In Soundtracks Of Our Lives, The A.V. Club looks at the dying art of the movie companion album, those “various artists” compilations made to complement films on screen but that often end up taking on lives of their own.
If you took everything that was popular and “edgy” about comic books in the early 1990s and stitched it all together into some Frankenstein’s monster of maximum market appeal, the result would probably bear more than a passing resemblance to Spawn. Todd McFarlane’s flagship antihero, a slain assassin resurrected as a creature of the night, is as instantly recognizable in silhouette as Batman, only way darker, dude. He’s got some of the biker badassery of Ghost Rider, another undead superhero with chains, a black-and-white color scheme, and powers granted through a Faustian pact. His mask looks a little like Spider-Man’s—which makes sense, given that McFarlane made a name for himself writing and illustrating the web-slinger. There’s also some Punisher in his brand of violent street justice, and one can see a lot of his nihilism in the armed-to-the-teeth Rob Liefeld mercenaries that were all the rage in 1992, when Spawn was first introduced. That McFarlane reportedly created the character as early as the 1970s, when he was still in high school, is a testament to the effect his sensibilities had on comics culture over the next two decades.
As a ’90s kid with a yen for horror, I was certainly drawn to Spawn. He wasn’t just a magical, stoic loner with a wide array of weapons and vaguely defined powers. He was also a straight-up ghoul. The guy had been to hell and lived (died?) to talk about it. He had a Freddy Krueger zombie mug, and his main adversary was a toothy demon who could disguise himself as a murderous clown. I read Spawn religiously those first few years, and it wasn’t for the storytelling, which was often spotty and repetitive, even with giants of the industry like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison penning the occasional issue. It was for the violence, and the costumes, and the artwork by McFarlane and, later, Greg Capullo. And it was for the ineffable coolness of Spawn himself, a superhero who felt willed from the collective adolescent imagination.
None of that made it into the movie. Released in August of 1997, Spawn sought to cash in on the enormous success of its namesake without really reproducing the elements that accounted for that success. If the HBO animated series had somehow managed to make a superhero known for his extremity even more extreme, the movie went in the opposite direction, neutering him down into a PG-13 attraction. The action was plentiful but forgettable. The CGI seemed to age before your very eyes. And Spawn, who could usually be counted on to at least look awesome, suddenly resembled nothing so much as a guy in an uncomfortable rubber suit. The best thing about the film, rarely commented upon at the time, was that it featured a black superhero (though a couple of big-screen spoofs, The Meteor Man and Blankman, technically got there first). And the coolest thing about the Spawn movie—at least at the time, and for 13-year-old me—was the soundtrack it inspired.
Spawn: The Album wasn’t the usual random collection of tossed-off original contributions and recycled FM hits. It had a hook: Every track was a collaboration between a hard rock/metal outfit (Metallica, Marilyn Manson, Korn, Slayer, etc.) and an electronic act (The Prodigy, The Crystal Method, Moby, The Dust Brothers, etc.). Something similar had been achieved a few years earlier with the Judgment Night soundtrack, whose pairings were designed to capitalize on the burgeoning popularity of rap-rock; not coincidentally, both movies had Happy Walters on board as music supervisor. With Spawn, Walters synergistically acknowledged that knobs and turntables were now vying with guitars and drums for the attention of angry young men. The writing was on the wall earlier that summer, when Lollapalooza invited several buzzed-about electronic acts onto its main stage. (Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the last year for the festival before it took a six-year hiatus.) And plenty of alternative artists were allowing their songs to be chopped up, stretched out, and rearranged—like post-grunge chart-toppers Bush, which released the remix album Deconstructed three months after Spawn: The Album muddied the genre waters.
In a sense, this strategy perfectly fit Spawn. Like the character himself, the soundtrack was a hodgepodge of things kids found cool at that very moment. And it paid off: While the movie made a respectable (but not franchise-ready) $55 million at the U.S. box office, Spawn: The Album debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200, stayed on the chart for more than six months, and sold enough copies to be certified gold. Long after the film’s cut-rate blockbuster spectacle had disappeared from their memory banks, kids were still bumping its accompanying collection of tie-in tracks in their cars and Walkmen.
