The SBR Guide to Prong – Part Two: 2002-Present Day

Above: Tommy Victor in 2019 after releasing the Age of Defiance EP.

When the group called it a day in 1997 after delivering their fourth album for Sony/Epic, many thought Prong would be remembered as another major label casualty that failed to achieve the chart performance their backers demanded. Tommy Victor recouped by joining Danzig and accepted the gig as Ministry’s touring guitarist not long after Prong’s first attempt at a comeback in 2003. “I was living a weird lifestyle for the most part,” says Tommy. “From what I recall, I was shuttling between Danzig and Ministry gigs plus some other stuff. Nothing seemed to be working out fantastic.”

These were years in the wilderness for the band, and the possibility of the group recapturing their zest looked doomed after 2003’s Scorpio Rising and 2007’s Power of The Damager failed to charm the critics. “On a musical end, I was very confused. I struggled with guitar playing for years. I really was out of touch with music in a lot of ways. I wasn’t really into it for a while. I don’t know what I was into; I can’t really remember.”

Things changed in 2012 when Prong released Carved into Stone and went back to their thrash roots. “I think a lot of my renewed interest and energy came from being frustrated with my hired gun gigs. It got so unrewarding. I needed to prove to myself I could play guitar better and write better songs. I got tired of being mediocre,” admits Tommy. “The big test of how fast I could write came from my work on Ministry’s Rio Grande Blood where I wrote most of the music in about two weeks while Al Jourgensen was passed out on the couch. But he still got ninety percent of the publishing. That’s fine, it’s his band; I needed to get my own band going again.”

It ushered in a new era of inspiration for Tommy Victor and saw him produce four consecutive metal classics in the space of only six years. High profile tours and festival slots followed, and Prong started to receive their dues. While the definition of commercial success has new parameters in the age of streaming, Tommy has seen musicians from Stone Sour, Static X, Ministry and Lamb of God pass through the revolving door of artists contributing to the Prong machine over the last decade, and the band can feel proud of their chart performance in Germany and mainland Europe. Scream Blast Repeat have no hesitation declaring the 2012-2017 period the band’s finest era. We ask Tommy what he thinks about the four studio albums from this chapter of his life. “I really haven’t heard anybody complain about them, that have heard them. I wish those newer Prong records had more exposure in any case,” he says with characteristic humility.

We conclude the second part of our Prong discography review and salute the New York heroes for the lasting impact they’ve had on modern metal. But first we must go back to the time when Prong regrouped in 2002. Madonna’s guitarist, Monte Pittman, joined the ranks, but Ted Parsons stayed away, choosing instead to fill in on the live drum stool for Killing Joke after recording drums and percussion for Godflesh in 2001 and going on to work with Justin Broadrick in Jesu during the first decade of the twenty-first century. This was a period where the band struggled to remain relevant in the dawning age of metalcore and the resurgence of death metal. Few heavy artists looked to industrial music for inspiration. Prong were in danger of becoming an anachronism…

Scorpio Rising (2003)

The band and fans alike often gloss over Scorpio Rising like an unfortunate occurrence. Tommy has reservations about Dan Laudo’s drum work, and the album is far too long at fourteen songs. Few of the choruses stick in the memory and the last third of the record morphs into one long industrial-groove loop. Yet give it a listen nowadays, and it reveals more charms than you remember. First of all, this is a HEAVY album full of crunchy stop-start riffs and chugging basslines. ‘Detached’ and ‘Reactive Mind’ mix Madball with Tommy’s trademark riff precision and the thrash of Cleansing, yet you can hear clear continuity from Rude Awakening as if they’d never been away. With no major label pressure for a hit single, it’s clear they also revelled in their new-found freedom to increase the brutality levels. ‘Regal’ is like late-90s Napalm Death, while ‘Assurances’ takes the classic Prong beats and fuses them with crunchy riffs and an excellent vocal melody. Yes, you could call elements of this nu metal, but Prong helped to create the sub-genre and never succumbed to its worst clichés. This is not the aberration many people remember and contains a few hidden gems that could still cut it live. It’s a shame nobody paid any attention at the time as the hardcore, thrash, industrial and post-punk influences are all here in abundance. Scorpio Rising is the first of two failed attempts at Prong 2.0 following their split in 1997.

Tommy Victor: I wasn’t writing songs for Prong at this point when we got a new record deal. I hadn’t listened to any new rock. I didn’t know what was going on nor cared less. I was kinda fooling around with computers and samplers and really basic guitar playing. I was approached to do a record and said sure. Monte [Pittman] was a kid I made friends with, and Dan was a drummer friend. There were some good ideas. Obviously, the production was a huge problem here. We initially had this complete coked out asshole, Danny Saber, producing it and did the tracks that we had to use with another crap producer engineer that replaced him after firing him. We had this crappy management that suggested these jackasses. It was a horrible experience making this record. I never was happy with it. Yes, I thought the drumming wasn’t that great. We just loved Dan as a buddy so much, it sort of blinded us. Some fans like this record. I must admit there are some good lyrics on this one. But I’m embarrassed about it for the most part.

