Review Summary: Parkway Drive simultaneously progresses and yet regresses, maintaining their omnipresent status of "pretty good."
Parkway Drive has always been a puzzle in my mind. It always shocks me how they are able to make truly melodic and passionate songs, yet still maintain some sort of view where monotonously breaking down is always okay, even central. Their vocalist, Winston McCall proves himself on each album as one of the best vocalists in metalcore, yet as a whole the band always positions itself in the cliches of the genre, consistently proving mediocrity. I had enjoyed "Deep Blue", not necessarily for the musical approach, but because of McCall's vocals and lyrics, which I viewed as often poetic (see "Home Is For The Heartless"). The music I found passable, just unexciting. With their new full-length "Atlas", these Aussies continue (almost mimics) where "Deep Blue" left off, but also experiments with their sound, sometimes succeeding, other times failing, proving to be an enjoyable but fairly inconsistent listen.
The album opens up with and intro, "Sparks", which is comparable to "Samsara" off of "Deep Blue", beginning with ambient sounds that build into melodic plucking, soon followed by McCall's distant spoken word, morphing into his multidimensional vocals. While I believe this is a good intro, it leads into "Old Ghost/New Regrets", which showcases Parkway Drive being Parkway Drive as they've always been: repetitive guitar riffs and breakdowns.
As one listens to the album, it becomes clear that it seems to be split directly in half in terms of sound and lyrics; for every melodic cut that displays the group's technical skill, passion, and clear songwriting abilities, there's another track that negates it, digressing back to their trademark monotonous chugging. Highlights include "Wild Eyes" (which is followed by downer "Dark Days"), "The River" (followed by the embarrassing "Swing"), "Atlas" (which leads into the boring and lyrically unnecessary "Sleight of Hand"), and "Blue and the Grey" (preceded by the br00talz fest "Snake Oil and Holy Water").
In terms of the positives, Parkway Drive utilizes tricks unseen in former albums, bringing another dimension to their sound. "Wild Eyes" uses group vocals that sound almost primitive, as well as an incredibly catchy melodic plucking. "The River" is comparable to Home Is for the Heartless" from "Deep Blue", being one of the most melodic on the album, even showcasing female vocals. The title track shows the band experimenting with orchestral elements, and it proves to be quite interesting and beautiful. "Blue and the Grey" uses the same tricks, but in a far more introspective, almost acoustic fashion in parts, closing the album in a positive manner; the breakdowns do take away from the overall feeling, though.
But in the experimentation process, there is a dark side. Tracks like "Dark Days" and "The Slow Surrender" attempt smaller, more subtle tricks, that either end up failing or stealing the spotlight. The former attempts an intro of ambience that morphs into trademark Parkway Drive, voiding the attempt. The latter begins melodically enough, later using a pretty good breakdown, but near the end, it sounds like someone gave a DJ a disc of McCall's vocals, and begins disc-scratching. While unique, the trick takes away from the melancholy feeling of the track.
Lyrically, "Atlas" is also a mixed bag. Unseen in former albums, McCall speaks of environmentalism, most explicitly in "Dark Days": "What will you tell your children when they ask you, 'What went wrong?' How can you paint a picture of paradise lost to eyes that only know wasteland? How will you justify watching the earth die?" While I'm not in any way against saving the earth, these lyrics seem recycled from other environmental movements. It's more effectively captured in songs such as "Sparks" ("Born of dust and stone. Dead hearts roaming a dying home.") or "Blue and the Grey" and "Atlas", in which McCall equates himself with nature. In the former, he states "I stood at the shore and spoke to the ocean. I stood in the water and let my guts spill. I said, 'You and me, we're not so different. I see my reflection in all that you do.'"
Other lyrical concepts, in a positive light, include nostalgia and goodbyes in "Dream Run" ("Do you remember all those nights that we stood side by side, and we said we'll save our goodbyes?... You only live once, but you spend your whole life dying"), feeling that life is meaningless in "Old Ghost/New Regrets" ("We're born with nothing, we die alone. Regret is all we have, death is all we know.") and also "Atlas" ("My life is a weathered down shipwreck splitting at the seams, held together by memories and dreams... Flooding in, it's the sound of the emptiness."), and fantastic nature imagery, as mentioned above, as seen in the environmentally minded songs, as well as "The River". One of the reasons "Blue and the Grey" is a highlight is also due to its lyrics.
Negative concepts, as sort of an overall view, include the whole "you only live once" or "carpe diem" mentality, seen in songs such as "Swing" and "The Slow Surrender." Each of these is also in context with fighting as well, as the former mentions "My soul was born for battle, my heart was built for war" (another huge negative with this song is that the chanting of "Swing!" sounds unnervingly similar to "Swag!", which is something one cannot unhear). "The Slow Surrender" mentions: "This will be no slow surrender, I won't turn back now. Carpe diem, right for the throat." "Sleight of Hand" and "Snake Oil and Holy Water" both serve as critiques of religion. While this is not a bad topic, the way they convey their cynicism is sometimes awkward. In the former, the almost-moans of "There is no god!" can get tiring and frustrating after listening to the whole thing. "Snake Oil and Holy Water" takes a more broad approach, criticizing conformity in terms of religion, but there are just some phrases that don't make sense: "You fill your skull with their s**t 'til it runs from your mouth. Heartless carcass."
In terms of musicianship, guitarists Luke Kilpatrick and Jeff Ling remain a mystery to me. It's obvious that they are completely capable of creating beautiful melodies, but somehow they decide to resort to boring chugs and the same darn riff over and over again. Bassist Jia "Pie" O'Connor is, adding to the cliche of metalcore, unheard. Drummer Ben Gordon knows what he's doing, sometimes adding powerful fills to the sound. But, as with the case of all other Parkway Drive albums, Winston McCall remains the best part of Parkway Drive, adding a rich and textured vocal performance.
Overall, Parkway Drive's latest is a mixed bag. While there are many songs that show hope for this band, there are others that just serve to beat the dead horse of metalcore cliches. These guys have crafted a "pretty good" album, benefited by moments of elegant beauty and successful experimentation combined with powerful vocals, yet still held back by old habits, sometimes worsened by new concepts that didn't work. "Atlas" is worth a look for the positive concepts, but overall it probably won't change your mind about Parkway Drive.