My Top 20 Albums of 2013: #1 Ragana’s “Unbecoming”
I’ve started and re-started this write-up three times now. I’m at a bit of a loss to be perfectly honest. I don’t know how to convey exactly how a year with Unbecoming has left me feeling. While only an Extended Play in terms of length, Ragana’s Unbecoming managed to say more in twenty-two minutes than most other bands this year could in over an hour. I’ve had one word spinning around my brain since I first heard Unbecoming: primal. I have images in my mind of stumbling through a moonless night through the verdant tangles towards a dying light and finding myself there, all knotted and bruised to witness a strange scene, one which my eyes were never meant to see, but must stare at in reverent awe for all its rarity. Hearing Unbecoming is to become involved in the idea that we have found some urr-source, something dark and tangled that inspires worship from us. For this, I must give massive credit to Ragana for managing to create such a large and atmospheric sound making use of only two members. At times, tracks become very involved, especially as speeds increase, with the mix of vocals, guitars and drums feeling rather chaotic and consuming in their delivery. A song like “Enough” is given such momentum by the clashing of sounds going on amongst its construction, drums and guitars barely seeming to stay in synch as some frenzy takes over. Yet, the moments that are most disconcerting come from the fact that Unbecoming makes such use of stillness in its music. Stillness is an odd trait to assign to music, as we don’t expect the absence of sound to be such a large part of the experience. But moments when we are left alone with the dying whisps of a note or the decay of a rhythm are those moments when our expectation rise, when our desire to reinvest ourselves in the music hit their peak. Ragan is very controlled in this regard, managing to link moments of pure chaos, atmosphere and stillness together in such a way as to give a fully emotional and dramatic narrative to their songs. “Curved Grass” is made powerful at first by the crushing slow rhythms of fuzzed out guitars matched to the subtle slow sounds of drumming, a sound we might appreciate as supposed to be sounding frightening, yet it is the slower passage of largely clean guitar that makes it feel troubling, makes us feel less comfortable in our skin, as we await the dread of confrontation. As the melody transforms and becomes the same design of single notes, but with the fuzzed ut tone of the previously blocky riff, the song opens up, creating this new musical understanding that synthesizes the two ideas and allows the song to reach such an amazing climax. This is easy to appreciate throughout, as a lack of formal structure gives Ragana a great deal of room to create truly memorable songs that always seem to be branching into new ideas and working through them until the song can no longer sustain them and must end. The lack of appreciable repetition within the song’s structure is itself deconstructive, forcing our recognition of an evolving sense of atmosphere, a progression through different stages of thought and emotional bonding to uniquely human sounds, yet ones not linked to our formal understanding of the practice of music. This is where the drums are at their peak, as I cannot think of a better example of atmospheric drumming, with the rather familiar sounds of rhythm seeming to come in and out of focus, the volume swelling and tempos constantly changing to put us off balance with ourselves and make us more deeply involved with the mental narrative we have formed through listening. This is the power of heavy metal, to be invoke a visceral, primal confrontation with oneself over the ills of reality and become part of the darker leanings that drive the human cause. Unbecoming is an exercise in such confrontations, but one that can so easily subsume us and let us fall to pieces in its own mysticism.
This extends quite well into the vocal delivery of the album, which sees both members use the mic at times in odd off-harmonies. Lyrics on Unbecoming are oddly sparse, mere snatches of words seemingly conjured from a deep smoke rising off the music at moments ones do not initially expect and never in the way you expect them to be sung. Voices tend to be a mix of rather straight forward, tightly tone controlled singing and the most ear shattering yelling one can imagine. I really can’t think of a better word for it than yelling, as the attempts to hold tone throughout the words being used tends to break apart as it happens, slowly shedding its idea of immediate artistry and assuming deeper stance of artistic delivery by imbuing it with as much fury and power as one can wrench from the frail human form. The album closer, “Invocation,” is especially powerful in this regard, as the slow build up to this moment of destructive force is aching, having developed an expectation of its arrival and being made to wait patiently, if not anxiously for its arrival. As the words march from the ether, their formal march sounds like a spell being woven, the imagery and first hand accounting making it feel rather evocative: “we will hold a space/a tender structure/made of breath and bones and flame/and all is change/and it moves through me/and we’ll start over/again and again and again,” Another seeming verse rises from this, the song seeming to wish for some apocalypse that does not come soon enough and yet must wait for its moment of climax, terminating into the idea of repetition, but with seemingly massive changes in cadence giving it new credence: “we invoke the names/we will rise up like water/wreck ships in our wake/we are strong beyond measure/our hearts will not break.” These are the types of moments I’ve really come to appreciate from Unbecoming, the moment where all the sparse delivery and subtle changes in structure seem to rend a forcefulness from the music itself, creating this rather natural emotional response to the dark nature of the atmosphere. We feel the increased desire that the atmosphere should break, but to hear it only in the music is not enough, needing that power the human voice can provide to give us an immediacy to latch ourselves onto, to feel as if we hear our own dark hearted voices amongst the tumult. The added effect of all this is just how well this formats Unbecoming as an album, as a cohesive unit of sound. Songs have this natural fluidity to them, as one song can seemingly become enough without drawing your attention, making everything feel as if the continuity is drawn by the presence or lack thereof of the vocals. It’s a powerful effect which makes the twenty two minute length feel far too brisk and yet so dreadfully large in its delivery.
Here is the link to Ragana’s Bandcamp. Go listen to Unbecoming and purchase it. As futile as it may be for me to say this, as I’m not really a journalist nor immensely popular, Ragana is a group who have put together a staggeringly powerful work that does so much in so little time. It is atmospheric, angry, emotional, compelling, dramatic, disquieting, beautiful, evocative and any number of other adjectives, all the while being a direct link to something else, something far beyond a simple understanding of music. This is an album I hear at the beginning of 2013 and 172 albums later, it remained my favorite of all the albums I had heard, because it is an album that sits in your mind and makes your imagination run amongst the nightmarish scapes until at last your weary spirit is consumed by its powerful grasp.
Is It Guitar Pornography?: The way I would put it is this: while I’m sure I could play the notes, I do not think I could make these sounds. Judge that for yourselves.
Favorite Track: Unbecoming