For a decade now, the Numero Group has specialized in unearthing obscurities from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, mostly soul and R&B but also folk, gospel, and international music. The Chicago reissue label’s deluxe packaging, extensive liner notes, and overall attention to detail have made the Numero Group one of the most respected archival outfits around.
There’s a specific art to the label’s approach to crate-digging—it’s not so much an effort to correct music history as it is an ongoing attempt to shed light on some of that history’s darker corners. The point of the Eccentric Soul series, which showcases music from mostly forgotten regional soul and R&B labels, isn’t necessarily that the artists on those labels should have been national stars; it’s just to highlight how much influential, thrilling, and sometimes just plain weird stuff was going on underneath the mainstream.
Still, Warfaring Strangers: Darkscorch Canticles, the Numero Group’s new anthology of gloriously gloomy ’70s hard rock, is probably the weirdest thing to come from the label yet, and the jolt of the unexpected makes it one of the most singular. The 16 tracks on Darkscorch Canticles are among the deepest cuts imaginable—one-off private pressings from bands that never made it all the way out of their basements. (Those were the same basements, presumably, in which these guys played Dungeons & Dragons after band practice; Numero Group is following this release with the Cities of Darkscorch role-playing game in May.) These recordings were lost as soon as they were made.
The anthology collects a particular moment in rock history, when early ’70s hard rock aligned with the decade’s fantasy and science-fiction cultures—the days when a certain demographic of suburban dudes in bell bottoms was absorbing Conan the Barbarian comic books, Roger Corman’s Dark Star, and Heavy Metal magazine alongside albums by Blue Öyster Cult, Rush, and Thin Lizzy. It is, precisely, the few years in between Dazed and Confused and Freaks and Geeks. The bloozy metal thud of Black Sabbath and the neoclassical ambitions of Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow were coming together, but the result hadn’t yet coalesced into what we now think of as classic heavy metal—i.e., the epic, galloping arena anthems of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, circa 1982.
The bands here—with names like Wrath, Stonehenge, Stone Axe, Space Rock, and Medusa (not to be confused with Gorgon Medusa, also on the compilation)—are, in one sense, bound to the past. The music, amateurish but energetic, is indebted to a generation of heavy rock that was already passing—Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Mountain. But there’s something forward-looking here, too. These bands are turning the conventions of hard rock toward their own ends, pushing the music, however clumsily, toward something that would dominate much of the 1980s. It’s notable how much the bands on Darkscorch Canticles resemble—in spirit, at least—the New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands, like Diamond Head, Saxon, and Raven, that would emerge in the U.K. a few years later. If you find classic metal silly, these embryonic versions won’t convince you. They might, in fact, reinforce your distaste. If, however, you want to hear what these bands would have sounded like with (very) slightly more polish and production, check out ’80s underground stalwarts Cirith Ungol and Manilla Road.
Another recent reissue anthology highlights just how good the Numero Group is at what it does. Killed by Deathrock Vol. 1, released in January by Sacred Bones, collects 11 tracks of Joy Division-inspired ’80s postpunk from American, Scottish, French, German, and Swedish bands; it’s a fun compilation, at least by the usually brooding standards of the genre. The music actually runs a gamut, from “Transmission”-style dance punk (“Move,” by Casa Domani) and wiry synth-rock (“My Own Way,” by Bunker) to a delightfully goofy mashup of PiL and ? and the Mysterians (“Liberty,” by Kitchen and the Plastic Spoons).
Compared to the genuinely WTF nature of Darkscorch Canticles, though, the bands on Killed by Deathrock sound like they were left over for a reason. Most of the songs here sound at least marginally professional; even the most lo-fi recordings seem to have been part of an established scene. But where these bands are riffing on a style that had been invented by other, better bands, their Darkscorch counterparts are chasing something that had never been heard before. And it’s a rush to hear them try to get there.