"I remember it being the most beautiful image of a person wearing a Wolves in the Throne Room T-shirt," recounts Maria, one half of Oakland-based doomy black-metal duo Ragana, about the first time she met her bandmate Nicole. It was 2011, and they were in the beer aisle of a grocery outlet in Olympia, Washington, with a mutual friend who'd been meaning to introduce them. "Our friend was like, 'You guys should start a metal band.'" And so they did.
Maria and Nicole had each played music for most of their lives — Nicole, who's from Southern California, was in various bands in high school, and Maria, who grew up in Tacoma, played solo guitar (her current solo endeavor is an eerie R&B project called Lizard Bitch) — but this was the first project they put real energy into. At the start, it was relatively experimental, playing with atmospherics and singing over blast beats. In 2012, they self-released their debut album, the doomy, fractured-sounding All's Lost. Their early sound is exemplified by songs like "Slowly," with its unusual structure, and the way they alternate singing and screaming the words "grows, rots," and "666," whose straightforward lyrics and labyrinthine instrumentals make it ominous and hypnotic.
They've pointed to wide-spanning influences for their earthy, enchanting, political music: from the austere landscapes of Cat Power, Grouper and Mount Eerie, to the irreverent cries of Battle of Mice, Punch and Rape Revenge. These touchstones are evident in Ragana's sense of boundlessness, the way their songs sound both ferocious and sprawling, wrathful and soothing at the same time.
"When I was a repressed and depressed teenager, I was afraid of allowing myself to feel anger, rage, or anything other than melancholy," Nicole remembers, "I was terrified of being looked at, being seen, of having my extremely painful and deep anger, despair and love manifest outside of me in a way others could see. I came to heavy music later, when I became more politically involved, and acknowledged parts of who I was that I had been hiding for a long time. Playing music that incorporated strong melancholy with old sad religious music and old sad folk music, and the power and rage of metal, made a lot of sense."
The year following All's Lost — after Maria moved to Oakland, and Nicole started coursework at a school for herbal medicine in Northern California — Ragana advanced their craggy, witchy designs with Unbecoming. By this time it's clear they revel in negative space, and in imperfection; their lyrical focus on revering the power of nature while attempting to survive what they have called a "weird capitalist hell-world we're all trapped inside." On "Invocation," they sing, "We will rise up like water, wreck ships in our wake / We are strong beyond measure / Our hearts will not break." The record's title-track is still one of their most moving songs: "I will prepare an altar," they shout together. "My body has betrayed me / This is a place of unbecoming / Where I undo the spell that made me."
"There is all this restless energy inside me, from constantly feeling devastated and in shock from the world around me," Maria says, expounding on what drives Ragana's sound. "Everything I'm screaming lives inside and is dying to come out. I'm filled with rage, anger, despair, depression, fear, love. I don't know how other people hold it in, honestly. I'm constantly in a state of writing and processing — and metal, doom and screaming has come very naturally as a way to make sense of my thoughts and ideas and hopes. A blast beat to me is like water. Maybe others think of it as something really tough and hard. It feels like a waterfall to me, like crying really hard."
Awe for the natural world, tendency toward the spiritual, and fierce, overt politics put them alongside bands like FÓRN, Dirge, the Body, Bell Witch, Panopticon, and Vile Creature — but it's their skillful, comfortable meld of doom, stoner, crust punk, and dark folk that sets Ragana's sound apart. It's also their unique chemistry. Both Maria and Nicole love to play drums more than anything, so instead of staying static in their roles, they switch off instruments. Their shared love of percussion and distinct songwriting styles keep their sound full and dynamic.
Nicole's go-to move is to write a "12-minute song with a thousand different unnecessary parts in it," she says, while Maria's approach is on the simpler side, using one or two notes to compose a song, and repeating lyrics and phrases. "The way [our styles] fit together is really special," Maria enthuses. "It makes it a beautiful balance of 50% of Nicole's energy and 50% of my energy." And over seven years and five records, Nicole and Maria just keep getting more in sync. Even their screaming styles have synthesized. "Sometimes when I hear recordings I can't tell whose vocals it is," Nicole notes, "which is really cool and weird."
Since the beginning, Ragana have done things their way, and not just in their songwriting methods. Because they're based mainly in DIY and queer punk scenes, they've historically been able to "find and make spaces that feel better and safe and inspiring for us," says Nicole.
"We were always just like, 'Fuck you,' immediately," Maria adds, referring to any time they were questioned as women making metal, especially in their early days as a band. "We just didn't care. We were coming out of a community in Olympia where everybody's a freak. We knew we were weird. Now, we know what we want, and what's comfortable for us. We've always had a spell of protection around us."
Case in point: In 2015, during their first big U.S. tour, Maria and Nicole met Anna Vo, who runs Seattle's anarchist, queer, feminist and anti-racist An Out Recordings. Ragana had been trying to find a label to release vinyl with, and when they met Vo, it clicked. "It's a dream label that shares all of our values," Nicole says. "Vo is so open to hearing about what we want as artists. We've never second guessed it," adds Maria. An Out released Wash Away in August of that year — and on it, Maria and Nicole amped up their screaming chops, and nail the contrast between wails and gentler singing. It's a gorgeous record, filled with imagery of "blood and dirt and water," falling moons, "mugwort, yarrow, and dry grass," frail flames, and the road to death.
Their fiery politics and compassionate ethos are epitomized by "You Take Nothing," which they put on Bandcamp the day after Donald Trump was elected. "You fear me and my life," they sing with a mighty grief, after repeating the song's title with increasing force. The song, they wrote, is "a reminder that the sacredness of ourselves and our communities cannot be taken away from us," and all proceeds from its downloads went to support Standing Rock's Sacred Stone Camp. It ended up being the title-track of their most recent full-length; the rest of the album came the following year in April 2017, full of crushing songs like cutthroat opener "Spare No Man" and the raw, menacing "Winter's Light," an ode to the last days before "the ache of spring." In all, a threatening rage against xenophobia and misogyny, as well as a reminder to find hope and joy amidst ever encroaching darkness.
Right now, Maria is in school for philosophy, and Nicole is studying public interest law in Virginia — specifically legal aid: immigration, housing and unemployment. She returns to Oakland during school breaks, and sometimes Maria jets to the east coast to visit; last fall, after the release of their 2018 split with Thou, Let Our Names Be Forgotten, they went on a mini tour of Virginia and North Carolina. They were also slated to play a new anti-fascist festival, Black Flags Over Brooklyn, this past January, before Nicole got sick and couldn't make it. But Maria was there, repping Ragana: "It's necessary to create environments that are explicitly anti-fascist in the metal scene, and in the world," she says of the festival. "We are anarchists and feminists and we want our music to impassion people to rage and revolt. We want to be part of communities where people are invested and interested in revolution."
Though the pair is divided across the country at the moment, they assure me there will be new music soon. Recently, Maria's been seeking inspiration from poetry — Sylvia Plath, mainly. For Nicole, her new thing is field recordings, and letting atmospheric sounds live, instead of attempting to keep up a "constant noise or energy." And she wants to sing more, too, which Maria has been encouraging her to try. It's clear their friendship is as strong as their collaboration, and they cite each other as motivation. "I'm always striving to write a song like Nicole," Maria says. She tears up a little, when she professes Nicole is the smartest person she knows. Nicole is equally as effusive: "Maria is one of the most creative and inspiring people I know," she says. "She can do everything. She's a sailor and a weight lifter and is super creative. She's there for me, and I love her."
"I feel very proud," Maria says of the work they've put into Ragana as a pair. "We're not at the end or in the middle of something. There's still lots to come."