Power of the Damager (2007)

The worst album of the band’s career and the last one to feature Monte Pittman on bass and additional guitars after joining the group for their 2002 comeback tour. Power of the Damager is a jaded affair, relying on recycled riffs that sound like demo outtakes from Cleansing. Tommy’s voice is poor and tuneless, like a man necking the herbal tea in a desperate effort to recover from a cold. The likes of ‘Looking for Them’, ‘No Justice’ and the insipid title track lack any kind of vocal melody and come across as overly macho and one-dimensional. Only ‘Pure Ether’ and ‘The Banishment’ approach the standard of Prong classics, but they still fall short. Unfortunately, most of the songs here are uninspired fillers with no determination to escape from a dull verse-chorus format. At times you’re listening to a third-rate Biohazard, but the muddy production and lack of colossal riffing are even more disappointing. You can’t call this a brave attempt at carving out a post-thrash niche when you consider their abandonment of industrial music on this record. In hindsight, Power of the Damager is a band in flux, unsure of their identity, and – for the first time in their career – off the pace of contemporary metal. The group that once led the cutting edge of metal in the 1990s through the challenges of grunge and the dominance of alternative rock were now facing irrelevance. They may beg to differ, but they shouldn’t have bothered on this LP.

Tommy Victor: I think you’re a little harsh on this one. Some fans think this is our best. But I do disagree. Again, here the whole record and experience suffered from poor decisions. The material is kind of just ok, but the production could have made the whole thing better. I was still in Ministry at the time and unfortunately was taking a lot of Al Jourgensen’s advice. I don’t need to go into too much detail, but I made a lot of bad calls. The way it was recorded was wrong. I didn’t have anyone coaching my vocals and helping track guitars. The way it was finished up was all wrong. I was just left with a very inexperienced engineer at Al’s makeshift garage studio to mix this thing. I don’t like this record. It kinda sucks having three records in a row that were disappointing. I’d give it a 5/10.

Carved into Stone (2012)

How do you rediscover your zest when you’ve had two underwhelming comeback attempts and exhausted the unique sound you created in the mid-to-late 90s? The answer is a return to the thrash glory of Beg to Differ with an injection of technical drumming, pinch harmonic guitar riffing and powerful underdog choruses that can rival vintage Testament. Tommy realised his vocals needed working on and his team freshening up, bringing in Static-X/Ministry/Soulfly bassist, Tony Campos, and the sensational, Alexei Rodriguez, on drums. The result is an extravagant assault of metal magic starting with the opening riff of ‘Eternal Heat’ to the final note of ‘Reinvestigate’. From the lightning fast guitar picking of ‘Keep on Living in Pain’ to the Rude Awakening stridency of ‘State of Rebellion’ and the alternative metal of ‘Put Myself to Sleep’, this album covers all eras of the band’s career and avoids turning into a nostalgic exercise. Compare the confident song-writing, fist-pumping chorus agitations and mind-blowing guitar hooks of this record with Power of the Damager, and you’ll appreciate Prong’s impressive return to form on this release. Present day Metallica would kill to write something as frenetic as ‘List of Grievances’. This is a magnificent record and a landmark for modern thrash.

Tommy Victor: I learned from the mishaps of the previous records. This time I was going to enlist a good experienced producer that would up my game vocally and in tracking guitars. He was going to do pre-production and have great engineering skills. He would help in some arrangements and vocal ideas. The guy? Steve Evetts, who is one of the most talented dudes I ever met in the biz. He knows it all. He really helped in making this record great, doing all the things needed. Alexei Rodriguez was amazing on this record and also made the songs come to life. These are the things that make great records. Good guitar sound, bass tones, drum sounds, etc., all contribute. You give crappy sounds and a song turns out worse than it really is. We worked hard as a band and went in prepared. Evetts worked my ass off; everything was performed almost to perfection. A great outing all together. 9/10 sounds right.

Ruining Lives (2014)

Having rediscovered his creativity on Carved into Stone, Tommy was not about to squander it with a return to the muddled metallic haze of the 2000s. Ruining Lives is a confident collection of colossal thrash grooves and loud choruses set among a lyrical backdrop of self-examination and anxiety at the darker political colours on the horizon. The Kreator-esque metal is ferocious on ‘The Barriers’ and even delves into Slayer/ Sodom territory on the foreboding title track. You want some vintage thrash from their crossover days, then, look no further than ‘The Book of Change’ and the 200bpm insanity of ‘Chamber of Thought’. As the band’s second release for German conglomerate label, SPV (now, itself, part of Napalm Records), and featuring the obligatory line-up change with Chris Collier on drums, Ruining Lives has its fair share of anthems in ‘Remove, Separate Self’ and the nod to Killing Joke on ‘Absence of Light’. Terrorizer magazine listed it in their top 50 albums of 2014 with Ted Parsons’ old bands, Godflesh and Swans, taking the top two spots. Prong were now a force again in metal and one of its most reliable bands on the touring circuit.

