Few metal bands were more forward-thinking in the 1990s than New York legends, Prong. Signed to Sony/Epic at the tail end of thrash metal’s third wave, the group negotiated the grunge era better than everyone else, excluding their good friends in Pantera and Sepultura. In 1990 they were already beefing up thrash with more groove; by 1991 they were defining alternative metal; in 1994 they created the template for a new kind of industrial metal. Yet it’s a common misconception to view Prong as a band that missed out on the commercial success their innovation and risk-taking deserved in the era of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Many nostalgists might smile when they see a new Prong record on the shelves, but do they know the band experienced a golden age of creativity between 2012 and 2017?
Led from 1986 to the present day by former CBGB sound tech, Tommy Victor (guitars/vocals), Prong’s legacy and influence is enduring. In hindsight, their biggest achievement was capturing the rhythmic aggression of Godflesh and the gold-plated thrash of Anthrax with so much coherence and impact without surrendering their uncompromising heavy sound. 1994’s Cleansing is a seminal moment in the evolution of metal. Nowadays, we’d call it industrial metal, but there was nothing like it in the period between the platinum success of Ministry and the emergence of Fear Factory. It also created the template for Korn’s nu metal sound and the many artists that ripped off the Bakersfield boys. Just as many metalcore bands take an indirect influence from At The Gates via As I Lay Dying, the same happened to Prong. Often, these bands were not aware they were aping the sound of New York rather than LA.
“I try to be humble about these things nowadays; it keeps me out of trouble… I don’t want to sound arrogant and then people say I’m wrong,” says Tommy, when we ask him where he can hear the influence of Cleansing on other artists. We push him on this. Scream Blast Repeat want to know how it feels to see other bands take credit for a specific sound Prong pioneered in the early 90s. “Again, same answer. But I’ll add that yes, it’s a bit frustrating. It’s kind of a frustrating business anyway. In the end, who cares if no one cares, or if they do? Glory makes you feel a bit empty anyway. It’s all vanity. Not good stuff for the soul,” he insists.
A discography review of the Prong back catalogue deserves a two-part series, not least because we identified sixteen major albums and EPs to review. In part one, we analyse the eight releases with founding member Ted Parsons behind the drum stool from 1997 to 1996. This era also covers the first incarnation of the band from their inception as a NY crossover outfit through to their four records on Sony/Epic that came to an end in 1996 when the label terminated their contract weeks after Rude Awakening hit the shelves.
It was a time of unprecedented innovation for Prong, and most people know them for their output in the 1990s. But let’s start with the trio that originated in New York’s hardcore scene of the 1980s, and let’s find out what Tommy Victor thinks of each Prong record in this period.
Primitive Origins EP (1987)
It’s easier to look back with favour on this record knowing what came after it. Primitive Origins is a vital release in the evolution of the Prong sound and showcases their NY hardcore roots. The music here is impressive for a three-piece, with Mike Kirkland’s thudding bass and Ted Parsons’ energetic drum work boosting the thrash guitar rhythms like injector fuel. ‘Disbelief’ and ‘Cling to Life’ are Bad Brains with pinch-harmonics, while ‘Dreams Like That’ is unadulterated crossover and ‘Climate Control’ a concoction of Venom and Discharge with the street-savvy attitude of New York. Ironically, Tommy shreds more on this hardcore record than on later thrash metal releases. You’d never guess this band would go on to pioneer groove metal and influence the industrial metal wave of the 1990s, but there are no doubts about their integrity or the scene from which they emerged.
Tommy Victor: I like what is written here. I can accept the rating. I was really influenced by what was played by Tim Somers on WNYU radio. Bad Brains, Oi music, Celtic Frost, The Misfits, Motörhead, Discharge, like you said. Ted was a big Venom fan as well of a lot of that stuff. Mike and I had a lot in common musically as well. Die Kreuzen was a big fave and of course Killing Joke. Mike was on the NY Hardcore scene already with Damage, and I was working the board at CBGB, so we came out pretty strong on the scene. Apart from never knowing if Ted was going to stay with Prong, those were good days. We did the record at Wharton Tiers’ studio where Sonic Youth and a lot of other NY noise bands recorded. The band had a great Lower East Side flavour. I mean that’s where we lived, worked, partied, wrote and rehearsed, and recorded the songs. We were very different than everyone else right off the start.