That crowd included yours truly. By 1997, all my favorite costumed characters—Spawn included—were on notice. In the battle for my free time, comics could no longer compete with the other interests I was developing, including a mostly (and blessedly) short-lived obsession with the bellowing, dreadlocked school of radio rock. Like a lot of boys my age, I was hooked on nü-metal, for a lot of the same reasons I got into Spawn: The genre drew on horror-movie imagery and themes of alienation, while also putting a premium on style and attitude. (Call those last two pursuits aspirational, because I had neither.) Nü-metal was still coming into its own in 1997; had Spawn been released the following summer, there’s a good chance that its soundtrack would have been entirely dominated by the Family Values roster. Instead, just a couple of representatives of that growing movement were included.
One of them, naturally, was Korn, whom Walters had nurtured from its self-titled debut. McFarlane himself would later do the artwork for the band’s third album, Follow The Leader, as well as for the famous traveling-bullet music video for the album’s second single, “Freak On A Leash.” Before that, the band contributed some self-pity and pained orgasm sounds to Spawn, getting an assist from the sample-loving Dust Brothers. It’s one of the least detectably collaborative of these collaborations: Just a year prior, the Dust Brothers had made magic with Beck on Odelay, but “Kick The P.A.” is a Korn song—nothing more or less. The down-tuned grind of its guitars and insane-asylum lilt of Jonathan Davis’ vocals are only marginally altered by the turntable sounds the Dust Brothers lay over the verses, in part because these flourishes aren’t so different than the ones Korn was already using to augment its cacophony. Likewise, future radio kings Incubus (and fellow Happy Walters signees), still stuck in its Mr.-Bungle-but-sensitive stage, had already played around with a jazzy lounge sound, though the memorable synth hook DJ Greyboy supplies on “Familiar” is further evidence that the band could have generally given its house DJ a little more to do than just throw in some stray scratches between soaring choruses.
Things get stranger once you escape the Korn field. Some of Spawn: The Album is close to unlistenable (at least to these fully grown ears), and there’s nothing especially cohesive about it, beyond a consistent, very ’90s angst. (You could mix up the track list or skip around without any noticeable effect on the listening experience.) But creating 14 uneasy alliances at least guarantees for some fascinating tension, as artists wrestle for creative control of the songs they’re co-authoring. If you wanted to be charitable about it, you could argue that the push-pull between the album’s paired genres evokes the war between light and dark occurring inside Spawn’s charred head.
Okay, very charitable.
Only a few songs feel specifically catered—in tone or lyrical content—to the Spawn mythos. These tend to be the straightest tracks, the few where the electronic element is a barely perceptible accent. As someone whose taste trended toward the Ozzfest half of the album’s equation, these were the songs I gravitated to, at least initially. “Long Hard Road Out Of Hell,” the collaboration between Marilyn Manson and the Sneaker Pimps, is basically just a Manson anthem with some very casual bells and whistles attached: Only the clicking beat and some backing vocals from Sneaker Pimps frontwoman Kelli Dayton announces it as anything other than shock-rock business as usual, and once the roar of the chorus comes in, even those elements get drowned out by Manson’s usual arena goth. (Put it this way: You could leap from this song to Antichrist Superstar without losing a step.) And while the lyrics are Manson’s usual self-loathing anti-valentines, they could, without too much strain, be interpreted as specific allusions to the movie. Doesn’t Spawn also want to live and love? Was his road out of hell not long and hard?
Not that you can tell from the Manson cut, exactly, but there’s always been some shared sonic ground between industrial and electronic dance music. Some of the songs here suggest an easy, even beneficial union between the genres. “Torn Apart,” which combines the superpowers of Stabbing Westward and techno veteran Josh Wink, starts out like the kind of pulsing club jam to which you might watch Blade dispatch vampire ravers. But then the verse, chorus, and crunch of guitars arrive to give the song a traditional structure, without quite obliterating its danceability. It’s one of the few songs on the soundtrack that seems to belong equally to both its collaborators, while also sounding like something that could work in the movie. (I’m reasonably certain it accompanies at least one scene of Spawn mowing down henchmen.) That’s true, also, of the album’s opening track, used during the film’s closing credits. On “(Can’t You) Trip Like I Do,” frequent soundtrack contributors Filter build on a preexisting Chemical Brothers song, turning the big beat groove of the original into the backbone for a full-fledged rock song. The album’s breakout hit, it helps make up for the inexplicable absence of a Nine Inch Nails song—especially given that Filter, fronted by a former member of Trent Reznor’s touring band, is sort of the Diet Nails.
