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Geeks In Metal: ICED EARTH

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ICED EARTH + SPAWN

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Written by Jonathon Besanko

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Todd McFarlane. It’s a name that’s known the comic book world over. Rising to prominence with his formidable run on Spider-Man for Marvel Comics back in the late 1980’s (a run which continues to be discussed and lauded and brought up regularly in comic circles even today), the Canadian-born writer and artist became a figurehead for an industry that was facing a hard period of change. It was a time when comics would shift from being books written mostly for children and young adults to books with content written strictly for an adult readership. The late ’80s and early ’90s saw a high level of experimentation and exploitation in comic books, when heavy, graphical and dark content became the norm. The move into the 1990s saw the peak of edgy, brooding characters such as Lobo from DC Comics, along with the Weapon X period of Wolverine from Marvel. Characters that came across more like battered, drink-ridden rock stars than the squeaky-clean heroes who had filled the funny books in the decades preceding. This era would also give the comic book adoring public some of Batman’s most famous storylines to date, including the seminal one-shot graphic novel, The Killing Joke (1988) by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, and Frank Miller‘s The Dark Knight Returns (1986).

Todd McFarlane, like a number of his peers, was a strong-willed creative at heart. Comics had, for the many decades beforehand, never fallen under an independently-licensed or a creator-owned commodity. Whatever creative work was put out into the hemisphere was owned by the company distributing its license. It meant that if one created a new book and a new character for Marvel, for example, those rights immediately went to Marvel. The individual who had created this character – the one who had breathed life into a mere sketch on paper – had no hold or say in what happened to them after the fact. The writers and the illustrators were contractors working on insufficient royalties and not much else.

It was a reality reluctantly accepted by those working in the industry at that time. However, dissatisfied with said reality, Todd McFarlane along with a group of other star writers and artists working for Marvel Comics during those critical years put their hands up for change. It was 1992, and following a series of talks with Marvel and DC about leaving, and further discussions with editor-in-chief Dave Olbrich of the now-defunct Malibu Comics, McFarlane, Jim Lee (X-Men), Rob Liefeld (New MutantsX-Force), Erik Larsen (The Amazing Spider-Man), Jim Valentino (Guardians of the Galaxy), Marc Silvestri (Uncanny X-MenWolverine), and William “Whilce” Portacio (The PunisherUncanny X-Men) went ahead and founded Image Comics.

 

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A number of titles filled the brand new Image Comics roster, including Lee’s WildC.A.T.s, Liefeld’s Youngblood, and Larsen’s The Savage Dragon, but there was one book that stood out from the rest and quickly became the flagship title of the publisher: Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. Debuting on shelves in May 1992, the story of Spawn was one that was at times classical and recognisable in its approach, where at others it felt wholly fresh. Relatively simple in its plot at first, Spawn tells the story of protagonist Albert Francis “Al” Simmons, a lieutenant-colonel in the United States Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance (FORECON) who quickly moves up through the ranks as a highly-trained and skilled operative working for the CIA in the black ops sector. After Al questions the actions and ethics of the agency he works for, Jason Wynn, the director of the US Security Group (an umbrella agency that encompasses the CIA), believing Al Simmons to be a spy, hires Simmons’ old friend and partner, Bruce Stinson (then working under the codename “Chapel”) to assassinate him. Chapel is successful in doing so, and Simmons’ damned soul is sent to Hell where he is confronted by Malebolgia, one of the chief Lords of Hell.

Malebolgia holds out his hand and offers Al a deal: his mortal soul in exchange to once more see his beloved wife, Wanda. Al agrees, but upon his return to Earth, he discovers the terms of the deal were twisted. He arrives back five years later, horrifically scarred from the burns he suffered at death and originally without memory of his past life. After the memories flood back, he tries to make contact with Wanda, only to discover that she has moved on and remarried to his best friend, Terry Fitzgerald and that they now have a daughter named Cyan.

