Being a Prong fan can be a confusing exercise in cognitive dissonance. I am acutely aware of their many musical shortcomings, and yet I keep coming back for the awesome riffs and mosh-worthy aggression. The band’s track record with other people’s songs is pretty bizarre, and when I saw the tracklist for their covers album Songs From The Black Hole, my initial reaction was equal parts glee and dread. This has the potential to either be fucking awesome, or hilariously bad. I enjoy laughter, so either way, I win.
The album kicks off with two tracks that play very much to Prong‘s strengths: “Doomsday,” by Discharge, and the Sisters of Mercy classic “Vision Thing.” Vocalist/guitarist Tommy Victor sounds positively vicious on “Doomsday,” with the band tightening up on the original’s d-beat riffage for a more modern sound. The Sisters‘ harsh atmosphere and dance-ready rhythms are a perfect match, and in Prong‘s hands, “Vision Thing” becomes a more straightforward rocker in the vein of perhaps “Rude Awakening.”
About half of Black Hole covers ’80s hardcore bands, and Victor has done an excellent job choosing material from this era. However, a lot of these songs are textbook examples of “songs that should not be played by Prong.” Case in point: The signature guitar hook from Husker Du‘s “Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely” is mangled into a caricature of Tommy Victor-isms, complete with ridiculous pick squeals and unnecessary dissonance. I literally burst out laughing within 5 seconds of hitting play.
Bad Brains‘ “Banned In D.C.” is given a delivery faithful to the original, proving nothing except that Victor is no match for Brains‘ manic vocalist H.R. In other news, water is wet. Adolescents‘ “Kids Of The Black Hole” is slowed down to a half-time groove, resulting in one of the more interesting tracks on the album. I’ve wished for years that someone would cover Black Flag’s “The Bars,” and Prong‘s attempt would be a flawless victory, if not for the blatant use of programmed drums. (note: drums on Black Hole are credited to a human being named Art Cruz, but I call bullshit on that).
The inclusion of a Killing Joke song is hardly a surprise. KJ is probably their single biggest influence sonically, and most of Prong‘s classic lineup did time in both bands. “Seeing Red” is an odd choice, however, seeing as how the original version is from 2003, and hardly in need of an update. Stranger still is that Prong simply replicates the original version note-for-note, including Victor imitating Jaz Coleman’s English accent. I chalk this up as a lost opportunity, as a Prongified version of “Wardance” or “Requiem” would’ve been awesome.
The remaining tracks are hit and miss. “Goofy’s Concern” (Butthole Surfers) translates into Prong‘s world quite nicely, seeing as how the song is about 80% guitar divebombs. “Give Me The Cure” (Fugazi) is a surprisingly good fit for Victor’s voice, but once again, the programmed drums destroy all the groove and dynamics. The album closes with a nearly unbearable 6-minute cover of Neil Young‘s “Cortez the Killer,” like a giant middle finger to the entire universe.
As a project that seemed destined to be either fantastic or terrible, Songs From The Black Hole turns out to be a little bit of both. The record is a fascinating exercise in not knowing one’s limitations, but when it’s good, it’s pretty damn fun. I wish Tommy Victor could have found another way to show his admiration for these songs, like maybe a podcast or guest DJ set somewhere. However, the original versions, and the bands responsible for them, are all very much worth checking out if you’re not already familiar with them.