Spawn: the Album
By Charles Webb
Welcome to the 15th installment of the Shot for Shot column, where we explore the world of comic-based films and all the weirdness that surrounds it.
This week with Matt out we'll be doing something a little different. Because I don't think I could stomach giving you 1500 words about the Spawn (1997) movie that failed to set the world on fire, I'll instead tell you about its incongruously good soundtrack. In fact, if the movie that accompanied this rock-electronic album me the quality of its music we might be on our second or third Spawn sequel by now.
First, a little background and the why of this article: everything associated with this movie represented a death knell of sorts. The comics industry was beginning its downward spiral thanks to reasons documented with a greater deal of depth than I'm willing to go into here. Spawn as a character was no longer the huge draw it was at the inception of Image comics. Batman and Robin was released that same year to critical derision, causing studios to rethink the comics-to-film adaptation (although this didn't stop personal favorite Blade from hitting the screen the very next year.
The changing landscape of music affected the soundtrack as well. Comprised of many post-grunge rock acts (Silverchair, Marilyn Manson, Filter) combined with prominent electronic acts of the time (Prodigy, Sneaker Pimps, Orbital), the album seemed to be an attempt to vindicate the techno act as rock star. For those of you who remember, the late' 90s saw electronic acts getting a lot of airtime on MTV in a push by the music industry to find the next big thing. From around 1995-1998 or so, more charismatic groups like Prodigy and Daft Punk got to shine for a bit, and then the glut happened with acts being signed left and right and before you know it, even Moby is leaving the mixing boards to make a rock album.
The big problem is that DJ's as a rule tended not to be rock stars – with few exceptions it was a couple of guys behind some knobs working it out and that's kind of a hard sell when you're pushing the charisma of the act.
Again, it was a weird time. Everyone, from music to comics kept trying to hit the next big thing in the hopes that overload might somehow equal success.
As for the comic connection, I've always felt that the soundtrack matched the tone of the source material far better than the Mark Dippe-directed film. Where the movie was summer bombast (complete with Spawn cycle and little kid turned hostage) the album felt sinister, full of jittery, angry energy. From Kirk Hammett/Orbital's "Satan" with its insistently-repeated title to Marilyn Manson/Sneaker Pimps' "Long Hard Road Out of Hell" it was dire without being dreary and successfully conjured up the nervy energy of the first few issues of the comic.
Let's go track by track and take a look back at the album which will be 13 years old this summer (ouch).
(Can't You) Trip Like I Do (Filter/Crystal Method):
Of all the songs this one feels like it's aged the most, with its high-fi low-grade sound and the megaphone whisper in the background. Filter was actually a very decent rock act back in the day, most famous for their 1995 "Hey Man, Nice Shot." The Crystal Method on the other hand… you know the kind of music playing in a movie where the bad guys (usually Eurotrash in shiny shirts) are hanging out in the garish club with impossibly hot women? Yeah, the Crystal Method is probably what's playing in the background and you barely even notice they're there.
Long Hard Road Out of Hell (Marilyn Manson/Sneaker Pimps):
This is the track that got a decent amount of rotation on MTV's playlist around the time the movie was released and actually one of my favorite songs from the whole album. Manson's dirty vocals feel conjured right out of the grimy back alleys where Al Simmons lives while the Sneaker Pimps contribute a haunting chime/warble thing in the background that make the whole thing feel empty and abandoned. It still holds up today as an excellent rock track and feels the least like an experiment.
Satan (Kirk Hammett/Orbital):
Orbital's "Satan" was actually from their 2005 album In Sides with Metallica's Kirk Hammett adding full-bodied guitar to what felt like more of a playful track on the duo's own album. As mentioned above, it's most notable for having the word "Satan" repeated over and over accompanied by bass that more or less keeps kicking you in the chest while Hammett's guitar (at times overpowered) still has the potential to shred your nerves. It's a bit of a like it or loathe it prospect (I'm in the former camp).
Kick the P.A. (Korn/Dust Brothers):
This is one of those tracks that sounds great when you're 18 but is grating when you're past 30. That seems to sum up Korn: just about the greatest thing ever when you're young and dumb and just about the dumbest thing ever when you get a little older. This song fits with the rest of the album with Korn lead Jonathan Davis's whipcrack vocals over the Dust Brothers'* beats but a few years on the anger in it feels misplaced somehow – why is J.D. so angry at his P.A. system?
Tiny Rubberband (Butthole Surfers/Moby):
This is the only track on the entire album I don't actually like – mostly because the sensibilities of the punks-turned-surf rockers the Butthole Surfers and the fidgety knob noodling of Moby just don't really mix. The warbling, unsteady track is the closest one can come to seasickness as it lilts, tilts, and leans back and forth with Gibby Haynes' vocals colliding with Moby's beats. The song actually reminds me of "Pepper" from BS's Electriclarryland but is stripped of that track's playfulness.