Confused and filled with heartache and pain, Al Simmons – now under the antihero guise of the “Hellspawn” – is met by the “Clown”, an obese, morbid individual who takes the form of a vile clown. The Clown, however, is, in fact, the demon named the Violator, an agent of the Malebogia. Sent to groom Simmons as a general in Hell’s army for the coming war against Heaven, Violator is turned away by Spawn, and the two become eventual arch-nemeses, often doing battle with one another, and at other times sharing an uncomfortable, mutual understanding.

Spawn is a tale of a man willing to sacrifice everything for love; of one coming to terms with a life he never wished to have and becoming a forced subject in a war he wants no part in. Al Simmons became a ‘hero’ to the homeless and those forgotten in the slums of the city’s underground. The ‘Spawn’ confronts and encounters many repulsive individuals along his journeys and even more fantastical and mysterious peoples, and Al grows to accept the new role that has been placed upon him. Drawing the talents of world-class comic book writers and artists such as Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Frank Miller, and Dave Sim to name a few, the Spawn book also drew the attention of a certain Jon Schaffer: the creative mind, founder, and guitarist behind American heavy metal band, Iced Earth.

On July 23rd, 1996, Iced Earth released their fourth studio album via Century Media, entitled The Dark Saga. Conceptually based on the Spawn universe – with even the cover art presenting the character in his full Todd McFarlane-illustrated glory (as shown originally in artwork drawn for Spawn #50, June ’96) – The Dark Saga was an ambitious album, to say the least. It was the first album that saw Iced Earth take their sound in a new direction: focusing more on melody and simplified song structures as opposed to the grandiose stylings of previous records like Burnt Offerings. The Dark Saga began the evolution of Iced Earth’s sound and pushed the envelope for them in the way Jon Schaffer had first intended for the band to go.

The liner notes that accompany the album are telling. Inevitably, Jon Schaffer dedicates the album to Todd McFarlane (initially for his “killer art and creations”), but it’s what follows that opening statement that illustrates the impetus behind the album’s creation. Schaffer gives thanks to McFarlane for being an inspiration to him to work a change of his own in the music industry, as Todd had done with the comic book industry. It adds another layer to the record and brings out the passion in Schaffer and the rest of the band even more so.

The Dark Saga is an album I regard as some of the band’s finest to date. Not only for the concept alone but for what the album offers on an emotional level. Spawn is a license that has been adapted in various media over the years: from a rather mediocre live-action adaptation in 1997 to a marvellous HBO animated series that ran for three seasons from 1997-1999 and starred Keith David in the voice role of Al Simmons. However, of the adaptations made, few have managed to capture the essence of Al Simmons’ plight and his story as marvellously as The Dark Saga does.

 

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The album opens with the title track, as Mark Prator‘s drums roll like that of a heartbeat and an acoustic riff rings out as cymbals chime in the background. It immediately establishes the tone of the album and encapsulates the feeling of Simmons’ regret and his realisation that the Malebolgia played him and that his soul was sold for nought. The chorus epitomises the tragedy of Simmon’s tale:

I cheated myself for love

Love unconditional

Now, just to see her face

I’ve lost it all

What follows is Simmons refusing to let this be the end, and to submit to the Devil that he knows.

I know there’s goodness in me

Though I’m not the same

I will defy the master

I will refuse to be his slave

No, I was betrayed, I can’t accept this

My future’s unclear, it’s a lie

I’ll follow my heart, stand and be counted

The curse will lift, I will survive

The title track is an excellent opener to the album, followed by the heartbreaking ballad, “I Died for You”. Power ballads have always been a strength in Iced Earth’s arsenal and “I Died for You” is one of their best. The song is held back in its approach and encapsulates all the sorrow, loneliness, and confusion Al feels. Further to all that he was willing to relinquish for a chance to be with his true love one last time. The tragedy is seeing her happier than she’s ever been and knowing that it will never again be with him.

Next is “Violate”, a song which wonderfully illustrates the diversity of The Dark Saga. One of the aspects that serve to elevate this record to the next level is how individual each song feels from the previous, working like another chapter in Spawn’s journey or as the introduction to a new character in it. In this aspect, it virtually parallels the traditional story structure of a comic book in its way. Rough, thrashy and violent, “Violate” reveals the story and motivations of the wretched Violator, one of the five Phlebiac brothers and Spawn’s hellish mentor in the early issues. Much like the Violator himself, “Violate” is unpredictable, manic, and full of gratuitous gore – just the way the haggard creature likes it.

