Black metal and doom have always been right at home in the damp decay of the Pacific Northwest. Bands like Wolves in the Throne Room and Bell Witch have spearheaded a new generation of heavy music grounded in the moss and mud of the Cascades. Ragana take that special connection a step further, flipping it on its head to infuse those historically solipsistic genres with a deep empathy, openly inspired by the likes of Mt. Eerie and Grouper: “I want to feel your pain with you…I’m dying to know what it feels like.”
Maria and Coley met in Olympia, Washington, in 2011 when a mutual friend told them to start a metal band. The pair bonded over sludge, punk, ambient folk, and the mist and murk of the Pacific coast, and they flourished in Oly’s tight-knit DIY scene. In a sense, perhaps on paper, the duo operates like a solo project: each of them writes, produces, and alternately plays every instrument. For over a decade the duo did it themselves, recording and self-releasing tapes and CDs, working with An Out Recordings to press vinyl. At first glance, the duo’s latest full-length appears to be business as usual for Ragana, but subtly more so, dialed in and fine-tuned. Desolation’s Flower, their debut on The Flenser, is less a radical evolutionary step and more a brilliant flash of clarity.
Ragana have always leaned on the contrast between clean and distorted guitar lines, favoring stark, unadorned passages that introduce choruses heavy with buzzing clouds of distortion. In turn those dark clouds dissipate to reveal softly melodic passages, nearly shoegazing in tone and style. Those contrasts are even sharper now, like on “Winter’s Light Pt. 2” and “Pain,” equally mellifluous and crushing.
Occasionally on their prior releases I’ve missed the bass in Ragana’s low end. They have always made up for relatively sparse instrumentation with their unique and correspondingly desolate style. Now Ragana says we can have it both ways. They take on a downtuned guitar tone that rumbles like a smoldering volcano, sometimes nearly as low and loud as their noisier guitar-drum peers like Vile Creature or Divide and Dissolve.
When I first heard “DTA” as a single I was caught off guard by the field recording of a street protest that dominates half the track. It initially struck me as stylistically uncharacteristic for Ragana, and the chaotic energy of the sample seemed incongruous with the somber tone. But it’s exactly that clash of swirling chaos and somber melancholy that sits at the heart of any decent definition of black metal. Then I listened to this track on the way home from a rally in support of Palestinian human rights, and the combination of grief and rage clicked right into place: “Death to America and everything you’ve done, I can’t feel anything, I am numb.” The track is rightfully situated at the heart of a record demonstrating as much stylistic and emotional range as we’ve ever seen from them.
Some may bemoan their decision to join a label and hire an engineer, but Ragana have not sacrificed any part of their ethos. On the contrary, Ragana have reached a culmination of their DIY career, and chose to celebrate that achievement in the highest fidelity possible. This project is still very much the same beloved darkhorse of the West coast metal underground, this is simply the best we’ve ever heard them.
Label: The Flenser
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