Underrated is a term that is sometimes overused or misused often by reviewers and commentators to describe artists, bands or sports teams that are perhaps not as good as they should be. But for the crossover thrash band Prong, it’s appropriate.
This is a band that, over a career stretching back to 1986 – that’s 31 years folks – has been namechecked by the likes of Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Jonathan Davis of Korn, among others, as being pivotal inspirations in their own careers.
Formed in New York City by vocalist/guitarist Tommy Victor, who is now located in Los Angeles, Prong has never truly fit into any sort of cookie cutter genre, blissfully having creative tentacles in many different worlds, from post-punk, to hardcore, to industrial metal, thrash and more. Although perhaps not the easiest band for a marketing department to pigeonhole, the varied influences have created a unique entity, one that Victor has passionately kept from being forced into the corner of easy categorization.
The band signed to Epic Records in 1989 on the strength of their independent debut album, Force Fed, which came after three years of hard slogging in the east coast club scene. Their Epic debut, Beg to Differ followed a year later, and three more studio albums were to follow in the 1990s: Prove You Wrong in 1991, the band’s commercial peak performer, Cleansing in 1994 and Rude Awakening two years later. Epic dropped the band that same year and Prong essentially broke up, restarting in 2002 and putting out a new album, Scorpio Rising in 2003. Albums have come fast and furious in recent years, with Victor and company releasing Carved Into Stone in 2012, Ruining Lives in 2014, Songs from the Black Hole a year later and X (No Absolutes) in 2016.
Prong’s new release, Zero Days is set to be unleashed on July 28 worldwide on Steamhammer/SPV Records and, again defies simplistic description. As stated above, depending on who you talk to, Prong is everything from industrial, thrash, hardcore punk to something called ‘groove’ metal. Victor himself doesn’t disagree with those assessments, but feels they are limiting, as he prefers to use the term ‘crossover’ to describe the band’s sound.
“Essentially, to be really basic about this, I would say it is crossover. We started off as a crossover band, which for the people unenlightened to what that was, it was initially hardcore punk with thrash metal. But we added another tinge to it, which was art rock and maybe eventually we drifted into industrial or post-punk music. So the combination of the three of those attitudes is in there,” he explained.
“One way to help describe it I guess was when I was posed with this project of coming up with my 10 favourite records, or the 10 records that were the most influential. I put a lot of thought into this just recently and it really dialed me into what I am really hardwired into and what Prong still is and always was.
“And the records that I referred to were like Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and then I went for the first Ramones album and Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power, Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division, the first Killing Joke record and Slayer’s Reign in Blood. Prong is like a fusion of those sinister and fun records at the time that I grew up and religiously referred to all the time.”
Victor spends a lot of time on lyrics, with most Prong albums having a common theme or at least a collective vibe although he admits he has no idea what that is going to be when he sets out to write a new grouping of songs. For Zero Days, all Victor needed to do was watch the news, follow social media as well as spend a lot of time thinking about the future.
“I know even using the term ‘art’ sounds pompous, but when you are doing art you have to have a lot of faith. You have to get to the point where you just let it happen. Of course you try to do the best job you can, and it’s not like you’re just throwing paint on a wall in this genre. But there is a certain amount of letting go – it’s going to turn out the way it’s going to turn out and to try to make it formulaic is dangerous. I come from a background where I get scared when things get formulaic. When you’re working with the major labels that’s what they always want. But I can’t, I don’t understand how that process works,” he said.
“I think a lot of what I wrote about for this record had to do with the [U.S. presidential] election and just keeping an eye on everything and how it’s become almost entertainment for people. I was trying to read the full range of articles and get lots of opinions from conversations. And I do a lot of outside reading too. Over the last five years or so I got into reading spiritual and self-help books. So throw that into the mix as well. And then I reach back for some nostalgic influences from artists like Jim Morrison. I am fascinated by his lyrics and how he wrote so much in a cool way over a short period of time.
“And because I am from the east coast and now live on the west coast, there’s a lot about balance going through my head. The song The Whispers is about a quest for balance. And the title track sort of sums up the whole vide of the album. Zero Days, it’s like wiping the slate clean or hitting the reset button, whether it’s in your personal life or some perceived sinister world agenda that a lot of people in conspiracy-land are worried about. It’s kind of a fearful prospect, especially with some of the stuff that’s going on and you have some pretty crazy people running around with the nuclear codes and who knows what’s going to happen. So how do you deal with your daily life in that kind of atmosphere. The optimum way would be to treat every moment like tomorrow may never exist. And that’s kind of like in Roadhouse Blues where Morrison says, ‘the future’s uncertain and the end is always near.’ Zero Days is saying there is no time left, which changes your approach to anything you do.”
