Ragana: Desolation’s Flower

Ragana’s saints weren’t canonized by a specific religion; they were forged by fire. In the sanctuary of a century-old Catholic church-turned-studio in Anacortes, Washington, the Oakland via Olympia metal duo of Coley and Maria (who do not publicly share their last names) paid their respects to their queer and trans predecessors with what they’ve described as a hymn of gratitude. “Desolation’s Flower,” the opening title track of their new album, is simmering and righteous. Coley’s obliterating, fuzz-slathered, single-note guitar melodies echo alongside Maria’s massive and gradual percussive crash. From that foundation, they build to multiple movements of feverish drumming and soaring black-metal riffs. Coley’s screams suggest anger, but instead of unleashing pure rage, their words express gratitude for their forebears and a promise to live in their example.

“Holy are the names,” they repeatedly insist, of those who withstood the relentless hell of oppression to find a hidden world of reprieve. Their symbolism evokes the 19th-century Romantics, offering an indelible image beyond the confines of this music: “They found desolation’s flower.” As the song winds down after eight minutes, each of Maria’s evenly spaced bass drum thuds lands like a firm, persistent reminder. In both its gradual climb and its focus on forebears who cleaved through volatile terrain, the song provides the sonic and conceptual groundwork for the entirety of their sixth album, Desolation’s Flower.

The seven tracks on Desolation’s Flower splice panoptic frenzy with near-ambient calm to underscore the present fraught moment in history where oppression is written into law. Ragana’s anarchist politics have carried through as the conceptual undercurrent to all of their records to date, and that continues here. In their lyrics, the metaphorical ecosystems of the world are all freezing cold, dense fog, untenable fires, and brutal winds. It’s a setting that breeds desperation and intense longing. “There is no return to a place before pain,” Coley reveals on “Winter’s Light Pt. 2.” The best way to survive out there is together; the duo recently discussed how easy it is to find community and connection through protest. “May we find shelter in what remains,” the song concludes.

For all its heft and darkness, Desolation’s Flower is never full-on bleak. The emphasis on collective strength, on reaching out when everything seems hopeless, is a call to action when crumbling feels like the default. It’s there in their lyrics, and there’s also something intrinsically motivating about this Pacific Northwest queer anarchist black metal duo’s shredded vocals and raw, slow-building sound. Even the way the album is put together mirrors it’s focus on finding power through solidarity: Coley screams and plays guitar on all the odd-numbered songs, and for the rest, they sit behind the drums while Maria takes the lead. Ragana have spoken about consciously balancing their individual styles on their records—Coley’s more elaborate odysseys next to Maria’s quieter and more minimal compositions—and that melding of aesthetics keeps Desolation’s Flower riveting.

Their division of labor leads to a stark diptych on the back half. “Winter’s Light Pt. 2” is a sparse build that turns torrential. Coley shrieks about feeling empty and wild, praying for relief from the decimating elements. Maria seems to respond with its follow-up “Pain,” a gentle and lolling sprawl of a song that feels more indebted to ’90s alt rock and grunge than all-out metal. Her voice is soft as she offers an outstretched hand: “I want to feel your pain with you/I want to know what it feels like.” Much of the album's emotional content and its landscapes feel elemental. “Wind blows through the ruins,” Coley screams longingly on “Ruins” before distortion whips through the church studio. There’s an analogy on “Winter’s Light Pt. 2” about a small deer surviving in its winter home. In several moments, fire is meager and distant—once this great destroyer that left behind an unforgiving aftermath.

Then, on “DTA,” Ragana’s rage and sadness come into a sharp contemporary focus. “Death to America and everything you’ve done/I can’t feel anything, I am numb,” Maria repeats in a quiet voice. When the duo kicks up a cyclone of scuzzy distortion, Maria’s guitar sounding suddenly like a Crazy Horse bootleg, there’s a “fuck the police” chant sampled from a video of a recent protest and riot in Oakland. For one song, they no longer offer a poetically ambiguous look at oppression—they’re reacting to acts of hatred right outside their window. Maria closes with the same words from before, this time in a harrowing scream as though she’s desperate to feel anything after withstanding a daily tidal wave of heartbreak.

All that’s left in the final seconds of Desolation’s Flower is the sound of lapping waves. It’s an appropriate conclusion to an album where the natural world is foregrounded as a punisher, but also because Ragana required a boat to get from the studio to Phil Elverum’s off-site gong. Everything about the album—the heaviness and quiet, the steady build and the massive cathartic payoff, the solitude and the solace—heaves steadily forward and back, forward and back in the same direction. Every song is in service of the same message, and each one cuts stillness with show-stopping slow metal heroics, like a massive scream or an unbelievable riff. “We live in the light of the burning world,” Coley and Maria sing—and yes, shriek—in solidarity with one another.