When Warner Bros. dropped the first trailer for a new Mortal Kombat film this week, the online reaction was fairly positive, with viewers excited that the reboot would replicate the graphic violence of the 1990s video game, which had been toned down for the previous PG-13 movie adaptation. But there was one consistent quibble in the reactions: Hey, where’s the song?
Sure, the trailer featured a brief orchestral nod to the song, but still, it seemed strange not to hear what everyone refers to as “the Mortal Kombat theme.” The song has an actual name, “Techno Syndrome,” but nobody calls it that. And that’s because the one lyric everybody knows to the song is the one that’s yelled often, and very loudly: “MORTAL KOMBAAAAAT!!!”
The story of “Techno Syndrome” is partly the story of electronic dance music of the 1990s. But it’s even more specifically a tale of Maurice Engelen, a Belgian artist who often works under the name Praga Khan. Born in 1959, he’d always been interested in music, except initially he wasn’t sure how best to pursue his passion. “When I was 18 years old I founded a record company called Antler-Subway,” Engelen said in 2019. “It was very influential for music in Europe. I was a record boss for six years. When computers came I was so interested in the new technology, and I was able to write on a computer. That got me interested in writing songs myself. The first song I wrote was licensed in 13 countries, so then I decided to keep doing it.”
By the late 1980s, he’d formed the dance-music collective Lords of Acid alongside Oliver Adams and Jade 4U. Years before techno and industrial would get mainstream acceptance thanks to acts like Nine Inch Nails and My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, Lords of Acid were writing grinding, uptempo club numbers that flaunted sexually explicit lyrics. A track like “I Sit on Acid” had a menace to it, with cooing lyrics that consisted of “Sit on your face / I wanna sit on your face,” while “Rough Sex” made it clear that this wasn’t music for swooning romance: “Don’t think about love … I think about pure sex! / Deep sex! / Hard sex! / Rough sex!” These weren’t the Top 40 dance-club bangers of Madonna or Pet Shop Boys. This was something far more tawdry and overt, even if it was meant to be cheeky and over-the-top.
“If there’s one thing in this world that everyone is doing, even priests, it’s having sex,” Engelen declared about a decade ago. “Everybody is interested in sex because that’s our nature. So I don’t see why we can’t talk about it, or why we can’t have a little fun with it. It’s the most normal thing in the world. Not everyone is doing drugs or playing football or baseball — we all have different hobbies — but if there’s one thing we’re all very interested in, it’s sex. I don’t see a reason why I can’t talk or sing about it. As long as people have fun by having good sex and not harassing people or doing things like having sex with children or stuff like that, as long as it’s adults knowing what they’re doing, for me they can do whatever they want.”
Lords of Acid were very much a cult item, although adrenalized dance music — whether you want to call it house, techno or rave — started making an impact in the early 1990s due to the popularity of songs like Moby’s “Go.” It was a musical style that aimed for pure release, marrying fast beats to euphoric, sometimes hedonistic melodies and lyrics. You could accuse the music of being repetitive, even monotonous, but that was partly the point: The pulverizing songs aimed to send you into a state of ecstasy, like a trance. Engelen’s particular style, called new beat, was proudly primitive — it was a sound that utilized new technology, learning as it went along. “‘I Sit on Acid’ is a song that was recorded 30 years ago,” he said in 2018, “but when you listen to it, it still sounds amazing and it still sounds fresh, it sounds open. I think it also has to do with the limitations of the equipment we were working with. Back in those days, when you had a good sound, you stuck to that sound and then started to build on that sound.”
Around the same era, another art form was also blossoming: video games. Specifically, fighting games, in which two players squared off as avatars that tried to beat the hell out of one another. In the early 1990s, the Street Fighter game reigned supreme until an upstart company, Midway Games, decided to take on the franchise with a fighter game of its own. “Mortal Kombat proved to be the first time where a head-to-head fighter like this went all in for the characters, backgrounds and story,” project director Jeff Peters said in a MEL oral history about what was then an ambitious martial-arts game featuring a slew of different colorfully-costumed warriors who were experts in kung fu. Bloodier and crazier than Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat didn’t just let you defeat your opponent: You got to kill them gruesomely by, say, pulling their spine out of their body. (These horrendous murders were punctuated by an offscreen voice directing you to “Finish him!” and then trumpeting your victory with a pleased “Fatality.”) The more the bloodshed offended parents and watchdog groups, the more popular Mortal Kombat got.