Tommy Victor: This record was truly a miracle. I was really, really busy with Danzig that year and had some ideas in GarageBand on an iPad on the road. I was running out of time and due to several misfortunes couldn’t stick to the original plan to make the record. I had to enlist a young new dude, Chris Collier, to do the tracking. I also really had to roll the dice and write with Chris’ help in the studio. I got lucky; this guy turned out to be awesome. And the record turned out great. Evetts produced the vocals and mixed the record. I really couldn’t believe how good it came out as rushed as it was. Sure 8/10.

Songs from the Black Hole (2015)

Only legends and veterans can make a success of a covers’ album. Metallica and Slayer are the obvious protagonists, but Prong can hold their heads high after paying homage to their hardcore, alternative and post-punk idols with strong interpretations of Sisters of Mercy (‘Vision Thing’), Black Flag (‘Bars’) and a rousing cover of latter day Killing Joke (‘Seeing Red’). Diehards might question why Tommy excluded the excellent cover of Chrome’s ‘Third from the Sun’ and their version of Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman’, but the bruising delivery of Discharge’s ‘Doomsday’ and a blistering rendition of ‘Banned in DC’ by Bad Brains make for an enjoyable night of veneration for the greats of yesteryear. Listen to the cover of Neil Young’s ‘Cortez the Killer’ and let the emotive guitar leads and melancholy tempo seep into your system like barbecue smoke on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Tommy Victor: This should be at least an 8 if you look at it as a covers record. I’m very proud of this record. I just wish it got more notoriety. What does it take? No matter what Prong does, it seems people scratch their head, confused, or ignore it. Or automatically question it. If we would have covered more known songs by more known artists, people would have still complained. Anyhow, this was a major effort by myself and the band: Jason Christopher and Art Cruz. Jason had a big part in picking the songs. Art, being younger, wasn’t too familiar with the songs, but he absolutely destroyed on this record. We recorded it at Trixx in Berlin, very fast, in between gigs on tour (with the help of a lot of coffee). We finished it at [Dokken guitarist] George Lynch’s house with Collier. It was the first time I cut vocals with Chris, and I was so impressed that I decided he would work completely on the next record. The ‘Cortez’ guitar intro I think is some of my best guitar work no doubt. That track is a 10/10 for sure.

X – No Absolutes (2016)

Future Lamb of God drummer, Art Cruz, and Corey Taylor/Stone Sour bassist, Jason Christopher, joined Tommy for the band’s tenth album, and this time he set his focus on the art of song-writing. The riffs are as monumental and heavy as ever, but the studio mix prioritises the energised vocals and the primacy of the fist-clenching chorus over all other considerations. In the past, this proved too difficult to sustain for a whole album, but here they get it right. ‘Without Words’ showcases a stunning key change from bridge to chorus while the muscular hardcore belting of ‘Belief System’ comes close to djent in its guitar menace. This is an angry but introspective album. ‘No Absolutes’ is a political tirade against moral relativism set to background synths, and ‘Do Nothing’ is a genuine rock anthem with a stadium chorus and vibrato notes in Tommy’s voice. Fans of the thrashier side will feel their eyes bulge at ‘Cut and Dry’ and the exquisite pinch-harmonic riffs of ‘Worth Pursuing’, reminding us that nobody does crunchy guitar hooks better than Prong. It’s even more impressive when you consider this album tops the excellent Ruining Lives.

Tommy Victor: This deserves the 8 outta 10. It’s not the BEST Prong record, but it’s one of my favourites. It was done right, done fast, and cheaply! I must say I prefer Collier’s old tiny bedroom studio for overdubs than any other place ever. And the vocals were cut in his hallway. Another record where I didn’t have much time, but we did it and knocked it out of the park! We had some outside help with some songs on this one from my friend Erie Loch, who really should be writing for Katy Perry or someone like that. I really thought ‘Do Nothing’ was going to open a lot of eyes and doors for Prong, but I was wrong again. To me ‘Ice Runs Through My Veins’ is a perfect song, and I love the way it sounds and basically the way the whole record sounds. ‘Cut and Dry’ is probably one of the best Prong thrash songs. Chris helped with a lot of the songs. He really helped me with the guitar tracking big time. I was so excited about this record when it was done. It’s funny, the first person to hear it was my ex- manager and he didn’t like it, and I fucking freaked out. I just couldn’t believe it. To me, the record was close to perfect at that time. Listening back now, of course, I feel a bit different. I think Zero Days is better.

