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Among The Rocks And Roots
Pariah Antonio Poscic , December 11th, 2023 08:43

Richmond, Virginia duo take post-metal and hardcore aggression to rapturous new heights, finds Antonio Poscic

Heavy music is easy. The right equipment and tuning, augmented with a few pedals and effects, can create such walls of sound to make even the most seasoned of extreme music lovers cower in pain. From black metal and grindcore to industrial and power electronics, music that’s shocking and transgressive just for the sake of it has been done to death. However, a masterful undertaking is to make that heaviness resonate with the psyche, to establish a feedback loop where each scream, bout of distortion, downtuned guitar grunt, and drum pattern tugs at something deep in the soul.

2015’s Samudra Garba Pathe and 2018’s Raga by Richmond, Virginia duo Among The Rocks And Roots (or Samuel Goff and Abdul-Hakim Bilal) were radical expressions of this method, the immense pillars of drums and bass guitar noise eclipsed only by their agonising emotional blows. Pariah, the closing chapter of this trilogy, is equally transcendent.

For the past five years, Goff and Bilal have been active in various projects in Richmond’s flourishing avant music scene, touching upon everything from the rawest punk to the most pensive ambient. Goff kept himself busy with free jazz and noise improv collaborations that resulted in two excellent records, 2021’s The End Of The World...Finally with Mariam Rezaei and last month’s Diminished Borders with Camila Nebbia and Patrick Shiroishi. Aside from several solo albums under the monikers Grey Wulf and Shame, each exploring a starkly different facet of his musical persona, Bilal can also be heard playing on Armand Hammer’s We Buy Diabetic Test Strips. Together, they are both core members of the mercurial RAIC (Richmond Avant Improv Collective). The subtle influences of these collaborations are noticeable on Among The Rocks And Roots’ new album.

In contrast to Raga’s relentless, visceral onslaught, Pariah is a significantly more sprawling affair that still maintains a compelling power of affect amid its face-off with addiction, systemic oppression, and injustice. With a 90-minute run spread over four cuts, the music ebbs and flows between rough hardcore aggression and moments of rapture. ‘Pariah’ opens the album with droning vibrations that soon explode into a ritualistic clang, then continues switching gears from atmospheric segments to grovelling barrages. “Forgive but not forget” These words are repeated with obsessive conviction, only for their sizzling anger to get drowned out by the fluid motion of strings and an utterly stirring, overpowering crescendo of saxophones.

‘Triumph’ simmers in post-metal, Isis-like modes for most of its duration, before finding itself encased in musique concrète, with electronic effects overlapping fiery cries of protest that ultimately disappear into a dusty drone. There is neither place nor need for abstraction in the lyrics. “Rise up to abolish this system, rise up to bring those demons down,” they growl, imbuing the words with immense power.

Unlike the previous two cuts, the gruelling ‘III’ leaves Bilal and Goff alone with each other and their instruments, locked in a riveting dialogue of polyrhythms and riffs sheathed with distortion. Meanwhile, ‘Love’ provides a deserving closer for Among The Rocks And Roots’ harrowing trilogy. The piece is full of hair-rising moments such as the gentle, folksy intro, delirious, mantra-like chants, and swirls of dissonant strings, but ends by gesturing towards an uncertain, anxious state of mind. “Will you miss me when I’m gone?” We hear these words over and over again, delivered with a mixture of hostility and despair, until they are left bare and alone, as if stressing the thin line between love and hate.