Force Fed (1988)
The band’s first full length album is a little underwhelming compared to the solid debut EP. Yet you can already identify signs of originality in the trademark groove riffs of ‘Force Fed’ and ‘Forgery’, not to mention the crossover execution of ‘Freezer Burn’ and ‘The Taming’. Mike Kirkland and Tommy share vocal duties on this record, but the lack of a charismatic voice dilutes the impact on the likes of ‘Decay’ and ‘Aggravated Condition’. The band are at their best here when mixing the speed metal of Venom with the street thrash of D.R.I, although ‘Senseless Abuse’ comes close to outright plagiarism of the former’s ‘Welcome to Hell’ in its main hook. This is a listenable and curious record with much grit and determination, but it’s hard to see why Sony/Epic scouted Prong as the next Metallica despite Tommy’s connections as a sound tech at New York’s legendary CBGB.
Tommy Victor: I don’t agree with your verdict and rating on our first LP. At the time, fanzines were the way we found out about underground music. The exposure we got through these home-made publications based on this record was overwhelming. Granted, it was recorded in a storefront on the Lower East Side by our sound man, Steve MacCallister; it was cheaply done. But again, it solidified Prong as a unique Lower East Side band. We definitely were happy with this record, no doubt.
The Peel Sessions EP (1990)
Legendary BBC radio DJ, John Peel, broadcast some of the finest live sessions for the emerging grindcore, industrial and alt-rock/grunge bands making headway in the late 80s and early 90s, with Napalm Death, Sonic Youth, Carcass, Godflesh, Fudge Tunnel and Smashing Pumpkins all receiving the spotlight early in their career. Prong’s appearance in January 1989 is one of the lesser known and more curious affairs, giving the band an opportunity to record a cleaner and more powerful live mix of ‘Defiant’ and ‘In My Veins’ from Primitive Origins and ‘Senseless Abuse’ and ‘Decay’ from Force Fed. It’s the best production job of the band’s 1980s output with a thick guitar sound and better microphones to capture the muscular vocals and finger-shredding rhythms. Ted Parsons’ drum work receives the mellifluous mix his skills deserve. Now you can hear a confident thrash band stepping out of the noise and into the arena of the 1990s. Easily, the best rarity in the Prong back catalogue.
Tommy Victor: I totally agree with all this. We had a blast doing this. It was an honour as well. All true, great recording facility, great job by the engineer at BBC studios. I should have learned my lesson here. Production and recording facilities make a huge difference. An idea or song that’s just okay can really come to life when it sounds great.
Beg to Differ (1990)
The first of two bona fide classics during the band’s major label years with Sony/Epic, only Megadeth’s Rust in Peace stops Beg to Differ from achieving the retrospective honour of best thrash album of 1990. With one eye on the stomping rhythms of Anthrax and another on the dissonant post-punk of Killing Joke, Prong created a unique record full of groove and hardcore attitude along with some of the best metal riffs of the decade. ‘For Dear Life’, ‘Take it in Hand’ and ‘Steady Decline’ show Tommy at his best and most creative with his trademark pinch harmonics and razor-sharp alt-picking style. The two singles, ‘Beg to Differ’ and ‘Lost and Found’, are live staples to this day, the former boasting one of the best extended intros to a thrash song since Metallica’s ‘Harvester of Sorrow’. Groove metal was not a thing back in 1990, but it seems myopic to squabble over Pantera or Exhorder as the originators when Prong were already creating the template. This is an essential metal album for everyone’s collection.
Tommy Victor: Wow. Great rating here, thank you. I was still working sound at the hardcore matinees at CBGB at the time of this recording. I also worked during the week and was also in charge of ‘between band’ music. I was listening to so much music at that time. It all just melted into me. The three of us believed Prong was to be a fusion of a bunch of stuff we liked. Not just a hardcore band, a thrash band or a noise band. I have to lay aside the humility here. Yes, I believe we originated groove metal with this attitude.
