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Tuesday January 23rd 2018

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PRONG – Beg to Differ (Classic Review)

Prong – “Beg to Differ”. Epic Records, 1990.

20th Century New York City looms darkly in history as the antithesis of the gentrified playground that it stands as today. Up until the mid-’90s, the City embodied virtually all the preconceptions that the simpler, more morally-inclined folk have always held about urban decrepitude. It was a genuine concrete hellhole: vandals terrorized the graffiti-strewn streets and subway tunnels; a decidedly unglamorous Times Square was notorious as a Red Light District; Wall Street suits celebrated successful days at the market with penthouse cocaine parties, whilst the homeless hordes huddled around trashcan fires. The 1980s in particular represented a turning point where socio-political tensions were caustic: this is the New York City that Prong knew all too well, and the recorded-in-’89 Beg to Differ is their ultimate testimony to the strife–and the thrill–of survival in the modern megalopolis.

Though Beg to Differ is Prong’s major label debut, it’s their third studio album and a significant stylistic deviation from their previous works: 1987′s Primitive Origins and the following year’s Force Fed were both firmly rooted in the thrash movement, using the agility of punk song structures to fire out chugging metal riffs– but even then with an impressive handle on artistry. For Beg to Differ, Prong instead adopted the basic template for speed metal as showcased by the early Bay Area scene, with Kill ‘Em All standing out amongst the citations. While such a shift would spell creative death for any other thrash band, Prong molded the simplified structures to their advantage by carefully arranging a select handful of riffs, so that each song cycle is like a coherent idea that reiterates itself in emphasis.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Beg to Differ is its use of heavy syncopation, realized by deftly employing the palm-muting technique to chop up otherwise confluent phrases into staggered bursts. To be sure, this rhythmic sensibility is the precursor to the “groove” subgenre: by 1992, it would be abducted, lobotomized, and pumped full of steroids by Pantera for their album Vulgar Display of Power. Then KoRn alighted on the new sound and turned it into pure bounce, and then it all went to Hell from there. But Prong’s execution was jazzoid and mechanically-precise– riffs halted and accelerated as if running along a malfunctioning conveyor belt, imitating the din of factory engineering far removed from the warmth of the organic world. Truly, this is speed metal as industrial-age cynics like Justin Broadrick and Killing Joke would have it.

Thankfully, Beg to Differ is not just an exercise in sterile logic. Beneath the mechanized crunch there is a pervasive human Will, manifesting itself as brooding melodies that occasionally rise into prominence (most powerfully achieved in the title track, as well as “Take It In Hand”). There is actually a Holst-ian dynamic between passages of militant staccato, dissonance, and mysterious ambience– a trait doubtlessly inherited from contemporaries Voivod. And atop it all is the vocal performance of Tommy Victor, who has developed his range from the Discharged blurtings of old to emerge as a more tonally-conscious singer. The coarse lilt of his New York accent lends authenticity to lyrics condemning the rampant individualism and greed characteristic of urban society– messages that are all the more painfully relevant 20 years later to the present age, where it seems that our plutocracy is literally caving in on us.

Having been released at the very dawn of the ’90s when speed metal was on its commercial deathbed, this album managed to generate something of a buzz amongst the later-period Generation X’ers who were still interested in Metal, but craved something done with more pathos. And for a while Beg to Differ filled that void, but as always the crowd soon moved on to more Indie pastures and Prong were left with the short end of the deal: an abrupt change in fortune that is still a bitter memory for them. For those of us who aren’t swayed by trends, however, this album remains a milestone in the genre. An essential piece in any New Yorker’s library.

Prong – “Steady Decline”

Music Video for Prong – “Beg to Differ”

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