Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Prong - Carved Into Stone (2012)

Some bands, as they age, show signs of slowing down.  Not necessarily in terms strictly of speed, either in how fast they play, or how fast albums come out, but in terms of the quality & vitality of their material.  Other bands just get better with age, continuing to hone their core sound while massaging it and adding elements as they release a new album.  Prong, while thought to be lost after 1996's "Rude Awakening", came back to mixed reception in 2002, and then went on an extended break again after Tommy Victor joined the Danzig ranks for touring.  2007's "Power of the Damager" was a ray of light, offering hope that Tommy hadn't abandoned his audience, and it was a fiery assault worthy of the Prong name.  2012 saw the band return after another 5-year break, to some fanfare.  Some hailed it as the best thing they'd done since their magnum opus, 1994's "Cleansing".  Does it hit that mark?  Almost.

I will qualify that statement by saying that if you're not a fan of anything Prong has released since 1996, you'd do well to check out both this album and its predecessor for quality Prong material.  If you have and you're still not digging it, you couldn't call yourself much more than a casual fan of their material.  While I agree that "Cleansing" remains their most consistently captivating and quality effort, they've reached highs with their 2 most recent albums, from differing angles.  "Power of the Damager" is a powerful (excuse the pun) record with a lot of grit, energy, passion, and Tommy's signature riffing.  "Carved Into Stone" follows that aural assault up with a slightly more studied approach that is no less entertaining, just a bit more subdued and restrained.

Where "Power of the Damager" went for the jugular more often than not, "Carved Into Stone" prefers a more melodic approach.  There are definitely moments of ferocity, like the muscular opener "Eternal Heat", "Keep On Living In Pain", "List of Grievances" or the punchy "Subtract".  The bulk of the record, however, veers toward the more mid-paced, melodic territory of the material on "Rude Awakening".  Before the haters cry foul, let me say that while I don't think "Rude Awakening" is a bad record by any stretch, I recognize that it's not Prong's best work.  But on the whole, that album was all about mid-paced, groovy, melodic songs versus a more diverse approach.  This same approach is used here, but to greater effect, as the set of songs is stronger overall.  Where "Rude Awakening" had a number of songs that ran into one another without a lot of individual identity, "Carved Into Stone" corrects those mistakes with better melodies, more memorable songs, and improved pacing.

Tommy's signature guitar crunch is in tow here, and the production values highlight that by giving the guitar a very "up front" kind of position in the mix.  The guitar tone here is a bit different than that of "Damager" and has a touch less bite overall, but is a little meatier at the same time.  As always, Tommy's guitar riffing takes center stage, and he sounds great here.  Something that we get to hear Tommy do far more on this record than he's done before is solo - a number of the songs have guitar solos.  These aren't all just short blasts, or the "follow the vocal melody" variety either, as there are a couple extended solos.  Hearing this on the record was at first a bit jarring, and felt a bit "tacked on" or out of place, but after having spun the record numerous times, it makes sense and comes off more naturally than at first listen.  In addition, assuming I even have to say it, Tommy's pinch harmonics sound as awesome as ever.  Vocally, Tommy sounds good, though he is admittedly less energetic than on "Damager", which had a lot of interesting vocal things going on.  But he sings melodically and gets the job done.

Ministry's Tony Campos does an admirable job on the bass, providing the necessary counterpoint for Tommy's riffing without being overly flashy or doing anything that takes away from the core of the Prong sound, which is the groove and crunch of Tommy's guitar.  Bass sits nicely in the mix as well, being audible and able to be heard as its own instrument, yet providing that necessary thump and thickness to the proceedings.  Drum work by Alexei Rodriguez is a highlight.  He replicates a lot of the groove-based approach that previous drummers have done where appropriate, but he adds a lot of double-bass in places where some previous skinsmen would have just continue to groove on.  It's a nice change of pace, and gives the album a bit more personality in that area than some previous albums have had.  Drums are also placed well in the mix, not overpowering either bass or drums, but sitting quite nicely beside them.

