Music as “just entertainment” is a solipsistic and fairly recent notion. Throughout the history of humankind, various forms of music have instead been tightly woven into the communities that birthed them, shaping and steering social bonds. Even if this fact has been conveniently hidden in the deepest crevices of our collective memories, helped by capitalism’s commodification of art, music as a concept outside the ludic and academically autotelic still exists in the cultures of indigenous people like the Tuvans. Their shamans perform songs primarily to heal and such music becomes a bridge between the spiritual and the physical. Richmond duo Among The Rocks And Roots are one of those rare contemporary groups which successfully tap into that subliminal, metaphysical source and simultaneously reach somewhere beyond their own ids. Raga, the band’s second album and the centerpiece of a planned trilogy about conquering addiction, is a meditative, oft-transcendental sonic vessel. It feeds on personal anger and trauma in an attempt to process, combat, and purge these emotions. Framed in that context, Among The Rocks And Roots’ music becomes something else. Something more.
The raw, unfiltered intensity of Abdul Hakim-Bilal and Samuel Goff’s sentiments is clearly felt from the first few minutes of “Raga.” The album opens with a post-punk rhythm driven by a syncopated mesh of drums and distorted bass guitar, evoking The Ex, and soon drops into a signature ritualistic dance interspersed with guttural, excruciatingly anguished screams. The music is hallucinogenic and hallucinatory, jittering from valleys of sparse cymbal hits and billowing bass lines to peaks of deranged cacophony while tormented vocals seem to open windows into the darkest patches of Hakim-Bilal and Goff’s souls. Their approach is often structurally and texturally straightforward but rhythmically rich with dazzling percussive touches and a constant low-pitched heaviness. It’s as if these elements mimic the turmoil in the performers’ minds: the screeching, grating, and abrasive bass licks and occasional psychedelic electronic effects eroding layers of mental barriers. The song ultimately embraces a synth-infused, expansive doom mood akin to those found in Ufomammut’s oeuvre. Like rituals soaked in peyote and heat, the music seeks to wear down the listener and the musicians themselves, placing them in a receptive and elevated state of mind.
Each of the remaining three pieces on the record is a self-contained all-embracing microcosm. “Salvation” sounds like a slowed down, purposeful version of Lightning Bolt’s pandemonium and incites a war dance accompanied by circling, shifting voices singing in tongues. During one of the album’s fiercest moments, the duo resurges from a cymbal-lead lull with a fusillade of violence and with Hakim-Bilal screaming “wake up, wake up!” both to himself and to us. Before long, the track settles into an ambient coda fleshed out by throat singing, chanting, and atmospheric whooshes contrasted against a droning backdrop. While “War Song” scintillates slowly into existence, it also contains one of the most chaotic and aggressive sections as it exudes a nasty punk theme. The cut accelerates perpetually until it finally deconstructs itself through five minutes of cyclical mayhem. The closing “Requiem” is heavy with electronic effects, invocations, and a refound post-punk brutality during which Hakim-Bilal’s bass digs deep and swooshes with a sludge denseness and screeching feedback. Closing the album, the duo focuses its sonic projections into a single point punctuated by Goff’s repeated, solitary drum hits only to rebuild the song in the form of seeping textural and visceral industrial sounds. These will finally be swept up in waves of harsh noise.
Not unlike the songs of witch doctors, Hakim-Bilal and Goff’s music seems to spring from trances and outside of the usual states of consciousness. But instead of exorcising malevolent spirits and battling with external influences, they resurrect painful personal experiences and confront their own inner demons with each performance. While the album’s title1 and the impulsiveness of the four long cuts seem to suggest that Raga was improvised, there is also a deliberate activist feeling permeating the lyrics that fuse intimate with political and social issues – abuse, addiction, race, and isolation are all explored here.
Exasperating and exhausting yet stunning, Raga is a trance-inducing and manifestly real album that requires full dedication and the willingness to let oneself go. As Hakim-Bilal and Goff share their never fully healed wounds with us, we’re asked to join their ritual and reveal our own.