For Whom the Bell Tolls (The Irony of it All) (Metallica/DJ Spooky):
This was one of the more interesting surprises of the entire enterprise. Take one of Metallica's most well-known songs and drown the lyrics under the sea, add a drum and bass beat and the frequent tolling of a bell and you have a track that's terribly effective (if not a little literal). The track is, for lack of a better word, insistent with a sound that feels as though the guitar is in some dire chase with the beats, biting at its heels but gleefully never quite catching up. James Hetfield's sped-up vocals will come as a shock to anyone hearing this song alongside the original, changing the mournful dirge into the growl of an electronic monster.
Torn Apart (Stabbing Westward/Wink)
I always wished Stabbing Westward** had hit it bigger than they did ultimately. Already something of an electronic/rock hybrid, the inclusion of DJ Josh Wink to the track was, I suspect, a little redundant. Still, the beat is cool and the distortion thrown over the lead singer's voice hides his sometimes weak vocals.
Skin Up Pin Up (Mansun/808 State):
Wow, I actually forgot this song was on the album. It's also not very good.
One Man Army (Prodigy/Tom Morello):
Like "Satan" this track sees a prominent guitarist supplying riffs for a techno beat. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine provides the licks but is somewhat drowned out by underneath Liam Howlett's beats and what sounds like a distorted siren. It's unfortunate, because Morello's guitar work is something to behold more often than not and to have it kind of hidden in the track like this does his work a disservice.
This one has the same griminess going for it that "Long Hard Road Out of Hell" does, but instead of Marilyn Manson's slithery insinuation almost dragging you down this song seems to be yelling at the listener for being in the gutter. To be honest, I'd never heard of Vitro before this track (and had heard nothing of them since) but Silverchair was at the time a known commodity. Extremely young rockers from Australia (I think they were in their mid teens when they hit it big) this quite odd/excellent rage against the meat is enhanced by beats that sound like bombs being dropped on the listener. Politics of the lyrics aside it brings to mind the youthful anger of the comic, with most of the song sung in either a scream or a sneer.
T-4 Strain (Henry Rollins/Goldie):
American punk pioneer with U.K. jungle beat hero. Yeah, I was sold on this pretty easily. The song refers to the deadly virus that acts as the Macguffin throughout the movie (I don't know, something about Martin Sheen triggering the apocalypse). Rollins does something really interesting, making the track a spoken-word narration on the part of the virus. "I can kill/But I can't die… Feel the burn of that which does not die." His echoing vocals are accompanied by howls, hisses, and what sounds like the workings of machinery. It's actually my favorite track from the entire album, evoking a sense of dread, conjuring up images of a dusty, blasted landscape murdered by something implacable and awful.
Familiar (Incubus/DJ Greyboy)
I'm pretty sure I thought Korn somehow got themselves a second track on the album when I first heard this song. It does that white boy rock-rap thing which is kind of emotive in a backward-baseball-cap-wearing-but-not-saying-anything sort of way. This is before Limp Bizkit really blew up and I can imagine some exec patting themselves on the back for getting Incubus on the album ahead of the curve but I'm glad there wasn't more of it.
No Remorse (I Wanna Die) (Slayer/Atari Teenage Riot):
Pairing the Germany-based anarchist noise-core electronic act Atari Teenage Riot with metal stalwarts Slayer seemed like a good idea, I'm sure. My fannish devotion to ATR at the time*** is likely what pushed me to buy the soundtrack. But the track felt/feels a little deflated and somehow overlong for an ATR song. It's actually not bad – it was just disappointing, feeling as though Alec Empire (front man for ATR) didn't really know what to do with the crunching guitar riffs from Slayer.
A Plane Scraped Its Belly on A Sooty Yellow Moon (Soul Coughing/Roni Size):
Huh. No video for this one.
Anyway, this is the final track and is matched only by "Skin Up Pin Up" in length at 5:27. Soul Coughing is kind of a jazz-infused free-flowing rock act and Roni Size is one of the preeminent drum and bass DJs. If not the inverse it at least feels like the other side of "T-4 Strain." Where that track was about lifeless, post-biological devastation, this feels like the apocalypse led by the automata. When I described the soundtrack as nervy I was thinking of this song in particular. The monotone, almost abstract lyrics convey the sort of corporatist/militarist paranoia that MacFarlane struggled to bring across in the comic (and which the movie kind of fumbled around with).
I recommend you check out the album, not only because it's chock full of great, interesting music by acts that might not be around any longer for a movie that was just awful but because it's a great peek into this narrow slice of time where the DJ almost got to be the hero.
*If you get a chance you should really check out the Dust Brothers' soundtrack for Fight Club - it's a superb work that matches the mischievous tone of the movie.
**Their "Lies" from the Mortal Kombat soundtrack was my introduction to the band and convinced me that what they lacked in the convincing vocals they more than made up for in conviction.
***The band is currently no more, dissolved due to the death of bandmate Carl Crack and I'm sure the resulting creative differences. Since then vocalist Hanin Elias has done a couple of interesting solo projects while Alec Empire has kept working pretty consistently since, creating ambient soundscapes which are a jarring change from the metal and punk-tinged work of the 90's. According to Wikipedia he's responsible for over 100 albums.
Oh, and here's the awful trailer for the awful movie:
If you liked this review, be sure to check out more of Charles Webb's work at Monster In Your Veins
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