Prove You Wrong (1991)
Beg to Differ made little commercial headway despite its critical acclaim and fresh approach to thrash metal, which meant the band had to come up with something fast to please their major label patrons. Troy Gregory (ex-Flotsam and Jetson) joined on bass for his only album and lived with Tommy in New York during the writing of the record. You can tell the band were under pressure to deliver a hit single and to keep all songs below four minutes. Many of the compositions are formulaic and reluctant to deviate from an established verse-chorus structure, but the band still blast out a handful of classics with the likes of ‘Irrelevant Thoughts’, ‘Unconditional’ and ‘Shouldn’t Have Bothered’. The bass guitar is loud and clunky in the mix and Ted Parson’s stick work is impeccable. In retrospect this is another record ahead of its time for its emphasis on groovier thrash riffs. It also pays attention to the likes of Living Colour and Faith No More and experiments with funk (‘Prove You Wrong’) and post-punk (‘Contradictions’). Fans will balk at Tommy’s tribute to Bad Brains on ‘Brainwave’ (including a pastiche of H.R.’s unique vocal style) and the underwhelming cover of The Stranglers’ ‘Get a Grip (On Yourself)’. It creates the suspicion that Prong rushed this album and arrived at the studio with only seven of the thirteen songs in an advanced stage of pre-production.
Tommy Victor: I alluded to the importance of production and studio quality earlier. This issue that became a problem was encountered several times for Prong. And this was the first that had really bad consequences. On Beg to Differ we had little time to argue, so [producer] Mark Dodson took direction from as far as the treatment of the sound of the record. We also picked the studio, Normandy, which turned out awesome. With a new A&R guy that inherited the band, things were different on this record. For some reason we were forced into a studio that was awful. And Mark had his own ideas about the sound of this one. He thought Beg to Differ was too weird and Prong was weird. He pretty much crankily opposed everything I suggested on this record. The studio couldn’t meet his expectations and needs as well, so we had a disastrous mixing experience. I think the material is very strong on this record in any case. Yes, being on a major, they pressed for a cover and a single, our new A&R actually wanted a ballad as well (we gave him ‘Contradictions’). I listened to this record recently and really became angry at the sloppy production, engineering and terrible mix on this record. It could have been monumental, but, yeah, it wound up at about a 6/10. Next time would be different… No compromises!
Whose Fist is this Anyway EP (1992)
Not to be confused with the song that would appear on the next album under the same title, this EP offers five remixes of various songs from Prove You Wrong and a cover of The Music Machine’s ‘Talk Talk’. How this release made it to a respectable 58 on the UK singles chart is a mystery when you consider the difficulties of capturing the attention of the early 90s thrash metal crowd with hard dance grooves and industrial rhythms. The Fuzzbuster mix of ‘Prove You Wrong’ samples the juicy pinch harmonic guitar with imagination and retains the chorus of the original over the top of Skinny Puppy drum snares. The dub version of ‘Hell If I Could’ strips the bass and drums down to a psychedelic Gang of Four vibe without sacrificing the Killing Joke hook. Both are as strong as the album versions, but the rest of the material is forgettable, not least the safety mix of ‘Irrelevant Thoughts’. Only in hindsight is this an important release as a segue for the band to transition from thrash metal to a Godflesh-inspired groove metal outfit on their next album.
Tommy Victor: The band and our management and even some at the label were disappointed with the job Epic did on promoting Prove You Wrong. To try to salvage the record cycle, it was decided some sort of new release was needed. Although this was one of those “in between records” releases it was a very new idea for the time. I don’t think there was another hardcore/metal band that released a remix record before. This was before digital technology, and remixes were a tough thing to do. Jim Thirwell had to copy pieces of the two-inch master tape and make new, real actual tape loops. He actually did a great job on the title track ‘Prove You Wrong’. The whole thing was pretty successful because it also got Paul Raven from Killing Joke involved in the band. Lee Popa and he worked on one of the remixes. We became friendly, and when Troy quit, and we started auditioning bass players, Raven wanted a shot. He destroyed everyone else, and he joined the band.
