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Prong’s ‘Prove You Wrong’ turns 20

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With some things, you just know. Not long after I got Prove You Wrong (Epic, 1991), which turns 20 today, I knew it was for me. I bought the longbox at a tiny record store by train tracks where kids smoked and did bad things. No doubt that store is gone now. But the mystique of the album’s artwork – a subtly deadly combination of metal and jellyfish – and its perfect fit for me burn as brightly as ever.

Musically, Prove You Wrong is a paradox. It’s Prong from note one, with a tight coldness that hits sideways. Mainman Tommy Victor’s songs rarely let loose. Even at their highest momentum, they don’t tip over into the red like, say, Slayer. Instead, rage seethes below the surface, perhaps frustated at being caged. (…And Justice for All is a great example of this.) I love Reign in Blood, but I’m not an all-guns-blazing kind of guy; Prong’s knife-slipped-in-the-gut is much more my style.

Yet the record is a rainbow of influences. It’s a transition from Beg to Differ‘s technical thrash to Cleansing‘s industrial metal. So it offers those elements, along with Prong’s hardcore punk roots, post-punk’s taut grooves, post-punk’s hollow dub, post-punk’s white take on James Brown (dig those Jimmy Nolen ninth chords in the title track), and, yeah, post-punk. I don’t mean the stovepipe jeans disco that soundtracked Williamsburg for a while; I mean the hostility-at-low-gain practiced by Joy Division and Killing Joke. (The latter’s take on dub was perhaps a Cold War-hardened mutation of The Clash’s white dub.)

The result is curiously devoid of midrange. Since Victor’s guitar slinks rather than scorches, the impetus comes from the rhythm section. In “Positively Blind”, rubbery bass interjects in almost Primus-esque fashione; the hard-edged, reverbed drums recall contemporaneous recordings (Cowboys from Hell, Vulgar Display of Power) by Pantera. Midrange is payoff, but here we get 45 minutes of undertow. Frustration could be one reaction, but a better one would be letting onself be carried along.

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I’ve done that for years with just the title track. “Prong”; “Prove You Wrong”. On a purely visual level, that phrasing has beautiful symmetry. And for a personal mantra, it doesn’t get more hard-hitting than “Prove you wrong / You can bet on it”. This is about as close to a personal credo as I have. I realize that living according to something phrased in the negative might not be the healthiest thing. However, it is what has kept my fire burning in my adult life. What can I say? I love revenge movies.

Looking more closely at the other songs now, I see a theme of individualism running throughout. The evidence comes in pieces: “For society’s will / Denied my own person / But there’s still a will / For my own lesson”; “Dependence on no one, I distrust and oppose”; “It is a reason why I got control / It’s the treason, better off alone / Got an answer, individual creed”; and my favorite – “Not fit in / So be it”.

What’s interesting is that these aren’t rallying cries. They’re spittings by someone trapped in a hopeless situation. Victor helplessly proclaims, “I’d give you hell if I could”, then tacks on “I swear”. This isn’t revolution, but frustration. The theme of individualism is common in metal, but it’s rare to encounter treatments this nuanced. You can don all the corpsepaint and spikes in the world, but at the end of the day, you’re still a cog in systems larger than yourself: commerce, finance, government, reality.

The biggest example of this on the album is “Contradictions”. It’s a deep cut I long overlooked. Young me liked music fast and catchy, and this song is slow and plodding, as if Slayer’s “Seasons in the Abyss” remained mired in its intro. (See also Ministry’s “Scarecrow”, another slow-crusher-with-wide-open-feel-colored-by-a-tritone descendant of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks”.) Over Swans-esque percussion, Victor asks, “All these contradictions / Which wrong will you choose?” There’s no way out – yet one man stands, shaking his fist.

— Cosmo Lee

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