Mortal Kombat was such a big deal that, in the fall of 1993, Acclaim Entertainment launched an at-home version, concocting a splashy campaign called “Mortal Monday.” In an self-consciously epic commercial to advertise the home edition — which would be released on the Super Nintendo, Genesis, Game Boy and Game Gear platforms simultaneously — excited gamers expressed their anticipation for this sure-to-be historic event by yelling “MORTAL KOMBAAAAAT!!!” One of those voices would soon become very familiar to fans of “Techno Syndrome.” It shows up at about the 54-second mark:
Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat didn’t just compete as video games: Both properties were adapted into movies, with the Street Fighter film — starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Raul Julia, and directed by Steven E. de Souza, one of the writers of Die Hard — arriving in theaters Christmastime of 1994. Not to be outdone, Mortal Kombat, directed by Resident Evil auteur Paul W.S. Anderson, hit the big screen eight months later. Both movies are bad, but Mortal Kombat does have one thing going for it: a sweet theme song, which kicks off the film in adrenalized fashion.
The hollered “MORTAL KOMBAAAAAT!!!” — the same one from the “Mortal Monday” commercial — combined with the feverish techno beat and the sick dragon logo (surrounded by cool-ass flames) created one hopelessly cheesy mixture of sound and visuals. And yet, the whole thing was so overblown that it was also kinda wonderful. Within 25 seconds, we could tell definitively that this Mortal Kombat movie wasn’t an Oscar prestige picture. No, this was gonna be lots of mindless, high-energy kung-fu action. Who could resist that adrenaline-pumping opening?!? MORTAL KOMBAAAAAT!!!
Engelen and Oliver Adams had been commissioned to write songs for the game, which they recorded under the moniker the Immortals. The gig was just the latest illustration of techno’s slow embrace by Hollywood. The guys’ song “Rave the Rhythm,” which they recorded under the name Channel X, had been used in Basic Instinct, while the super-horny Lords of Acid track “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” showed up in Sliver. But the Mortal Kombat project was a lot more extensive — this was a whole soundtrack album.
“We were touring in Japan, and we got a phone call from America,” Engelen recalled. “I’m a gamer myself, and they knew I was a gamer, and they asked if I had the opportunity to write the songs for the new Mortal Kombat game coming out in the fall, if I would do it. So I said I would if they would send me a console with what they had of the game so far. That was crazy because I received the game, but there was a lot of stuff still missing with the programming. I could play the game but only in the early stages. But by doing that, I got a lot of inspiration. It only took us six weeks because we’d play the game and go to the studio, and then repeat that process.”
Ironically, it was Adams who’s alone listed as the writer on “Techno Syndrome,” which became synonymous with the game and, later, the movie. As for the words, they were more like prompts and snatches of exposition than actual lyrics. Whether you love this song sincerely or sarcastically, chances are good you know them all by heart.
Test your might
Test your might
Test your might
Test your might
From there, the song helpfully fills newbies in on who the main characters are, calmly intoning their names: “Kano / Liu Kang / Rayden / Johnny Cage / Scorpion / Sub-Zero / Sonya.” As a piece of music, “Techno Syndrome” couldn’t have been more primal or dimwitted. (It sounded like a parody of the pump-up songs that home teams blast before they take the field, while the “fighting” sound effects only added to the track’s clear novelty/shameless-product-tie-in quality.) But in the summer of 1995, you couldn’t escape “Techno Syndrome.” The Mortal Kombat film was No. 1 for three weekends in a row, and the movie’s soundtrack, which included “Techno Syndrome,” hit No. 10 on the charts. Suddenly, techno wasn’t some niche sound — instead, it was part of the mainstream.
“The soundtrack was the first platinum EDM record ever in history,” Mortal Kombat producer Larry Kasanoff claimed in 2015. “We insisted on using electronic dance music, which at the time was insane. We got kicked out of two record companies. We had a deal at Sony for a lot of money. … We walk in and say, ‘Here’s our idea. Electronic dance music’ … and they kicked us out. Then we go to Virgin Records. We walk in and say, ‘Great idea: electronic dance music.’ And they say, ‘Yeah, how about Janet Jackson?’ By the way, I love Janet Jackson, but we were like, ‘What? For Mortal Kombat?’ We get kicked out.” Instead, the soundtrack was released by TVT Records, an indie label that was championing industrial/techno/dance groups like Nine Inch Nails, KMFDM, the KLF and Underworld. In comparison to those edgier groups, the spectacularly rah-rah “Techno Syndrome” was a perfect Jock Jams-ish complement.
