Tommy Victor’s Prong have been cranking out music at a furious rate lately, delivering a studio record, a covers EP and a live album within the past 2 years or so. While this work ethic is admirable (and rivaled only by perhaps Max Cavalera), we all know quantity does not always equal quality. 2012’s Carved Into Stone was their best record since their early 1990s heyday, but the follow-up Ruining Lives was somewhat hindered by fake-sounding production and some half-baked attempts at melody. Can X–No Absolutes reverse the trend, or continue it further?
“Ultimate Authority” is textbook Prong, although its mid-paced stomp makes it an odd choice for an opener — it feels like it should be track 2 or 3, preceded by something faster and/or more anthemic. “Sense of Ease,” however, is a total rager, continuing Prong‘s pattern of including at least one or two thrash songs on each of their last few records. For the record, I am 100% in favor of this. The paint-by-numbers production from Ruining Lives remains, sadly, making No Absolutes sound like an EZDrummer demo and/or a band that would be playing side stage at 11 AM on a tour sponsored by an energy drink.
The rest of X–No Absolutes‘ A-side goes by without much incident, neither surprising or offending, until we come to track 6, “Do Nothing.” I was unsure of exactly how to describe this song, so I passed it along to my colleague Dr. A.N. Grier, who diagnosed it thusly: “Dude, this sounds like Linkin Park.” Indeed, the poppy melody and keyboard textures could be mistaken for something that plays over the credits of a Michael Bay movie, distinguished only by Prong‘s unmistakable vocal style.
“Belief System” finds Victor venturing into super-downtuned territory, vaguely approximating the deathcore movement at times. “Soul Sickness” integrates electronic effects more convincingly than “Do Nothing,” sounding like a beefier take on the band’s Rude Awakening-era material. It’s worth noting that Victor has come a long way as a vocalist, with a more varied and emotive approach than in the band’s early days. As commendable as this is, I’m listening to Prong for the riffs, and that seems to be one department in which No Absolutes is sorely lacking. For years, Victor was the Michael Jordan of squealy, atonal guitar madness, but it seems that he may be entering the Washington Wizards phase of his career.
The rest of the album is an exercise in duality, veering wildly between Prong‘s trademark industrial thrash and embarrassing forays into more commercial waters. “Ice Runs Through My Veins” is another pop-structured tune, completely omitting Victor’s unique guitar style in favor of predictable chord progressions. This song is sandwiched between a pair of thrashier numbers, “In Spite Of Hindrances” and “Worth Pursuing,” which only highlights its awkwardness. The album’s final track, “With Dignity,” finds Victor imploring us to “walk away with dignity” over a backing track that sounds suspiciously like Linkin Park‘s “Crawling.” The irony of this is not lost on me.
Look, I have no problem with bands trying new things. Prong is a band that could get stale very quickly if not augmented with new ideas, and I commend Victor for exploring his range as both a vocalist and songwriter. I also enjoy big, catchy hooks as much as the next guy, and Prong has never been lacking in that department — see “Prove You Wrong,” “Whose Fist Is This Anyway,” and obviously “Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck.” But the “melodic” tracks on No Absolutes sound like a completely different band, someone’s extremely commercial side project in which Tommy Victor contributed guest vocals. Prong hit it out of the goddamn park with Carved Into Stone, but the albums since then have sounded increasingly phoned-in and inconsistent. X–No Absolutes is a mixed bag at best, split between building upon past glories and making ill-advised grasps at pop accessibility.