On February 8, 2014, his fourth day of sobriety, Samuel Goff was “a complete mess” in a church basement in his new home of Richmond, Virginia. But his attendance at that day’s meeting was fortuitous, at some point he heard another attendee, who turned out to be the budding musician Abdul Hakim-Bilal, mention that he was heading to a noise show later that week. “Me being new to the city of Richmond and ignorant of the music scene,” Goff remembers via email. “I naively asked him after the meeting ‘Did you mean noise, like Merzbow?’”
They started a band pretty much on the spot. Hakim-Bilal mentioned he’d recently bought a drumset, and, hey, it just so happened that Goff had played in punk bands when he was a kid. “I don’t remember if I told him I had not sat down behind a drum kit in 19 years or not, but that was the truth of the matter,” he says. But that didn’t matter, necessarily. Hakim-Bilal himself had only been playing bass for about four months before the two met. “I was just happy to have someone to play with,” he demurs.
Traditional chops are often super boring anyway, so they immediately set about making a lot of noise as Among the Rocks and Roots, borrowing a name from a Wolves in the Throne Room song. Hakim-Bilal, whose father is Eastern Pequot, says the name spoke to his heritage and spiritual beliefs. “In the end of all things, we must return to the source,” he explains. “ATRR is how Sam and I had to go back to move forward.”
Over the years they’ve been together they’ve developed a uniquely blistered take on noise and metal that feels equal parts harsh and healing. Over a handful of live recordings and their 2015 debut Samudra Garba Pathe they’ve taken a thoughtful approach to heavy music structures, embracing percussive polyrhythms and ecstatic dynamics, in addition to the running-into-a-brick-wall blasts of their more chaotic moments. The concept crystallized from the very beginning. Goff remembers early practices when his bandmate would urge him to push beyond his fallback punk beats. “Abdul would be like ‘No, no, no, no, no…..Bigger! More epic! More cymbal crashes! As loud as you can!’ I slowly started to realize what kind of vision he had.”
Hakim-Bilal says the resulting sound they ended up on is “truly a spiritual experience” for the pair. He’s taken to calling it “heavy indigenous music,” and drawing on the similarity between the form of the music and the rituals he was taught to perform as a child. “Our music is minimal and trance inducing, which is the basis for most indigenous ritual work,” he continues. “Sam’s drumming does exactly that for me, puts me in a trance, the repetition of lyrics and movements sends me deeper and deeper into this trance.”
Goff is careful not to adopt the specific terminology Hakim-Bilal uses (”This music means that to him but obviously it cannot mean that to me”) but he too draws heavily on trance-like music from Morocco and India, among others. If you listen closely it’s easy enough to hear the spiraling rhythms of something like Gnawa music, and the title of their new record Raga, due March 2 on the New York experimental label PTP, is a reference to the famous improvisational form of Indian classical music.
Raga, as the second part of a trilogy of records that began with Samudra Garba Pathe, stretches back thematically to the moment of the duo’s first meeting. The trilogy is meant to trace the painful arc of addiction that both experienced. Their first record grapples “with the issues that led to addiction problems,” according to Goff, but Raga is “about being in the worst of its depths.”
Across four pieces, the shortest of which is 17 and a half minutes, they dive through brittle and blistered noise rock, sludgy ambience, and in-the-red rushes that remind me equally of Lightning Bolt’s abstract cacophony and the frigid misanthropy of black metal. The passages are creeping and repetitive cycles, the sort of slow slog that echoes the despair of the situations they’re describing, an immense weight, with no easy escape. “Sam and I cannot escape from our emotions, neither should the room,” Hakim-Bilal says. “This is where volume and time play a big role in our live performance, trying to induce a spiritual paralysis removing one from the choice to leave the room.”
Though Hakim-Bilal’s lyrics can be tough to understand underneath the prickly cacophony, his delivery gives some indication of the burden, crying out in pained roars and strangulated yelps in between bursts of cathartic feedback. He explains that his relationship to their lyrics has changed over time.” We didn’t have much to say at first, we just felt everything pour out of each other which is what we needed to move forward,” he says. “ Raga is the next step, facing our reasons for why we chose addiction to escape. Abuse, Spiritual sickness, and simply being black in a country that fears our people.”
Heavy music often explores on heavy themes as a means of processing trauma, and for Hakim-Bilal, the lyrics have been tough over time. “Performing those lyrics live hurt a lot for a long time. sometimes triggering me into periods of depression,” he says. “As a survivor of child abuse I don’t deal with my emotions like most people—they have to be triggered for me to deal with them. Music allowed me relive them as if the memories were happening right in front of me. For Raga it was time for us to face them in out right combat. It was the moment I chose to not be a victim anymore. My only hope behind my lyrics is that it helps others find reprieve from their suffering, as if we were fighting that battle together.”
There is some of that hope embedded deep within the squelches and static of Raga, a sort of upward momentum, a slow crawl out of the pit. I said before that there’s no escape, but there’s this sense that they’re trying, grabbing tight onto stray brush in an attempt to pull themselves out of the waist deep muck. This is the thing that separates Raga and ATRR from so much of the continuum of harsh, depressive music from doom to noise and back again, somewhere deep down there’s this possibility of clawing your way out even when it doesn’t seem like it.
The band’s already started thinking about the completion of the triology, which by all indications will push further into the light. “Our third record Pariah will deal with the ascension out of addiction,” Goff says. “So as ugly and brutal as Raga can be at times we hope many sections of Pariah will be transcendent or even beautiful.”
For now, though, there’s darkness. Raga is streaming up above in advance of its release March 2 on PTP, but even knowing that they’re light coming colors it a little differently. Listen here.
Colin Joyce is an editor at Noisey and is on Twitter.