The greatest triumph of the band’s career and most influential record to this day. Prong re-invented themselves as an industrial-thrash group and helped to create the groundwork for nu metal and the heavy groove sound that would go on to dominate the rest of the decade. It’s no exaggeration to say the first five tracks of Cleansing are as good as anything in the 1990s across all genres of metal. Their influence is obvious on Korn’s later success with the likes of ‘Broken Peace’ and ‘Another Worldy Device’ thriving on a syncopated thrash technique that sounded like nothing in metal at the time. Here, the riffs are sharp and crunchy and drop-tuned for heavier impact. Ted Parsons is like a human drum machine, alternating between disco and industrial beats, while Killing Joke legend, Paul Raven, provides a grinding bass presence on his debut record with the band. Thrash did not disappear after Metallica and Megadeth made the transition to stadium metal. Machine Head, Sepultura, Pantera and Prong slowed it down and made it heavier and more street smart. Tommy’s colossal rhythms on ‘Cut Rate’ and ‘Test’ can rival anything from the hand of Hetfield and are equal to Dimebag in their bludgeoning brilliance. This LP could be a perfect ten if not for a couple of superfluous Killing Joke pastiches towards the end and would go on to be the prime inspiration for two of the most controversial metal albums of the 1990s, in Machine Head’sThe Burning Red and Cancer’sBlack Faith. It’s simply criminal that this record receives so little acknowledgement for its influence and the number of bands that ripped it off. And we’ve not even mentioned ‘Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck’…
Tommy Victor: I have to totally agree with all this (blushingly). This record was the record I personally always wanted to make. And what a success it was. Not much more to say. We had a plan and made it happen. Terry Date worked with me on what we envisioned. Stripped down, detuned, hard and catchy… What a great time; there was so much uncharted territory. We saw the crossover opening and ran into it. I really wanted that club friendly timeless rock anthem and we got it. Yes, a lot of bands took it further. But this record is the original and authentic one.
Rude Awakening (1996)
Sony/Epic got behind Cleansing with a plethora of MTV videos and secured touring slots for the band with Pantera and Sepultura, but they received nowhere near enough commercial success for their investment. The group were at a crossroads and difficult to market. Korn were the emerging kings, White Zombie were at their peak, Deftones the new band on the scene. How do you market a third-wave thrash band with hardcore roots, post-punk influences and industrial beats in 1996? There’s a feeling that this was Prong’s last shot to achieve a gold record on a major label, but the sense of anxiety creeps into the music with a new melancholy haunting the song-writing. Now a full-on industrial-thrash band, the sound here is more Nitzer Ebb than Nuclear Assault, with drum machine sequences and bass beats dominating the mix. The introspective mood on ‘Rude Awakening’, ‘Face Value’ and ‘Dark Signs’ suggests all was not well in the camp with Tommy dropping the colossal guitar crunch in favour of a more intricate style of dissonant chords and clenched-jaw vocals. Nonetheless, the likes of ‘Avenue of the Finest’ and ‘Unfortunately’ revel in a lower tuning of palm-muted grooves, and ‘Controller’ shows once again that Prong were years ahead of their time with their cyber-thrash beats and drop-tuned guitars paving the way for the likes of Slipknot and Static X.
Tommy Victor: Again, I had big time ideas, trying to be ground-breaking, but it was difficult getting it to happen. Not everyone was on the same page, and that’s an understatement. I think the ideas were there, but it just never seemed to gel. We probably made the wrong record here. I thought I had some good simple guitar ideas, but no one really cared. Raven took three weeks to do bass tracks, which pissed everyone off. The programming took forever as well. The record went way over budget. And I didn’t like the direction Terry Date was taking on the mix. The vocals are way too low. And we had all these killer 808 kick drum samples and other cool stuff that he mixed out. The whole thing was a disappointment to us and the label. But a lot of guys picked up on what we were trying to do and made it more commercial. I concur: 7 outta 10 sounds good.
Like Faith No More, Prong exited the scene just as the music they helped to create broke through into the mainstream. We are, of course, talking about nu metal before it turned into a sterile genre bogged down by clichés and the fashion of hip-hop. It’s easy to forget that the down-tuned post-thrash sound Prong pioneered along with Pantera, Machine Head and Sepultura was still extreme in 1997 when the band called it a day.
As we shall see in Part Two, it was a different musical landscape when Tommy Victor resurrected Prong in 2003, on a new label, with a new album. Metal was mainstream, metalcore was displacing nu metal, and the European bands from Sweden, Finland and Norway were achieving worldwide success…
*** Look out for when we release part two of this feature on 6 June 2021 at www.screamblastrepeat.com.