Spawn: The Album takes that remake approach a lot, simply tasking some electronic artist to spruce up a preexisting rock track. 808 State, for example, turns Mansun’s charging “Skin Up Pin Up” into a sleeker, cleaner number, but the song isn’t really radically different enough to be called more than a remix. More drastically, Silverchair’s “Spawn Again” becomes just “Spawn,” as Vitro brings the guitars down and the bass up, somehow enhancing the song’s caged-animal paranoia by downplaying its rock elements (and allowing some spacey bloops into the mix). It was arguably only selected for its title, but hey, that’s more of a connection to the character than most of these tunes boast.
Some of the remodeling jobs are insultingly half-assed. Those who think the worst thing to happen to Metallica in the ’90s was Metallica (or Metallica) should get an earful of “For Whom The Bell Tolls (The Irony Of It All),” in which DJ Spooky deconstructs that Ride The Lightning classic into a glitchy throwaway, like the full-song version of one of those house transitions that alt-rock stations would use during a Saturday night song block. Metallica returns the favor by dumbing down Orbital’s “Satan,” as Kirk Hammett replaces the song’s jackhammer electronics, plinking keys, and intrusive belches with generic shredding. But is active agitation better than white noise? Two other tracks—the Soul Coughing and Roni Size joint effort “A Plane Scraped Its Belly On A Sooty Yellow Moon” and the Goldie and Henry Rollins rendezvous “T-4 Strain”—are so patchy that they barely qualify as complete songs, though the spoken-word interjections of the latter do sort of evoke the stream-of-consciousness monologues Spawn would sometimes deliver to himself in the comic.
“One Man Army” is more fun, even with a loud, highly obnoxious beeping effect that sounds like someone backing up a truck into the recording studio. In 1997, getting Tom Morello to jam with The Prodigy was something of a coup, and the resulting song, slotted into the middle of the album, is everything one might expect: You can hear the phantom squall of two alternate-universe supergroups—one a version of The Prodigy that anchors the band’s confrontational alt-dance with some wah-wah guitar, another that ponders how Rage Against The Machine might sound if Zack De La Rocha was replaced by Maxim (answer: closer to the real deal than either Audioslave or Prophets Of Rage). The song is a disposable footnote, a goofing-around lark for both artists, but it feels close to what Spawn: The Soundtrack was trying to accomplish.
The same can be said for “No Remorse (I Wanna Die),” which crossbreeds Slayer’s warp-speed thrash with Atari Teenage Riot’s spastic digital hardcore. It’s the most unhinged song on the record—two groups with a velocity fetish, steering into a head-on collision—but maybe also the most organic fusion of sensibilities. “Tiny Rubberband,” meanwhile, is possibly the oddest, least probable concoction: a stoned Butthole Surfers dirge dropped into the middle of a spacey Moby instrumental. How did these two artists even get hooked up? And what the hell is their weirdly pretty experiment doing sandwiched between a Korn song and a Metallica remix? Or on the Spawn soundtrack at all?
Therein lies the stealth value of something like Spawn: The Album, which certainly can’t be said to capture the spirit of the film it’s promoting or work as any kind of official companion to McFarlane’s creation. Still, listeners pulled in by the movie or the big names in the credits were unwittingly exposed to some different sounds, some new ones. Its discovery of the inner circle of a mosh pit/dance floor Venn diagram guaranteed that rock fans like myself got a crash course in electronic music (even if, in my case anyway, it didn’t take). Like the character itself, the Spawn soundtrack may have been a blatant mishmash of manufactured cool, but it still made its own, uniquely lasting impression.