Years before I ever saw Olympia, Washington I had some idea of what the town was like. That idea mostly came from spending too much time with music magazines. I knew Olympia as the hometown of riot grrrl and Kill Rock Stars and K Records and the International Pop Underground, the place where Kathleen Hannah wrote “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on a wall somewhere. When I finally spent a week in Olympia, many years ago, I did get some of that imagined version of the town. There was a great thrift store, a strong community radio station, and a highway-exit sign for “Sleater-Kinney” that got me all fired up. But Olympia was not the beautiful little cool-kid enclave that existed in my head — or, in any case, Olympia wasn’t just that. It was something darker, too.
Maybe I’m projecting. Maybe it’s a byproduct of living on the East Coast for my whole life and then being exposed to the insanely lush levels of Pacific Northwest vegetation for the first time. Maybe it’s Twin Peaks radiating ominous vibes across my subconscious. But Olympia feels like it should not exist. Nature wants to swallow that place up. Roots tear up streets and sidewalks. Fungus grows everywhere. The weed is strong enough to knock you the fuck out. The regular conflicts of any college town — the chilliness that almost always exists between students and townies — feel somehow more intense in Olympia, since the townie side of town is methier than most. Fucked up things happen in Olympia. Ted Bundy abducted and killed a girl there in 1974. In 2005, someone burned an abortion clinic down. As a total outsider, the place felt somehow unstable, and I hear that instability reflected back in Ragana’s music.
The two members of Ragana, known only as Maria and Coley, aren’t entirely based in Olympia anymore, but that’s where they were when the band started. Their origin story is a good one: A mutual friend introduced them after Maria noticed Coley wearing a Wolves In The Throne Room shirt in their local grocery store’s beer aisle. (Wolves In The Throne Room, also from Olympia, capture the ominous thing that I felt in that town, but their approach is different.) Ragana have been around for more than a decade now, and life has taken them to different parts of the country, but their music still thrums with heavy, mysterious power. It’s overwhelming in the same ways that the mountains and trees and rivers are overwhelming.
If Ragana belong to any genre, it’s black metal, but that’s not a very helpful descriptor for what they do. They definitely don’t sound anything like Wolves In The Throne Room, the black metal band whose shirt helped catalyze their existence. Ragana function the way riot grrrl bands used to function — two members who share equal billing, shy away from the press, and switch off instruments. (Both Maria and Coley started as drummers, and they alternate the drummer and singer/guitarist roles in Ragana.) Ragana’s music has the majestic, crushing grandeur of Seattle doom greats Bell Witch and the roiling, organic catharsis of Portland crust overlords Tragedy. Ragana’s songs can be long, immersive dirges, but they can suddenly veer into stunned, beautiful alt-rock melody. Mostly, they just sound heavy.
Ragana have been around for a while, and they’ve already released four albums and a handful of other records, including a 2018 split with likeminded heavy-music travelers Thou. But they’ve always done things on a DIY level, and they don’t tour much or do a lot of publicity. The new Desolation’s Flower is Ragana’s first album for the Flenser, a label that’s become known for releasing challenging, heavy records from acts that resist categorization: Chat Pile, Have A Nice Life, Midwife, Planning For Burial, Elizabeth Colour Wheel, Agriculture, Sprain. (Real talk: Anything that comes out on the Flenser is, at the very least, worth your attention.) If Desolation’s Flower is your first exposure to Ragana, as it was for me, then you are in for an experience.
On Desolation’s Flower, the members of Ragana sing in mythic terms. Coley, on their songs, repeats phrases again and again, like mantras: “Holy are the names,” “I long for thee.” On “Woe,” Maria describes herself as something akin to a force of nature: “I am the ocean you tried to tame, but you cannot tame me.” Their voices are different, but they both roar with real emotional force. In either permutation, it’s hard to believe that this music is being made by just two people, or that it’s being made by people at all. There’s reverb and echo all over everything, and it feels like it’s echoing up from some hidden, forgotten cave, sweeping over the topography in an invisible wave.
Ragana’s music often sounds ancient, but there’s always context. “DTA” opens with Maria singing softly over a clean, ringing guitar: “I am a mystery, even to myself/ I look in the mirror see someone else.” But that sense of alienation isn’t an eternal thing; it’s a response to material conditions, and Maria addresses the cause of those conditions: “Death to America and everything you’ve done/ I can’t feel anything, I am numb.” Then the guitars explode like fireworks and a wall of chaotic, muffled, clamoring noise hits the track. That noise is sampled from an Oakland protest. As the album ends, Coley adds another sad angry mantra: “We live in the light of the burning world.”
