June 6, 2017 | by James Greene, Jr.
Superhero origin stories are by and large depressing affairs, but the backstory for brooding avenger Spawn is especially rough. Shortly after thwarting a presidential assassination attempt, African American CIA agent Al Simmons is double crossed and murdered by his partner in the field. Simmons winds up in Hell (there was a little grease on his record) where the Devil offers him a chance to return to the surface. Desperate to reunite with his wife, the poor guy accepts, forgetting that with Ol’ Hickory terms and conditions always apply. Satan puts Simmons back above ground five years later — not only has his wife remarried, but the resurfacing from Hell permanently scars our protagonist into a bizarre, almost featureless demon.
Somewhere along the way, Simmons picks up these insane regenerative powers and a super long, badass red cape. Thus, he decides to become a vigilante hero (he’s overqualified for just about every other available job). Almost immediately, another demon shows up in the guise of an obese clown to try and bend Simmons to the Devil’s whims. All this sprung from the mind of Todd McFarlane, who many comic fans remember as the guy in the early ‘90s who drew Spider-Man to look like every bone in his body was breaking at the same time. McFarlane launched his Spawn book in 1992; its grim, gritty atmosphere struck a chord and before anyone could say “necroplasmic energy blast” a live action film was in production. Even more incredible: They finished and released the thing by 1997 (for comparison: Hollywood first tried to get the ball rolling on a “modern” Spider-Man film in 1985; Spider-Man wasn’t released until 2002).
Music in a superhero movie is just as important as getting the costume right. For what would Richard Donner’s 1978 Superman film be without the stirring orchestration of John Williams? What would Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman be without the moody, sexually charged efforts of both Prince and Danny Elfman? It’s hard to put an exact button on what Spawn would sound like when you read the comics; for the ’97 film, the producers decided to modify the gimmick from 1993’s Judgment Night soundtrack, where heavy metal and hard rock bands were paired with hip-hop artists (and did an excellent job underscoring the tension of Judgment Night’s wrong place, wrong time narrative). The difference with Spawn is the thing joins heavy metal/hard rock with assorted techno/electronica acts. People joke about “block rockin’ beats” and “the wicked firestarter” today only because they forget how large a moment techno had in the late ‘90s. Moby became his own industry. Everyone in town owned a copy of Fat of the Land.
And lo, the soundtrack gods scored again. This mish mash of impossibly distorted guitars compressing against canned computer beats feels like what an evening with Spawn might possibly be like — at times oppressively repetitive, at other times meandering and structureless, occasionally thrilling to an almost orgasmic degree. And of course, some compositions, like the dissonant, psychedelic union between Orbital and Metallica’s Kirk Hammett called “Satan,” will literally make you imagine a large clown eating a slice of pizza covered in maggots.
A few of the partnerships on Spawn: The Album lean too heavy one way or the other, like a middle school group project where one kid checks out. What the Dust Brothers bring exactly to Korn’s “Kick The P.A.” is difficult to parse. Similarly, “Tiny Rubberband” sounds enough like a regular late-period Butthole Surfers cut that if you told me Moby wasn’t on it I would not argue. DJ Spooky seems to have merely remixed the original recording of Metallica’s classic “For Whom the Bell Tolls” — easy money for Hetfield Ulrich et al, but Spooky’s dance club touch turns to captivating dissection about a minute or so in and winds up fulfilling whatever beautiful vision you had when the phrase “heavy metal techno mashup” first flew across your gordita-stained radar. Same goes for Atari Teenage Riot’s molestation of Slayer’s “No Remorse.”
Verily, when Spawn gels, it really gels. Tom Morello ladles a perfect amount of his unmistakable guitar freak to the Prodigy’s convulsing on “One Man Army.” Goldie and Henry Rollins cook up a delectable nightmare in “T-4 Strain.” Vitro does the unthinkable — they make Silverchair listenable on the sinewy and unnerved “Spawn” (just how did they finagle the title cut?). Lest we forget the semi-hit that opens Spawn: The Album, a reworking of Crystal Method’s “Trip Like I Do,” featuring the post-grunge strokes of Filter. “Trip Like I Do” is one of those pieces of art that’s perfectly acceptable as shorthand for the ‘90s; it hasn’t had legs to really get beyond that era but it’s also not as painfully dated as a Limp Bizkit or “Shasta McNasty” reference.
Toward the end of Spawn: The Album, Morphine collaborate with Apollo 440 and it strikes me that Morphine on their own might be close to Spawn’s heart. This tortured demon might ditch the techno-metal detonation when he folds up his cape in the morning so he can swoon purely to the dreary jazz of that trio’s 1993 breakthrough Cure for Pain. On the other hand, Morphine may be too upbeat for Spawn. The meaty, bleating sax that colors so much of their jaunt might be better suited to a more playful hero like Gambit, bayou-bred card shark of X-Men fame.
Perhaps we will get a deep dive into Spawn’s record collection when they inevitably reboot him for the 21st Century. That is, if he hasn’t traded it to the Devil so he can try to be human again.