There really isn’t much more to be said about Ragnarok that hasn’t already been said by our beloved Noctus and Madam X (and the rest of the black metal community). Ragnarok, like Urgehal, are one of the most underrated black metal acts on the planet. Perhaps it’s due to their consistency and unwillingness to fix-what-isn’t-broken that’s kept them from reaching black metal stardom (if “stardom” is actually attainable in this genre). Where bands like Dimmu Borgir and Emperor ruled the world with their over-the-top synths and orchestrations (a quality that Ragnarok used subtly—and to great effect—on Nattferd, Arising Realm, and Diabolical Age), and Darkthrone, Satyricon, and Enslaved left their signature styles behind for new territories, Ragnarok pushed on, refusing to submit to the progressions of their fellow countrymen. As a result, fans always knew exactly what to expect with each Ragnarok release: aggression, blasphemy, and good-to-impressive songwriting that makes album pre-ordering standard procedure for longtime fans. However, quite a lot has changed in the Ragnarok camp in the last couple years, and those changes have had a significant effect on their newest release, Psychopathology (queue the suspenseful music).
For one, Jontho (original member and one of the best black-metal drummers in the business) has stepped out from behind the kit to take over vocal duties on Psychopathology. Employing Malignant (from the one-man outfit Dauden) as drum assaulter, Jontho focuses all his energy on delivering the band’s Satanic message. While Malignant is a very capable drummer, there is clearly something lacking on Psychopathology. Similarly, while Jontho is a decent vocalist, his delivery consists of genre-standard, one-dimensional, throat-rupturing rasps that lack the magic from previous vocalists Thyme, Hoest, and HansFyrste. I would never go as far as calling Psychopathology bad, but all these changes have, sadly, resulted in a very atypical, straightforward release for Ragnarok.
Thankfully, there are a handful of tracks on Psychopathology that ought to please the listener. Opener “Dominance & Submission,” for one, cracks against your noggin’ with monstrous black/death riffage and odd, yet interesting, Egyptian-esque guitar leads (that also make an appearance on “Blood”). This is a bizarre song upon first listen, but Ragnarok is notorious for injecting interesting touches to each of their albums. Following the opener, you won’t really find anything that boils to the top of the standard tremolos and black-metal raspings of the album until you approach the midway point of this eleven-track excursion. Not even the emotion-driven title track or the oddly-catchy “Infernal Majesty” can keep my attention for long. Sadly, the first half of Psychopathology just doesn’t have much staying power.
The back-half, however, is where the ferocity, creativity, and emotion of the record resides (in particular “Heretic,” “Into the Abyss,” “The Eighth of the Seven Plagues” and “Lies”). “Heretic” has a simple chorus that reminds me of Mayhem‘s “Funeral Fog” and its midsection melodies (along with those of “Lies”) can only be found in the blackened halls of Dissection. “Into the Abyss” and “The Eighth of the Seven Plagues” take a more aggressive approach by beating in the bridge of your nose with forward-moving charges of venomous spewings, crushing guitar work, and chaotic drum assaults. However, even with these tracks being highlights of the album, their punch isn’t as substantial as Ragnarok‘s previous work and their effectiveness is squashed by the so-so quality of the remaining tracks.
Though I’m incapable of bashing on one of my favorite black metal bands, this release is lacking in songwriting and structure. I’m not sure if it has to do with internal issues (I mean, after twenty-odd years of vocalist turnovers, Jontho finally says “fuck it” and handles the vox himself?) or other factors, but this record lacks the passion the band maintained for over two decades. The production is on par with its predecessor and the mix is rather good, but the songwriting is flat in comparison to the band’s previous achievements. I look forward to Jontho as frontman for the band, and have yet to lose faith in his potential as a vocalist, but Psychopathology stands as their weakest outing to date. Nevertheless, it’s a better black metal album than most of the garbage hitting the record stands, and one that should still please die hard Ragnarok fans.