So we’re almost a month removed from the release of this collection of covers from alterna-industrial-hardcore-metal machine known as Prong. That means that anybody who cares has already bought it, heard it, or disregarded it completely. In other words, they’ve already formed an opinion about it. It would be foolish of me to try to do anything to change that.
So why even bother reviewing it at this point? Maybe I still feel guilty for relegating 2014’s excellent Ruining Lives to a brief segment in our mid-year “The Best of What You’ve Missed” feature. Maybe I felt like I needed to shake off the wrinkles from my last review with a softball job. Maybe I’m just a fool (hush, Mr. Duvall).
Whatever the case may be (and I reckon it’s a little bit of all three), this is going to me more musing than review. After all, covers albums don’t lend themselves to the type of traditional criticism that most reviews are made of. You can’t praise or complain about the songwriting; the band didn’t write the songs. You can’t really praise or complain about the musicianship; the band isn’t exactly being creative. The band is simply playing songs originally written and performed by other people because they thought it would be fun. Maybe that’s the barometer we’ll use in the end. For now, though, let’s take a look at what we’ve got here.
The track selection is a combination of influences, inspiration, and just plain songs that the band (well, likely just Tommy Victor) thinks are cool. More obvious choices like Discharge and Killing Joke share space with the less obvious Butthole Surfers, Fugazi, Husker Du, and Neil Young. It’s a mix as varied as Prong itself has been over the years. Rather than Prong-ify them, they take on these selections straight-up. Although they are being run through the Prong audio filter, then, they maintain the essence of the original artists. As long as you’re familiar with them, Sisters of Mercy’s “Vision Thing” and Black Flag’s “The Bars” will be immediately identifiable as those bands; I had never heard the latter before (which feels like a bit of blasphemy) but from the first note, and without looking at the track list/cheat sheet, I knew it was Black Flag. So, kudos to Victor and Co. for not only honoring a diverse group of musicians, but also for keeping their respective spirits alive and not turning them into something they aren’t.
Also to their credit, the selections aren’t exactly the most obvious choices. It’s a little surprising to see they went to Killing Joke’s 2003 self-titled album for “Seeing Red” rather than their 1980 self-titled album for “Requiem.” Expecting a Prong take on some proto-grunge Neil Young? Nope – it’s the mellow, breezy “Cortez the Killer”, played about as mellow and breezy as you’ve ever heard Prong play. Even the aforementioned Black Flag track comes from the largely unheralded Slip It In, when most of the time a band will pick anything up to and including Damaged material. It’s this kind of outside-the-norm thinking that Prong has basically built their career around. So again, kudos to them.
So how is the album, really? It’s hard to say. It sounds great, and all players involved are more than up to the task of covering such a varied track selection. As I said before, all the songs are faithfully rendered, with shifts in the band’s sound as needed. The most notable shifts are in Victor’s vocal tonalities, channeling Jaz Coleman, Gibby Haynes, and Ian Mackaye with relative ease. There are a couple moments of discomfort, one of which oddly enough is the track that inspired the title, “Kids of the Black Hole” originally by The Adolescents. It just wasn’t a very good song in the first place, so a straightforward cover isn’t going to be much better. The power pop/punk of Husker Du’s “Don’t Want to Know If You Are” is a bit awkward in the Prong mold, in a similar way that System of a Down’s “Aerials” did not lend itself to Amon Amarth’s massive sound. Even so, you aren’t likely to find yourself skipping either track.
Ultimately, Songs From the Black Hole comes off as an album made in the spirit of fun by the band with the idea of giving the fans something fun to listen to. In that sense, this is a huge success. Like most covers albums, though, it isn’t likely to convert non-believers or attract new fans; it’s more likely to do that for the bands that are covered therein. But now I’m starting to overthink things. Time to just shut up and enjoy the music – again.