never quite gets that, and I wanted to write a song for her that made her realise.”