What is Darkscorch? Is it an album of 70s metal songs about pagan rites, wizards, and Sauron? A board game about being a band battling for a record deal? Elaborate maps sketched on graph paper in 10th grade study hall? Yes. Darkscorch is all of these things.
Darkscorch offers what its creators call "little-known 70s hard rock" compiled around a Dungeons & Dragons theme, with mysterious hints of a board game still in development. "Each player is a band touring a fictional world fighting other bands and trying to land a record contract."
It's like someone peered into my brain and made all my dreams come true. It could only be more perfect if they stuck a few pictures of warrior maidens in improbable armor in there (hey, I like what I like). Let's start with the compilation album. It's called Warfaring Strangers: Nightscorch Canticles, and The Numero Group is the record label responsible. Being a big fan of "little-known" 70s hard rock, I was excited and curious to see which of my favorites had made the cut.
But little-known is not really the correct term. These are American bands who only ever recorded a few songs, mostly on their own dimes. It's unlikely many people outside their home towns ever heard of them. I certainly hadn't. My loss, because there is some killer rock and roll here. Admittedly, most of these songs are rough around the edges. I doubt anyone here was a professional musician. There's a lot of raw intensity, and each band seems to have ambitions that occasionally exceed their musical skills. The singers aren't perfect, the drummers slip in and out of time. All part of the charm.
That said, there are some standout tracks. A band called Air gets credit for creating a sort of proto-prog-metal, and also for coming up with the term "Satanial," which seems to be a sort of scheduled Satanic garden party. I loved "Black Death" by Arrogance, and the aggressive "Slave of Fear" by Stone Axe, which features one of the most outrageous meedley meedley guitar moments you'll ever hear. The final track, "Cry for the Newborn" by Hellstorm, actually hints at some serious potential. It's a sort of visionary Hendrixian acid funk with weird industrial rhythm sounds. You can listen to the entire album on Soundcloud.
In between those peaks you'll find plenty of war-torn ground treaded by a Wizzard King, a Black Wizard, a Sorcerer, a Warlord, and the King of the Golden Hall (all actual song titles). How to describe this music, taken as a whole? The press release does a good job:
"This music hails from an occluded realm, somewhere just beyond the pot-addled minds of its creators. Lyrically, the Darkscorch Canticles trifle with themes most grave: crippling fear, pagan hostility, paranoia, power addiction—even necromancy. Satan's name is openly invoked, alongside Sauron's. In this collection, medieval Bonham thunk and febrile Iommi guitar leads crowd out the bluesy Americana that foregrounded those bands, replacing hippie pastoralism with mythology, armored conflict, sorcery, and doom. Within, the impact of Black Sabbath on US shores and heartlands is revealed as a bludgeoning previously undescribed."
But it turns out this deliriously stoned relic of a comp album is just the start. There's also a board game. It's apparently not complete, but it's due out in May. They sent me images of the game board and box, along with some of the cards. The cards have incomprehensible symbols on them (which actually appear to represent the four instruments in a typical rock band) along with bizarre declarations: "Went to Woodstock collectively, mostly to punch people, individually," reads one. "Fusing cheap liquor with adult-onset acne since 1974," says another.
I needed to know more. I needed to understand this game. I lit candles and placed them in the shape of an inverse pentagram (this is advanced stuff, if you don't know what that is, I'm not going to explain it). I softly chanted the Invocation of the Blackened Skull. I burned a small wax effigy of Nyo'gklargal'ax, the Demon Horse With Runecarved Hooves. And lo there did appear before me an email of dark and wanton portent.
That email included information from lead designer Dustin Drase, who was helped in designing the game by Ken Shipley and Judson Picco. They originally wanted to create a role-playing game like D&D, but about rock bands questing for a record deal. To simplify things, they went with a board game inspired by Trivial Pursuit, Munchkin, and Mille Bornes:
"Early versions of Darkscorch were strongly tied to Mille Bornes in terms of band movement and what we called "GOD cards" that are essentially the same as the coup-fourré from that game. You can still see the remnants of Mille Bornes in our "Shitty Van" cards and the way that you can bribe promoters or get a booking agent through the use of fate cards. Our battle mechanic is pulled from a combination of Munchkin and THAC0 (To Hit Armor Class Zero) from Dungeons & Dragons. We spent a lot of time on the artwork and flavor text on the cards to enhance the enjoyment of the game. This was largely inspired by the flavor text on Magic Cards, but incorporates more of the irreverent humor of Munchkin."
Along with these eldritch mutterings, I also received a moldering document scrawled on dried goatskin that purported to be the game's instruction manual. I was forbidden to reproduce it, and can only read its accursed words on certain nights when the constellations appear all wrong and the starlight that falls upon the dread pages seems to come from another realm entirely. But I could read enough to get the basic idea.
What you do is form a band with cards for each band member. At each city, you'll pick one band member to wage war, then draw from a foe deck and fight that band, playing extra cards to increase your band's chance of success. The roll of a 20-sided die determines the outcome. Win and you get to claim a banner from that city. The other players are doing the same thing, and you may need to battle them directly from time to time. At all costs, avoid the suburbs.
Once you've claimed banners from all 16 cities, you can travel to the Isle of Numenor for the final showdown (seriously, it's the Isle of Numenor). If they win this final ultimate battle, they claim a recording contract with the Numero Group record label.
I don't want to put down Numero here, but to be honest, if I'd conquered 16 cities and the Isle of Numenor (the jewel of the Second Age of Middle Earth, from whence Aragorn, son of Arathorn was descended), an indie recording contract seems like something of a letdown. I'm just saying a nice wizard's tower somewhere in Mirkwood doesn't seem too much to ask.
On top of all this insanity, they also sent a bunch of incredibly elaborate maps drawn on graph paper. I'm not sure if these have anything to do with the board game – it looks like they're just included as part of the whole 70s fantasy vibe, and some of them look like actual maps someone used to play D&D. I'm seriously going to use them in my D&D campaign.
So, what to make of this epic slab of ancient metal and early days D&D art with a rock band questing board game? The music is wicked, especially if you can never get enough bombastic guitar riffs. The game, to be honest, looks as rough around the edges as the music sounds – a sort of throwback weekend binge with notebook scrawled cards and rules that will make more sense once you're high. Every part of this masterfully works toward the same aesthetic, the maps and the cards and the album cover and the amazing sweaty band photos, it's all like hanging out with the guys in metal shop in 1978, then taking off in your Camaro to score some weed/Grand Funk tickets, then playing through In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords all damn weekend.