I made mention of the songs here being strong, and they are.  "Eternal Heat" is a great opener, filled with energy and great riffing.  "Keep On Living In Pain" follows that up to complete a one-two punch of powerful material, complete with groovy chorus and strong riff.  "Revenge...Best Served Cold" is the best "single" the band has released since "Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck", even slightly beating out the awesome "Controller" from "Rude Awakening".  "Put Myself To Sleep" is a song that marries both the energy and melodicism that Prong is known for.  "List Of Grievances" keeps the record interesting by picking up the pace and giving the listener a kick in the ears, as well as pulling out one of the longer, more killer solos Tommy played on the record.  The title track then slows things down for a heavy dose of groove, but keeps things melodic with a hooky chorus.  "Subtract" also picks up the pace again and provides another strong dose of energy.  The album has no lack of quality songwriting, that's for sure.  Lyrically, Tommy treads the usual murky waters of disenfranchisement, human failing, paranoia, and general distaste for the state of affairs of the world.  So, as usual, there's nothing new here, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

With all this positivity, where's the downside?  I love this record, and have listened to it countless times, but I can't shake the feeling that Tommy is so close to achieving a "personal best" and is just barely missing the mark.  I loved "Power of the Damager" as well, but felt that the album's set of songs wasn't as strong as they could be.  This has a better grouping of material, but lacks the punch, aggression, and urgency of its predecessor.  As I mentioned before, Tommy's vocals on this album are a bit "safe" for him.  He sounds great, but with all he did on "Damager", one wonders if he didn't like the results, or just felt that the material here, being of a more melodic nature, didn't benefit from those flourishes, and I'd agree.  I guess I just feel that if Tommy took the best elements of "Damager" (i.e. the aggression, energy, passion, and a more varied vocal approach), and combined those with the best elements on display here (overt melodicism, strong memorable songs, quality production/mix, pacing), he'd be at that apex where he might be able to match or even exceed "Cleansing".  The other potential hiccup is the production - Prong has sounded good on every post-"Cleansing" album, don't get me wrong.  But "Cleansing" had something in that Terry Date production that gave it that extra push.  That record has this really "dense" sound that gives it an air of heaviness that other Prong efforts haven't quite had.  The foreboding tone of the record lent itself so well to the material that it was the perfect storm of creative songwriting, performance, and production.

Overall, I feel like both "Damager" and this outing have explored separate sides of the same Prong coin, and while I dig the predecessor's urgency and aggression, this record has the edge because of its songwriting and the quality of the whole package.  If Tommy can come off this album and follow it up with something equally strong, yet bring in a bit more variety in the vocal department and more contrasts between the melodic and the aggressive, and hone the production to give the whole thing that extra ounce of power, he just might pull it off.  In the meantime, "Carved Into Stone" is an album I will continue to listen to and enjoy, knowing that at the very least, Tommy isn't resting on his laurels and continues to write and record great stuff.  Just don't take another 5 years to give us a follow-up this time, mkay?  Highly recommended.


**A word on the vinyl release!  I own both the retail digipak CD issue, and the 2xLP edition.  The vinyl itself sounds great, and while not probably 180g, is at least reasonably weighty enough to feel good when you're setting it on the turntable.  The brown marble platters are a nice touch.  My only gripes are that there are no lyrics on either inner sleeve (lazy design choice), and that there's no indication ANYWHERE on the records, packaging, inner or outer sleeves that these platters spin at 45 RPM instead of the requisite 33 1/3 RPM that most LPs opt for.  45 RPM was the right choice for a double LP, I just wish somewhere it had indicated that.  On the plus side, the vinyl edition comes with a bonus track, a cover of Rammstein's "Feuer Frei!" track.  It's a good cover, sufficiently sounding like Prong but being recognizable as a cover of the original.  It's curious that Prong chose to cover the track, because Rammstein could probably have been accused of being influenced by Prong, so I guess it comes full circle.  It sounds like a song that Tommy could have written, and the performance speaks to that.  Also, the vinyl version comes with the full album (minus bonus track) on CD in a paper sleeve!  So if you're a vinyl enthusiast who likes getting the digital download with purchase, this is even better.  It's a shame that this is the only place outside of iTunes to get the cover track, but ultimately the album itself is the main draw.

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