Buoyed by the album’s (and the song’s success), Engelen and Adams returned to Lords of Acid — and their love of sly, banging sex songs — releasing 1997’s Our Little Secret and 2000’s Farstucker. (Sample song titles: “Pussy,” “Spank My Booty,” “Sex Bomb,” “Scrood Bi U.”) But Engelen never again was part of a song that had the cultural footprint of “Techno Syndrome” — which, ironically, was a far cry from the libidinous material he recorded for Lords of Acid.
Engelen has recorded several albums — not just with Lords of Acid, but also as Praga Khan and other group names — and in 2008, he was a judge on X Factor, which helped boost his profile. “I was on TV a thousand times in Belgium,” he would say later, “but I was a judge with X Factor on primetime TV for four months. … Because I was on TV, we played all of the festivals. I found out there was actually a small percentage of people who knew me before that, then suddenly everyone knew me and talked about the show. Everyone wanted to talk about it when I would go to the baker or the butcher. I became a public figure. That was not really my thing.”
After X Factor, he reactivated Lords of Acid (this time without Adams) and started making new music and touring. He especially liked being back on the road in the U.S. “I think it was the fact that we were doing something unique,” he said in 2011 when asked about Lords of Acid’s popularity with American audiences when they first started out. “In those days there were two different two styles of music — you had dance music and industrial music. What we did was a mixture of these two, so we were using European dance beats but we were also using guitar lines. I think that combination made it special. On top of that we had these erotic lyrics that added a flavor to it. It was just a combination that wasn’t around.”
Still, rave’s faddishness had long since passed. Tellingly, on his 2002 hit “Without Me,” Eminem dissed the once-zeitgeist-y Moby by declaring, “You don’t know me, you’re too old, let go / It’s over / Nobody listens to techno.” The music lost its cultural cachet, with electronic dance music morphing into other forms in the new century, leaving “Techno Syndrome” to sound like an awkward relic of a bygone sonic moment.
But in some ways, the anthem’s dated sound has made it even more beloved. On YouTube, you can find videos of teens affectionately mocking “Techno Syndrome’s” jacked-up histrionics, turning the melodramatic grandeur into deadpan comedy gold. I especially enjoy this one from 2005, which feels like a pre-TikTok artifact of absurdist hilarity.
By the way, you may have noticed that I’ve mentioned Adams, the song’s actual author, only in passing. That’s because he’s one elusive individual. The one interview I could find of Adams is, apparently, from a 2000 issue of the magazine Whatever — in it, he and Engelen talk about how they first met. “I’ve played music since I was six,” Adams said. “I went to music school for piano, and drums. I play bass and guitar also. I’ve played music a long time. … When I was like 20, I said, ‘What am I gonna do?’ I always played in bands, I had my own band, and I only wanted to do music, so I started a recording studio. [Engelen] had a record company and some other guys who were making records for other record companies came to me. I said to them, ‘You have to check out this guy, he has a lot of good stuff, and he has his own ideas,’ and eventually [he] came over to my studio [and] we started to work.”
Other information online about Adams is sparse — supposedly, he’s heir to the Stella Artois empire? — but last summer, the official Lords of Acid Facebook page screenshotted a post from Adams that indicated that “Techno Syndrome” will indeed be in the new Mortal Kombat film. (Another question: Why does his name sometimes appear as Olivier instead of Oliver?) Also last year, Adams seems to have created a new version of the song that incorporated our pandemic reality: It’s called “Mortal Virus Techno Syndrome” and features clips from Trump, a slow listing of countries affected by COVID, and random phrases such as “contract tracing.” Hearing someone yell “MORTAL VIRUSSSSSS!” gave me one of my best laughs during the lockdown.
All the while, Mortal Kombat continued to produce new iterations of the game — as well as additional movies, TV series and animated spin-offs. And “Techno Syndrome” has remained central to its legacy. In fact, it’s a testament to that song that when Warner Bros. announced a Mortal Kombat reboot, fans started flocking to YouTube to get a fresh hit of that sweet, sweet 1990s techno cheese. Whether it’s nostalgia or morbid curiosity, “Techno Syndrome” possesses such unbridled, unapologetic energy that, all these years later, it’s lost none of its bizarre, unsubtle power. But maybe I’m overthinking it. One commenter summed up the song’s maniacal brilliance better than I ever could: “This music makes me want to snort 3 lines of coke, pour a tequila shot in my eye and go fight a tiger.”
Yeah, that about covers it.