There are moments of stunning, shattering beauty on Desolation’s Flower. The one that really sticks with me is “Pain,” Ragana’s hushed and breathtaking dive into full-on slowcore. On that one, Maria takes all the roar out of her voice, singing about a tender and loving form of self-annihilation: “I want to feel your pain with you/ I want to know what it feels like.” That’s a complicated, troubling sentiment, and Ragana capture and convey it in just a few words. But those words, even on the duo’s most politically righteous songs, never come across as sloganeering. Instead, it’s the sound of people trying to cope and find solace and beauty even as everything crumbles all around them — trying to live in the light of the burning world.
On “Winter’s Light Pt. 2,” Coley contemplates a frozen marsh and the life that endures there: “The deer makes her winter home/ Something so small can endure the cold.” There’s dread in their voice, but there’s wonder, too. In many places, Desolation’s Flower is a sad, angry piece of music. But in moments like that, it also brings a towering, resonant sense of beauty and tranquility. Maybe that comes from living in a town that’s being swallowed by the woods. Maybe you can watch the world burn while envisioning the life that will continue when we’re all ashes.
Desolation’s Flower is out 10/27 on the Flenser.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Taylor Swift’s 1989 (Taylor’s Version)
• King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s The Silver Cord
• Year Of The Knife’s No Love Lost
• The Mountain Goats’ Jenny From Thebes
• Katie Dey’s never falter hero girl
• DJ Shadow’s Action Adventure
• The Gaslight Anthem’s History Books
• Shabazz Palaces’ Robed In Rareness
• American Analog Set’s For Forever
• OMD’s Bauhaus Staircase
• Wild Nothing’s Hold
• The Kills’ God Games
• Circus Devils’ Squeeze The Needle
• Crime In Stereo’s House & Trance
• Duran Duran’s Danse Macabre
• Jessi Colter’s Edge Of Forever
• NOBRO’s Set Your Pussy Free
• Mariah The Scientist’s To Be Eaten Alive
• Poppy’s Zig
• Wargasm’s Venom
• Robert Finley’s Black Bayou
• In This Moment’s Godmode
• Mike Reed’s The Separatist Party
• Flyte’s self-titled LP
• Mondo Generator’s We Stand Against You
• Wayfarer’s American Gothic
• Tar Of’s Confidence Freaks Me Out
• Video Age’s Away From The Castle
• The Serfs’ Half Eaten By Dogs
• Gregg Kowalsky’s Eso Es
• Marina Herlop’s Nekkuja
• Gazelle Twin’s Black Dog
• Gravesend’s Gowanus Death Stomp
• Magnolia Park’s Halloween Mixtape II
• Michael Peter Olsen’s Narrative Of A Nervous System
• Dollar Signs’s Legend Tripping
• Bayway’s World Of Bayway Volume 2
• Mr Eazi’s The Evil Genius
• Black Pumas’ Chronicles Of A Diamond
• Taking Back Sunday’s 152
• Robin Trower’s Joyful Sky
• Jon Pardi’s Merry Christmas From Jon Pardi
• Mark Tremonti’s Christmas Classics New & Old
• Sofía Kourtesis’s Madres
• Maddie & Tae’s We Need Christmas (Extended Version)
• The Texas Wild compilation
• The compilation A Tribute To The Judds
• The Joyful Noise Halloween Party Vol. 1 compilation
• Show Me In The Body’s Live & Loose In The USA
• Prince & The New Power Generation’s Diamonds & Pearls (Super Deluxe Edition)
• Superchunk’s Misfits & Mistakes: Singles, B-sides & Strays 2007–2023
• Bruce Hornsby’s Spirit Trail 25th Anniversary Edition
• Barbra Streisand – EVERGREENS: Celebrating Six Decades On Columbia Records & YENTL: 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition
• Lowertown’s Skin Of My Teeth EP
• Baby Tate’s Baby Tate Presents – Sexploration: The Musical EP
• Sigrid’s The Hype EP
• Machinedrum’s 4#TRAX EP
• Rocket’s Versions Of You EP
• Chxrry22’s Siren EP
• Hot Mulligan’s Hot Mulligan Lofi EP
• Seventeen’s Seventeenth Heaven EP
• Blue Man Group’s Overjoy To The World EP