400 up, or down, already – over a quarter of the way through the 1537. This calls for a celebration, for something special, for cheating the 1537 formula*, for a midnight satanial maybe? I blame that Scottish fella and The Numero Group, the former for telling me about this astonishing AD&D compilation of unknown hard rockers from the 1970’s USA and the latter for being wonderful Indiana Jones-style aural architects and releasing sumptuously realised parcels of loveliness like this (and being easily accessible on WordPress)
Essentially Warfaring Strangers: Darkscorch Canticles is a 1970’s hard rock/metal update of all those hoary old Nuggets and Pebbles compilation series that preserved all those amazing 60’s garage/acid/surf rock rarities for our eternal delectation and edification. You know the drill, go trawling through the archives and attics in Chickfumble City, MO and stumble across a really fried bunch of greasers and outlaws called Hans Gordon & The Poisoners and their one self-pressed single, ‘Backdoor Bonanza’, they made before the bassist got busted for possession and they all had to go and get proper jobs. It’s made for some brilliant finds and hopefully some newly impressed grandkids. Okay so there’s the odd dud in amongst the firecrackers, but that’s just the price you pay.
What differentiates Warfaring Strangers: Darkscorch Canticles is the love, care and production values that have been lavished on it here. It’s a two LP set on red vinyl, with cardboard sleeves so thick you could successfully shelter from a meteor storm behind them. There’s a great colourful booklet inside with an excellent introduction and a piece on each band, does wanting to know what Hellscorch looked like keep you awake of a night? well, feast your eyes sunshine. Best of all though are the logos that The Numero Group commissioned Robert Soden penned for each of the bands here, they adorn the cover (in a luxurious foil printing) and were simply worth the price of admission alone. Double best of all with whipped cream and almond flakes on top is the fact that they have made the conceptual leap from the music and the dope to role-playing games. Yayy! The gatefold is covered in Soden’s maps and sketches of his invented world, which looks in places like my very own maps of Valhaldron** that I amazed my kids with last time we stayed with my parents.
As the booklet puts it, annoying far better than I ever will in these tunes, ‘Satan’s name is openly invoked, alongside Sauron’s’ here – never a good idea that openly invoking Sauron’s name, trust me. The link was sown through Page and Plant’s references to Gollum and the ringwraiths riding in black, these kids were after escape – ‘Nam was going on, if you could escape for a few hours by way of Wild Turkey, Red Leb, Led Zep and The Dead Marshes, then so much the better. I should declare an interest here, they may be carefully packed away in boxes in the loft but roleplaying games, AD&D in particular, just ruled me from the ages of 11 to (cough). I have more polyhedral dice and copies of White Dwarf magazine^ than any man could ever need, I can genuinely remember the thrill when they brought out the (unofficial) new character classes of Houri and Barbarians and I have no hesitation in saying it was far more exciting than my first fumble with the opposite sex (‘you can go upstairs, outside, only’, I was told).
Gary Gygax changed my life and his name will live forever in the roll of heroes in my brain, along with several axe-slinging guitar heroes, Sir Viv Richards, William Burroughs, Rosa Parks, Dylan Thomas, Ghandi, St Maximilian Kolbe and a whole heap of Welsh rugby players. What do they all talk about over dinner? I know there are enough of you out there who know your way around a D12 and who have memorised a Level 5 Halfling Thief’s saving throw against poison to make it worthwhile, so I will blog more about RPGs at some point.
But I digress, there’s music to be had on Warfaring Strangers: Darkscorch Canticles too, I should know I’ve been listening to it solidly for days now. There’s quite a breadth of it too from garage psych rock, to out-and-out Sabbath-inspired heaviness and back to a more mellow effort, or two. All of it, defiantly and resolutely of its time and most of it in need of a good producer – which is entirely where the charm for me lies. It is interesting because there aren’t many bands here who would have technically been much behind their more famous compatriots at the time, what makes it KISS and Y&T, rather than a Wrath or a Gorgon Medusa? a bit of extra talent possibly, maybe a bit more ruthlessness and/or ambition and a whole lotta luck. That’s the fascination for me.
One of my absolute favourites here is ‘Sealed in a Grave’ by Triton Warrior, a hunk of Black Sabbath suspense underscored by a chunk of ‘Louie Louie’ attitude, is a great case in point. Hailing from Toronto, they picked their singer Joel Cohen because he was loud enough to be heard over the guitars without a microphone, they pressed 2000 copies of their single Satan’s Train (sadly not here), from which ‘Sealed in a Grave’ is the B-side. Best of all? the record plant misprinted the label, so their one recorded footprint was forever credited to Tritton Warrior! Double best of all? it absolutely rocks, I love the guitar flourishes at the end of each line.
Another Grade A belter is Stone Axe ‘Slave of Fear’, again another Sabbath-inspired jam, this time fresh out of Houston in 1971. I’d argue this is possibly the best-produced track on the LP, you can hear every instrument clearly and every instrument is clearly worth hearing. Stone Axe nail the heavier bluesier side of Iomni and the boys perfectly and J.C Bailey’s vocals just soar.
There is a lot of variation here though, it isn’t all stoned longhairs penning Sabbath tributes to live burials and slaves, there are (minor) variations! We get Wrath from Canton, Ohio and their track ‘Warlord’ sung by the singer’s wife when he had laryngitis, to brilliant effect; Gorgon Medusa’s name-belying soft melodic gem ‘Sweet Child’ and the African-American Hellscorch from 1980 who channel Hendrix and Santana on Cry For The Newborn’, complete with a thrumming rhythm, some Richard Wright-esque keyboards and some electronic drum sounds.
But, you need to listen rather than read all my nonsense. Warfaring Strangers: Darkscorch Canticles is a great album, beautifully put together by people who really know what they’re doing and really love their music. I’m a bad case I know, but this would justify its place in my collection by looks alone even if it were just an elaborate hoax and all the grooves were blank. Rumours that my love for this vinyl is not entirely platonic and that I have booked myself into a hotel room next Thursday lunchtime to despoil it are, of course, entirely true.
P.S – In order to better mess with my mind The Numero Group have also bought out a board game version of Warfaring Strangers: Darkscorch Canticles, called Darkscorch Cities where you become one of the 15 bands here fighting off groupies, van troubles and other travails in order to rock your way to a recording contract. Limited to 500 copies, it just looks immense. Check out the spoof promo for it INVOLVING A LEGO PARODY OF THE GAME OF THRONES INTRO SEQUENCE and the metal cover of the GOT theme tune they have used. (sighs deeply, checks bank balance once more…)
*for the first time in about, ooh, 3 posts.
**capital city = Storehalla. Nice place, lots of forests, bit of a hobgoblin problem though – especially near the Mines of Mordrake.
^the early ones with good stuff in, before it became just a glossy brochure for games Workshop.
PPS – I used to love this, I’m feeling all nostalgic now. I just loved John Blanche’s artwork.