I know I play acoustic guitar and play what are essentially folk songs, but a great album is a great album.
Back in the early- to mid-1990s, there was a nationally syndicated radio station called Z-Rock (106.9 in Houston), a hard rock and metal station that did many wonderful things for the world, including broadcasting Pearl Jam’s famous 1994 concert from Atlanta’s Fox Theatre live. Z-Rock had a show called “Back Rockwards,” where they would give the listeners a clue and and then play a song backwards. You’d call in, guess the song, and if you got it right, they’d send you some CDs that you would then give away to friends or cash in at the local used CD place to get something that was actually good. I know this, because one night in 1994, they gave the clue “Digital Chiropractor,” and after the first three backwards notes, I was on the phone to Z-Rock and guessing Prong’s “Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck” correctly. They had no idea how I’d figured it out so quickly (magic), and sent me Tool’s Undertow (which I already had) and a bunch of cheesy CDs as a reward. But really, winning a national radio contest was reward enough.
In 1996, I was playing drums in a band called Black Spiral, and we were still finding our way creatively. We’d written three songs, but didn’t have a clear direction in terms of genre. We were kind of thrash, kind of hard rock, kind of metal, and filled out our sets with cover songs. Since none of the three members could sing, we recruited another guy to do the vocal duties. He was a good, but tended away from the heavier aspects of metal. During our fourth show as a band, he walked offstage in the middle of our set to go… I think…drink a beer or smoke a joint with somebody he knew. Left without a vocalist just as we were beginning “Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck,” our bass player got so furious that he just started screaming the lyrics into the vacated microphone. And it sounded AWESOME.
That fixed our direction, and we became a death metal band — it didn’t matter if we couldn’t sing because now we could growl. We put out an album in 1999 called Defeat, and in retrospect, that album probably would not exist without Cleansing.
Cleansing remains Prong’s best-selling and best-reviewed album. The band put out two major-label releases leading up to 1994’s Cleansing, then one after, and in the years since have gone through multiple lineup changes, released two more studio albums, a few live releases, and suffered the tragic sudden death by heart attack of bassist Paul Raven. Prong’s only constant member has been guitarist/singer/lyricist/songwriter and all-around repository of metal awesomeness Tommy Victor; he has also done stints in Danzig and Ministry.
I have soft spots in my heart for all of Prong’s albums, to varying degrees, but for my money, Prong/Tommy Victor belong in the metal pantheon on the strength of Cleansing alone. It was the band’s best lineup — Victor, Raven, and Ted Parsons (drums) — and everything about the album, from songwriting, to production, to sequencing, is flawless. This is, very simply, what an album should be. The songs are individually very strong (“Another Worldly Device,” “Snap Your Fingers…,” “Whose Fist is This Anyway,” “Broken Peace,” and “Test” are standouts), and put together in a way that leads the listener on a path. From the opening riff of “Another Worldly Device” to the the extended deceleration at the end of that last track, “Test,” the album brings you into a world, shows you around, and then shows you the door.
Labels like “the riff king” have been applied to Tommy Victor, and he does have a gift for writing guitar riffs that are both memorable and distinct. His riffs sound like they came from the same place, but they are not indistinguishable, which is a challenge that few metal musicians really ever overcome. How does one manage to create an album or a song that is “the same but different,” giving fans what they expect without boring them? I don’t know that I know the answer to that, but Tommy Victor apparently does.
But to focus on his riff-writing is to sell him short. The songs on Cleansing are truly crafted. Take, for instance, track four — “Cut-rate.” This song sits between the blistering “Whose Fist…” and the the more groove-oriented “Broken Peace,” and it is a perfect bridge between the two. It starts fast and heavily syncopated, and sprints along until everything drops away except for a single, sustained guitar note, and then everything comes back in at half-time, with a pounding, groovy outro that not only provides a powerful contrast with the rest of the song, giving it shape and balance, but also paves the way for “Broken Peace” to follow. The three-piece band relies heavily on layered guitars, doubled vocals, and what might be called “grunt harmony”…not harmony in the true sense, but simultaneous vocal lines that complement each other, delivered in Victor’s trademark rasp. The production by the legendary Terry Date no doubt contributed to the high level of execution in terms of the songs’ construction, and provided the razor-sharp, industrial-tinged sound that still sounds fresh and holds up remarkably well, even after fifteen-or-so years of evolution in the genre.
I feel like greater public exposure to Prong might have averted the whole Nu Metal thing. A lot more people enjoy aggressive music than can get behind guttural death metal or operatic NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) vocal stylings, so Nu Metal came in and offered people aggressive music with less menacing vocal delivery and intelligible lyrics. Except that Nu Metal was basically an updated version of the glam scene, and Prong has substance, amazing songcraft, and offers the uninitiated a vocal style that doesn’t immediately create a wall between the band and new listeners.
So if you’ve got Limp Bizkit or Papa Roach CDs lurking in your closet, it’s time to throw them out, and (through your distribution vehicle of choice) replace them with Cleansing.