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Warfaring Strangers: Darkscorch Canticles Ned Raggett , March 13th, 2014 10:06

Numero's latest compilation Warfaring Chronicles: Darkscorch Canticles is one of their broader investigations rather than a focused take on a interrelated scene or city – something they've done before with enjoyable results. And like so many of their releases, the packaging and presentation is of almost overriding importance, but here even more so. As the introduction lovingly details, the art comes from the archives of a young fantasy role gamer in the mid-seventies, covering maps, architecture and more, with an extra commission of appropriately metal logos for all the bands featured, as if similarly scrawled on old school notebooks. Anyone who has even dealt with that intersection of interests will be fully primed from that alone (a limited edition, meanwhile, goes so far as to include an actual full on homemade-style fantasy board game, a great touch). Darkscorch also follows the general model of Numero compilations and overviews – not so much a focus on a white-hot collection of songs representing a style at its best, but the oddities and inspired, near anonymous releases into the void.  

More than anything, Darkscorch is Numero's first entry into the vast pool of compilations out there over the past couple of decades digging up examples of 1970s-era heavy psych, proto metal – call it what you will, but the kind of efforts that are all about vaguely spooky atmospherics, lots of riffing and soloing and a take on non-good times hard rock that got a little left behind as bands like Judas Priest, Motorhead and Iron Maiden helped codify things further down the way. Instead, nearly all of this here has early years King Crimson, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin hanging heavily over it all, not to mention Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd. The last is partially due to the fidelity – nearly everything here is classic on-a-shoestring when it comes to sound, but the murky live tracks on that first double album by Floyd seem almost to have been a raison d'etre. Meanwhile, with Zeppelin again providing an initial starting point, in all cases the specific lyrical themes all tend toward Tolkien (cited more than once – song titles include 'King Of The Golden Hall' and 'Song Of Sauron'), Robert E. Howard's Conan and medieval history real or feigned, usually with lots of blood, Satan and psychosis.

There's fun to be had on a social and anthropological level in reading through the stories of all the bands – the vast majority are from the Midwest, plus a couple of Texas and southern Atlantic ringers, speaking not only to how classic rock took a foothold there from the start but still maintains it. Except in this case it was all fresh, and the stories of groups nearly getting lucky breaks or receiving a highlight moment by opening for acts like Alice Cooper or appearing at one of the many first wave festivals in the wake of Woodstock are rampant. It's less musty than it is people doing the best with what they have, young and wanting to sound either heavier than they were or much older than their years. There's also honest tragedy at points, with the story of Junction's 'Sorcerer' concluded by a terrible car accident that killed two bandmembers. It's not even Almost Famous, just never famous, but all the ups and downs could be as universal as anything.

But to be scrupulously fair, that collective best which the groups here reached for is at best haphazard, and there's no true lost classic to be had, though there are some definite moments.  If anything, for songs that were recorded across the space of a decade in radically different circumstances, there's a remarkable uniformity still – if you just let this play without paying attention, you'll hear one song after another of often wailing vocals, rock out endings, and more that feels more like the demo collection of just one band rather than sixteen, and a little can go a long way more than once. The diamonds in the rough that emerge always have just something extra.  In the case of Wrath's 'Warlord', it's the fact that the singer was sick so another bandmember's wife ended up doing the singing, lending a little something more on the Coven tip to what otherwise often just sounds like shirtless men singing about skinless zombies (instead of shirtless women).  Stone Axe's 'Slave Of Fear' has a nicely mesmerizing musical start and J. C. 'Pete' Bailey's moaning post-Ozzy approach to its credit, which followed by the arch, nervous tones of Wizard's 'Seance' makes for a good vocal contrast. The frazzled organ stomp and swagger of 'Wizzard Kings' by Inside is two minutes of pure garage swagger with a grey robe or two on top, while Medusa's 'Black Wizard' (if you're sensing another common theme by now, you're right) has a beautiful start that nicely contrasts with its intentionally abrupt reprise and end. So it would make another fine enough compilation in its own right with the others mentioned above that have been floating around, either official or barely bootleg level.

Yet there's also a sense of missed opportunity here, or at least a package that promises something else that's not quite delivered. The history of fantasy literature and fantasy role gaming in particular – often aided and abetted by beer and copious amounts of weed – is now so long intertwined with metal and latter day psych that a full delving into that would be welcome on a historical level. The bands featured on Darkscorch were the ones generally trying to make their way somehow in the world and a number were certainly doing the reading which led to things like Dungeons and Dragons, but it was their spiritual younger siblings still in middle and high school that were doing the gaming and letting that translate into their own music, well after the bands here broke up. From cover art to song names, album names and more, there's something to investigate (my own favourite bit of trivia – seeing ads in the late eighties in LA for a Palm Springs group called Sons Of Kyuss, a name borrowed liberally from a Dungeons and Dragons monster book, before the TSR company called time on that leading to a shortening to Kyuss and eventually Josh Homme doing everything he does).  Texas band the Linus Pauling Quartet released a 3 CD overview of their career last year called Assault On The Vault Of The Ancient Bonglords which was not only packaged to look like a standalone gaming adventure, it was a self-contained gaming adventure, with homemade maps and art that also hits that immediate center of nostalgia and memory Numero's compilation does.

So Darkscorch Canticles isn't that kind of ultimate themed anthology, but it is an enjoyable indulgence still, the kind of collection that works because it avoids the leading lights to see how ideas and approaches took new and different shapes, down to the concluding 1980 effort by Hellstorm 'Cry For The Newborn', heavy, woozy, but still fascinating, a salute to a sound and aesthetic that was going deeper underground before its later recovery and mutations. There are far worse swan songs.

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