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Queer Metal Band Ragana Casts ‘Modern Spells’ for Liberation

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A blurry, black-and-white photo of two young musicians, one female and one nonbinary, leaning their heads together.
Maria and Coley (left to right) of the "antifascist black metal" band Ragana. (Bailey Kobelin)

When Ragana first contacted San Francisco metal label The Flenser about releasing their music, they sent them their first two tapes in a box filled with moss. Everything the metal duo does seems to be in the service of some kind of spell — something that Coley, one of the band’s two mononymous multi-instrumentalists, defines as “bringing an idea into reality.”

“I feel like we’re doing magic, but not in some esoteric way,” says Coley. “If you say ‘witchcraft,’ it brings up a lot of connotations of spooky things, but I feel more the ability to make people see things that are right in front of their eyes, the ability to change people’s emotions and feelings.”

Ragana (pronounced RAHG-a-na — Latvian and Lithuanian for “witch”) is split between Olympia, Wash., where Coley lives, and Oakland, where fellow drummer-guitarist-singer Maria lives. Both are cities with long histories of activism, and Ragana, which identifies as a “queer antifascist black metal/doom duo,” sees its “modern spells” as a conduit for social and political change.

Desolation’s Flower (out October 27) is their first album for The Flenser, which has become a hub for eccentric, innovative and heavy music since San Francisco native Jonathan Tuite founded it in 2010. The seven songs on Desolation’s Flower include the title track, a “hymn to queer and trans ancestors,” and “DTA” (“Death to America”), which literalizes the concept of protest music by integrating a field recording from the 2020 George Floyd protests in Oakland.


“I wanted to tie in the actual sound of a movement, a revolution of people living and breathing and experiencing in that moment,” says Maria. “It’s really powerful to hear that energy, and stressful to tear gas hitting the ground and cops and people chanting. It’s a feeling I wanted to invite into our music and have people think about. I just want people to think about revolution.”

Coley and Maria met in 2011 in Olympia, a focal point for the raw and atmospheric style of metal that’s come to be associated with the Pacific Northwest and its rainy, rugged landscape. They first bonded over Wolves in the Throne Room, one of Olympia’s most influential metal bands.

“The first time we ever met was at a grocery store,” says Coley. “We were each with a different friend, and I was wearing a Wolves in the Throne Room T-shirt, and Maria thought it was cool, which was very flattering. Our mutual friends encouraged us to meet and play music together.”

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The duo works in a style that has often been described as “blackened doom metal” — a fusion of the foreboding crawl of doom metal with the rugged, elemental sound of black metal. “The two of us wanted to play something that felt unique and heavy and dark and beautiful,” says Maria.

Both musicians describe themselves as “drummers first” and trade vocal, songwriting and guitar duties. Maria describes her songwriting style as simpler and more lyrics-driven, while Coley describes their own style as more complex. “Maria writes catchier hits,” Coley jokes.

Ragana’s catchiest hit to date is 2017’s “You Take Nothing.” No one leaves a Ragana show without its titular refrain in their head, which Maria shouts over and over again like a shamanic invocation against evil. At the band’s performance at the Swedish American Hall at 2022’s Noise Pop, opening for the legendary Northwest indie-folk project The Microphones, the duo led the crowd in an ecstatic shout-along that seemed to energize the audience and lift the spirits in the room.

The two musicians’ frequent switching between instruments at live shows lends an element of unpredictability to their performances. “The band just wouldn’t be the same if we weren’t switching instruments on each song and writing different songs,” says Coley. “It renews or changes the energy when we switch instruments, which is cool to experience as a musician.”

For all its musical innovation, heavy metal can be a surprisingly conservative genre, with a strong reactionary streak. This is especially true in black metal, some of whose stars have openly expressed racist, homophobic and fascist views.

So how are metal fans reacting to a proudly queer duo going against the grain? Coley says that, aside from “people making up comments on random metal websites,” the band has largely avoided hostility from the wider scene.

“In real life we’ve chosen to surround ourselves with people who we respect and who respect us and share a similar commitment to expansiveness in music and less of an obsession with strictly defining labels and gatekeeping who can do what,” says Coley.

Maria strums her guitar and Coley plays drums at Ragana's live performance at Hollywood Forever in Los Angeles.
Ragana’s Maria (left) and Coley (right) both sing and play guitar and drums. They often switch instruments during shows. (Debi Del Grande )

The Flenser has become something of a hub for heavy bands that embrace open-mindedness in both music and philosophy. Ragana’s labelmates include Agriculture, an “ecstatic black metal” band co-fronted by trans musician and writer Leah B. Levinson, and Chat Pile, an Oklahoma band whose music deals uncompromisingly with American industrial and infrastructural decay.

Ragana will celebrate the release of Desolation’s Flower on Nov. 3 with a show at Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland, joined by two like-minded East Bay bands: punk-doom band KIM and industrial noise-rock quartet Cheree.

“The Bay Area is an inspiring place,” says Maria. “In Oakland, there’s a lot of openness to ideas, openness to people living in different ways. And I think it has just brought out a lot of inspiration that life can be uplifted, revolutions can happen and people can be inspired and changed.”

Ragana performs at Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland with KIM and Cheree on Nov. 3. Tickets and details here.

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