Other songs fit into that theme which is not meant to be bleak and morose, but more instilling folks in the attitude that they need to be wary and need to be appreciative of the days that have been given to them. The song Divide and Conquer could refer to the way political parties identify their base and create an ‘us versus them’ scenario, or those groups who try to leverage underlying tensions and fears as a way of putting forth their own agenda.
Forced Into Tolerance could be said to be a polemic against over-sensitivity and political correctness and how it is stifling debate and isn’t actually constructive to society. Self Righteous Indignation is along a similar theme when offence is taken so easily throughout the political or cultural spectrum. And the song Rulers of the Collective is a darker interpretation of world affairs that perhaps falls in line with the more conspiracy minded by asking if the strings are being pulled by some shadowy, Illuminati-type cabal, or by the big corporations.
“That’s totally where I am coming from. And I am happy that those ideas and references are not completely obscure and that I am not being opaque with what I am doing. I think in the past sometimes people had no idea what was going on with the Prong lyrics and that’s why I was really concerned with getting it right on this record, using certain words as tools and having cool enough titles and words to represent what I was thinking at the time.”
The artfulness and sense of non-conformity – but an intelligent and clever non-conformity – could come from the fact that from an early age, Victor was exposed to the bohemian musical culture that centred on the cultural focal point of 1970s New York City – the Lower East Side. More specifically, Victor attended many shows, and later worked as a sound engineer at legendary club CBGB’s. That club spawned bands such as The Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads – all of which had a certain sense of artistic independence, cultural aplomb and became not just popular, but ‘important’ bands on the American musical landscape.
“I was hanging out down there since age 12 or 13. I would go down and sneak into the East Village and by the time I was 15, I could get into CBGB’s, although they never really carded anybody. I was there for a long time just hanging around that scene, especially throughout the 1980s. And it’s a long gone thing, there isn’t any place like that anymore. It could be dark but it was cool. And that sense and vibe is hardwired into me too, it’s in my blood and that attitude we all had at the time,” he said.
“I am not saying it was the most healthy of lifestyles, but it was truly where the whole art rock thing came from. And for some reason we just did not care about the future and we hated the mainstream music and culture, although some of those band eventually became mainstream. When Prong got signed to Epic Records we may have been happy just doing the club thing, but the thought of going overseas and touring and just living this thing to the fullest at the same time was pretty amazing, so ambition eventually set in. But we definitely put in our time in the dark Lower East Side, which was a culmination of what seemed like bombed out buildings and hovels, crappy bars and just crazy people.
“Musically, I saw The Cramps, who I love. I went to Ramones shows; we would duck out of school and wait three hours in line and the line would be around the block. I used to love seeing a guy named Von LMO at Max’s Kansas City. I remember seeing The Damned and the Dead Boys too, they were my favourites. And then in the early 1980s hardcore started emerging, and Bad Brains would play around the scene that started emerging.”
Prong has had a rotating cast of characters in and out of its lineup over the past 31 years, but Victor said he is very happy with current bandmates Mike Longworth on bass and drummer Art Cruz. Longworth is a year or so into his second stint with the band, having previously played from 2003 to 2006, while Cruz has been a member since 2014.
“From a technical aspect, I have got really good players in this band. Art is amazing; I am not limited in the riffs that I am coming up with or the song ideas because he can play them all and the same goes for Mike. I don’t have to worry about their ability to catch on to what I am doing and adapt. And that’s really where it’s at. When you have a guy in the band where you’re like, ‘oh my God, this guy is never going to be able to play this,’ it definitely puts the boundaries around what you can do creatively. Now, we can do whatever the hell we want musically,” Victor asserted.
When Zero Days comes out, Prong will be in the midst of a tour of Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, with other domestic and international dates to be determined.
“I hope we can get up to Canada. I love playing in Canada. Regardless of where we are, I never seem to ever have a bad show playing up there, and I think that’s because fans up there really know their music and seem to respond to what we’re doing,” Victor said.
For more information on the band, upcoming tour dates and to order Zero Days, visit http://prongmusic.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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