And while Ra’s second Republic/Universal album, Duality, explores that dark side in songs like the pulsating first single, “Fallen Angels,” with its paranoia-inflected imagery reminiscent of Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire”, and the aching despair of “I Lost Everything,” the ultimate message is one of redemption and transcendence, as in the adrenaline sexual rush of “Got Me Going” and the pure joy expressed in the faithful cover of the Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.”
“What Ra has always stood for is hope,” says Sahaj, the son of a Puerto Rican mother and Russian father, who took his current name after a 1992 pilgrimage to India, where he studied Eastern philosophy in an ashram.
That faith has been tested in the three years since the band’s debut, One, which sold more than 20k as an indie release before getting picked up by Republic/Universal and released as From One. It went on to sales of more than 200k on the strength of the Top 10 Active Rock single, “Do You Call My Name,” thanks to massive airplay by Boston station WAAF and a breakneck touring schedule of more than 200 dates in less than a year.
Ra recorded, produced and mixed 70% of Duality in Sahaj’s parents’ Upstate NY home and his own Sun God Rock studios in East Rutherford NJ, four songs of which were collaborations with producer Bob Marlette (Black Sabbath, Seether, Shinedown, Saliva).
“I kicked my parents out and sent them on vacation for two months,” he laughs. “I set up the studio in the living room, with the gear in the basement.”
The result is Duality, a powerful evocation of many influences, an album with the propulsive power of Metallica and the prog-rock complexity of Yes and Queen as well as current groups like System of a Down, laced with the deceptively transparent melodies and world music textures of the Police and Peter Gabriel.
Divided into two parts, the first labeled “Fear,” the second “Love,” Duality’s dialectic covers a wide range of emotions in its journey from despair to hope. The intensity of “Take Me Away,” interspersing howling guitars, tribal rhythms and Sting-like vocals, is juxtaposed with the reggae beat of “I Lost Everything.” The Middle Eastern flavor and U2 feel of “The Only One” segues into the harmonic arena-rock of “Say You Will,” while the wrenching distortion of “Taken” forms a counterpoint to the lush landscape of “Swimming Upstream,” which unflinchingly views an unrequited love with measured regret.
“We’re not necessarily about playing complex parts with weird time signatures,” says Sahaj, who cites classical works like Beethoven’s Ninth and Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” Suite as inspirations. “We tried to make things that were complicated sound simple. The new material is much harder to play, but it sounds easier.”
“Superman,” a song he wrote the day he returned from India, is typical of the pull between faith and despair that runs through Sahaj’s writing. On the one hand, it thanks God for “this great opportunity/to share with you/exactly how I feel,” only to add, “ I think that I should tell you… I got the raw end of the deal.”
“I don’t believe in religion, but I believe in religious-ness,” says Sahaj, who adds that his mixed cultural background “cancelled each other out.” “I’ve studied science a great deal and, in many ways, its explanation of the universe seems more miraculous and interesting than some bearded guy in the clouds pointing a finger. There are so many things in science that are divine to me.”
While waiting for Duality to come out, Ra returned to the road to play several shows with guitarist Ben Carroll who made strong writing contributions to this record, NJ native bassist P.J. Farley, and Massachusetts drummer Andy Ryan. The audience’s positive response inspired them to press onward.
“It was great to have people freaking out just as much over the new music as the old stuff,” Ben says. “It was a vindication of our fans’ belief in this band. At the end of the day, that’s who we write for… the fans. And we’re utterly committed to delivering the goods live. That’s what separates us from many other bands.”
It is that transcendence, that out-of-body experience, that direct connection with their fans’ energy that drives the band to continue Ra’s odyssey. Even if sometimes they’re removed from the final destination.
“At a show I feel like the Wizard of Oz,” Sahaj says. “The guy standing behind the curtain, moving the levers so everybody else can believe. I lose myself in the drama of the performance, in the idea of reenacting the records on-stage. I’m not as interested in connecting with the music as I am with the audience. I’m immersed in trying to pilot them through the experience. Every show always starts with everyone in the dark. It’s our job to be their Sun.”
Take notice people. With Duality Ra will see their dawn.