On first blush, the title track off the new Prong EP Age of Defiance (out Nov. 29 on Steamhammer/SPV) sounds like it’s coming from the same defensive head space that made the band’s classic ’90s output so galvanizing. With landmark albums like 1990’s Beg to Differ, 1991’s Prove You Wrong and 1994’s Cleansing, Prong forged an offbeat alloy of metal and industrial that captured the danger, distress and claustrophobia of life in pre-2000s New York, the band’s former hometown.
Initially, “Age of Defiance” seems cut from the same cloth, opening with a metal guitar riff that strafes across a tank-like drum groove, both parts gnashing in unison with an almost militaristic zeal. With the word “defiance” in the title, the music lends itself to a familiar, fist-pumping brand of self-empowerment. On closer inspection, however, such lyrics as “Learn to lay down your defenses” and “With new endeavors learn how to bend” reveal the song as a call for temperance.
Guitarist-frontman-bandleader Tommy Victor maintains that there always has been a vulnerable streak in Prong’s sound — one of several elements that set the group apart from the unwavering aggression of its peers at the time. That said, vintage Prong is practically tailor-made for putting one’s guard up. Ditto for much of the band’s output since Victor revived the brand in 2002. But as Billboard found out in a phone conversation with him, flexibility is its own form of strength.
“I love this lyric because we live in a reactionary period where people [feel they] have to take a stance,” says Victor. “Maybe the answer is no stance.” He explains that the song is also inspired by how he has been practicing Transcendental Meditation for the past few years, calling it “a natural progression” in his thinking about how to handle conflict. “I’ve banged my head against the wall, I’ve fought, I’ve tried to react, and it comes to this, where I would rather lay down my defense. That’s the answer I’ve seen as being the way to go. I mean, why just keep defying?”
You have described “Age of Defiance” as “pretty unusual for Prong.” How so?
It’s a different tuning and I used a seven-string guitar on it, so from that perspective it’s different. I also don’t necessarily know if it was written as a Prong song. The other new song on the EP [“The End of Sanity”] was. [The other three tracks are live cuts.—Ed.] Our biggest hit, “Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck” [from Cleansing] was also a little different [for us], so maybe that’s a good thing.
But as I go along, [whatever I’m writing tends to] become more relatable to the older stuff. That just happens automatically. The lyric is a little different, though. It has a different attitude. I mean, it’s not entirely new. I’ve written this type of song recently. There’s a song on [2012’s] Carved Into Stone named “Path of Least Resistance,” and there’s a song on [2016’s] X — No Absolutes named “Do Nothing” that’s about blankness. But this one is a lot more dialed-in [to that vibe].
The song is also a little more free in terms of being more melodic.
Oh, I appreciate that. We’ve matured over making records continually over the last seven years. I wish I had had this kind of maturity, studio knowledge, songwriting and vocal ability when we did [1996’s] Rude Awakening. We were shooting for this way back then, but we fell short.
Listen to “Age of Defiance” below:
So why an EP with two new songs and three live tracks from a few years back of the current lineup doing songs from Cleansing and Rude Awakening?
Well, this year is the 25th anniversary of Cleansing, our most successful record. So we needed to remind people of that somehow, apart from it being rereleased by Century Media on vinyl this year. It’s good to give whoever’s paying attention a tap on the shoulder.
Did you get a copy of the 180-gram vinyl of Cleansing?
When was the last time you even heard that album on vinyl?
Oooooh … you know something? I don’t think I ever did hear it on vinyl. I mean, I haven’t had a record player since before that album came out. It was remastered for vinyl with help from me, a person who doesn’t listen to vinyl. [Laughs.]
It was clear in the first phase of Prong’s career that the band was going to keep changing its sound from record to record.
I’ve always complained about that. It’s really arrogant in a way. I don’t like that about our history, but it’s something that I can’t help.
What do you mean, “It was arrogant”?
Sometimes you have to humble yourself and give ’em what they want. We had this really great record, Cleansing, and everyone was really happy with it. But [within the band], we were like, “We’re going to keep forging ahead. We’re going to break new ground again.” Even though all the signs and everything was pointing against it, we were so stubborn, and it was not a good idea. Even to this day, I’ll say that we were just completely out of our minds during the Rude Awakening period. It’s probably based on the [commercial] failure of it that I feel that way, but it failed for a reason. We changed things too much. We didn’t have to.
But change was what you had almost always done. Anybody who had gotten onboard with you knew you weren’t going to do the same record twice.
But there was a whole new audience with Cleansing. We had lost a lot of the old indie fans who were starting to drift off anyhow. People don’t remember, but the stigma of being on a major label was a huge thing. But we had [found] a new audience, and we let those people down, too. I think we changed way too much from Beg to Differ to Prove You Wrong as well.
So that’s what stimulated the change on Cleansing, which was a comeback record. It had to be done. Prove You Wrong failed, and the label was frustrated with the [lack of progress], and I agreed, like, “What are we going to do next?” We had to figure that out. And we nailed it. But it would’ve been good to make a consistent run of records. That’s why when I decided to come back and do Prong seriously again, from Carved Into Stone to [2017’s] Zero Days — that’s a consistent, good batch of records.
What were you and Epic Records thinking was going to happen back in the day? How high were your hopes?
I was very immature for my age, and so was [original drummer] Ted [Parsons]. We wanted to be successful, but we wanted to have a good time, too. We were shocked that a major label was interested in us, and it sort of went to our heads a little bit. I must say, I don’t know that going with a major was the smartest move in our career either. I think it just sounded better to our parents. That’s really what it was [At first, it went] way beyond everyone’s expectations. Then it turned around. Suddenly, we weren’t doing well enough.