Left to right: The 2014-2016 line-up of Art Cruz (Drums), Tommy Victor (Guitars/Vocals) and Jason Christopher (Bass/Backing vocals).

Zero Days (2017)

Tommy will look back on the 2012-2017 period as the most creative and confident of his career. The delights just keep flowing with Zero Days becoming the fourth excellent record in succession from the band. Art Cruz retains the drum stool, but nothing can overshadow the sheer crunch of the guitar riffs and the anthemic chorus delivery. ‘Forced into Tolerance’ and ‘Operation of the Moral Law’ are instant classics, full of groove and chunky palm-muted thrash dynamics. The title track is the heaviest piece of violent guitar chugging since Meshuggah’s ‘New Millennium Cyanide Christ’. It’s easier to assess how this LP fails to score a nine out of ten rather than establish why it reaches a comfortable eight. A throwaway chorus on ‘Compulsive Future Projection’, the strange 70s hard-rock pastiche of ‘Divide and Conquer’ and the different audio levels of some songs are the only blemishes on an album that avoids fillers and presents thirteen metallic delights. Fans will appreciate the sequel to ‘Belief System’ on ‘Self-Righteous Indignation’ and the follow up to the melancholy rock of ‘Rude Awakening’ on ‘Rulers of the Collective’. There’s nothing wrong with being self-referential when you can deliver it with so much finesse. This album gets better with each listen.

Tommy Victor: In fact, Zero Days is probably the best, most mature Prong record. The sweat and blood that went into it was intense. I think I was on top of my game with guitar playing on this record. The vocals are really good as well. And I spent countless sleepless nights trying to perfect all the lyrics. ‘Rulers of the Collective’ is one of my favourite lyrics. ‘Zero Days’ has probably the best Prong riff. And I think the record is modern. With ‘However It May End’, I think we stayed current. I never really liked ‘Divide and Conquer’ too much, but it was too catchy to scrap. There’s no filler on this record. All songs and lyrics are complete. If anything is wrong, the record is too long. I’ll give it a 9/10.

Age of Defiance EP (2019)

This EP is an unusual release. Two new songs and three live versions of established classics retailing at an average market price of £8 ($10) does not offer the best value for money. Nonetheless, the title track is a sharp cut of groove metal that slices like a scabbard and delivers an anxiety-ridden chorus. ‘End of Sanity’ reads like a veiled attack on the divisive populism of Donald Trump set to an upbeat thrash rhythm and enhanced by sustained pitch bends in the chorus. Indeed, the middle eight to the latter is the best since ‘Broken Peace’ from Cleansing. All three of the live cuts are iconic songs, although ‘Another Worldly Device’ proves to be a subdued affair compared to the studio version and fails to match the passion and intensity of the two other live performances of ‘Rude Awakening’ and ‘Cut Rate’. It’s too late to include either of the new songs on the next album, but they should be a good indication that Prong still have a lot to say and plenty to offer in the future. But as a standalone EP, this is a mixed-bag affair.

Tommy Victor: For an EP, I think it’s interesting. I knew we were gonna have to take a break after the six records in five years run. So, an EP was the right transitional record. Again, I thought the title track was going to knock people’s socks off but no such luck. ‘End Of Sanity’ came out cool too. But not enough people notice. The live tracks are pretty killer too. I’m good with this release. I think with better promo, it could have been a hit. With an EP in mind, it’s an 8/10.

Above: The Prong line-up from 2003. Left to right: Tommy Victor, Monte Pittman (Guitars/Bass) and Dan Laudo (Drums). This was a difficult period in the band’s career and one where they struggled to recapture the glory days of the 1990s.

The Covid-19 lockdowns have hit everybody hard, but they’ve given Tommy time to think about the legacy and role of Prong in the history of metal. The fans are keen to know his future plans. “Probably at least one more full-length record,” he says. “I got to try and figure out how to do the next one. My wife recently gave birth to our son, whom I’ve been staying home with and taking care of, so it’s a bit difficult. I’ll still tour but even more selectively with who we go out with.”

This year is also the twenty-fifth anniversary of Rude Awakening. But the prospect of a commemorative tour or live stream is the furthest thing from his mind. “I didn’t think about it,” he admits. “Due to the pandemic and not knowing what the future is, it’s been hard to plan anything even if you wanted to…”

We wonder if Tommy is having second thoughts about keeping the Prong machine alive beyond one more album. The cost and resources needed to produce a record to the quality of Zero Days is less appealing in an industry that no longer pays a living wage for most musicians. But Prong are all about fortitude and overcoming the odds. You wouldn’t bet against them storming the next decade with the same passion and high-level output of the last ten years.