We are then met by the ominous mood of “The Hunter”, a song which, without naming her specifically, is about the angelic enforcer, Angela. An agent of Heaven, her role functions much the same as that of the Hellspawn, and she is sent down on orders to eliminate Hell’s abominations: including their newest addition, Al Simmons.

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“The Last Laugh” deals lyrically with the Malebolgia: a song that is as frantic as it is enticing. With an ascending riff that opens the track, the lyrics mimic the maniacal and apathetic nature of the Malebolgia. From the opening notes alone, we are met with the cruel and manipulative voice of the ruler of Hell’s Eighth Circle.

My personal quest is to make your life hell

Yes, dear friend, listen up well

The power I’ve given, I can take as well

I am your father, destroyer of the light

I’ve taken your soul and have given you life

You are the damned, condemned by my hand

My son, creature of the night

The song does a wonderful job capturing the essence of Malebolgia, and equally, the fruitlessness of Al’s plight.

“Depths of Hell” is intriguing for the fact that the lyrics are plucked right out of the pages of Spawn, with the liner notes themselves crediting Al Simmons himself on lyrics. Given this, it’s the one song that feels as close to a comic book realised in musical form as you could probably get.

Appropriately menacing is the song that follows: “Vengeance Is Mine”. Along with “The Last Laugh”, this song is one of only two on the album with lyrics not written by Schaffer, but instead by the band’s then-frontman, Matt Barlow. Considering the album chronicles the first 15-odd issues of Spawn (with a few of the album’s later tracks touching on later stories), it’s not surprising to find a track that deals with one of Spawn’s earliest encounters with the depraved peoples who inhabit his city. In this case: paedophile and serial child murderer, Billy Kincaid, who Al eventually extracts his vengeance on. The intro is dark and foreboding and sets the tone brilliantly both for the appalling actions of Kincaid, along with the darkness that consumes Al when he discovers Kincaid and what he has done; with Al then making it his mission to end Kincaid and the suffering he has inflicted on others.

“Scarred” and “Slave to the Dark” both elaborate on Spawn’s story before the album comes to its close with the brilliant, emotional high of “A Question of Heaven”. This final song for The Dark Saga remains one of the finest Jon Schaffer and Iced Earth have written to date. Perhaps better than any other track on the album, the lyrics expand on the tragedy of Al’s life but also his acceptance of what he has become. The moment that comes after the bridge brings all the emotion that has coloured the rest of the album and gives it its greatest payoff, bringing to the fore the vocal talents of Barlow and the musical and lyrical genius of Schaffer. It all comes to a head in the best way possible and ends on an epic narrative note, leaving you to feel as if you have experienced Al’s story through his own eyes.

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The Dark Saga is an album worthy of its source material and is one of the strongest examples to date of a modern metal band dealing with a pop culture icon and doing it complete justice. As the Spawn comics approach the release of the series 277th issue at the end of this month (building upon 25 years of collective story history), and with a new movie currently in the works slated to be written and directed by McFarlane himself, Spawn shows no signs of slowing down. Today, Image Comics vie for the title of the third largest comic book publisher in the world with that of Dark Horse Comics, only being behind Marvel and DC, and Image has been responsible for helping bring to life such works as Robert Kirkman‘s The Walking Dead. The publisher continues to be a hub for new and older writers and artists independently branching-out and looking to have their work printed and for the rights to remain with them as the creator. Iced Earth, on the other hand, have not stopped since 1996, with this year seeing the release of the band’s twelfth studio album in Incorruptible. Despite lineup changes over the years, Iced Earth continues to forge on and reach new ground under the swift leadership of Jon Schaffer.

You can follow the story of Spawn at www.imagecomics.com, and you can keep up to date with Iced Earth at their official website. Purchase your copy of Incorruptible via JB Hi-Fi.

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Carl Neumann

Carl is the owner and the director of HEAVY Magazine. Carl is a music journalist and photographer for HEAVY, Rolling Stone, scenestr, Planet Rock and Kerrang!
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