While Ragnarok has never been a part of the Norwegian Black Metal Big Four,1 these bastards have been working their asses off since 1994. For twenty-five years, the band has tried to remain relevant, evolving with the times and modernizing/”hi-fi-ing” their sound. Like Marduk, a fair comparison in sound and style,2 Ragnarok continues their reign of destruction upon the shoulders of a founding member. From the debut record, Nattferd, to 2012’s Malediction, Jontho has been the mastermind behind the band, as well as their sole drummer. A role he greatly succeeded at, as he is one of my favorites in the genre. Then in 2016, with the release of Psychopathology, he slithered out from behind the drums to lend his voice to the band. The jury’s still out debating if this was the best move, considering that one of the best drummers in the field is no longer drumming. So, let’s bring them back in and see what the verdict is.
As you can see from my review of Psychopathology, the outcome was respectable. Jontho doesn’t quite have the chops of a vocalist like Hoest. And Malignant doesn’t quite have the combined aggressiveness and fluidity that Jontho has behind the kit. But the outcome was another solid release from these underrated giants. For this year’s Non Debellicata, the players remain the same, minus the bassist.3 Jontho strives to find his voice at the mic and Malignant does the same behind the kit—both trying to fill huge shoes while being honest to themselves and the legacy of the band.
The opening title-track proves that the band can still destroy your ears and burn down your backyard. Combining the viciousness of Marduk and Gorgoroth with the spit, fire, and melodics that are Ragnarok, “Non Debellicata” is a beast, as well as one hell of a way to start the album. But the opener is the most straightforward bruiser of the record. As one should expect, Ragnarok never settles for mere shock value. Melodic atmospheres mixed with clean guitars, cathedral choirs, and subtle hints of mixed-genre work pepper Non Debellicata. “Nemesis,” “Chapel of Shadows,” and closer “Asphyxiation” are but a few tracks that keep things lively. The latter two use the bass guitar as a focal point. “Chapel of Shadows” does it during a killer, mid-album transition, while “Asphyxiation” looks to the bass for its entire six-minute runtime. “Chapel of Shadows” combines the venomous elements of the opener with bell-tolling churchiness and classic heavy-metal riffage. While “Nemesis” and the closer use the dark, melodic black qualities of old-school Dissection to bring to life their bass-heavy concepts. The closer being the album epic, pushing the blistering-fast fretwork and gigantic atmospheres to the max.
Then there’re songs like the back-to-back “Sanctimoneous” and “Bestial Emptiness.” The former opens with clean guitars and loads of melodic vibes, enhancing them with cathedral chants and addictive lyrics. The latter follows its predecessor’s footsteps but tips the scales to the heavier side of the Ragnarok sound. Like this pair, the back-to-back “The Gospel of Judas Iscariot” and “Jonestown Lullaby” mix-and-match the different moods and characters of Non Debellicata. While “Chapel of Shadows” drops some subtle Iron Maiden-ish guitar work as a flicker of light in the cave of chaos, “The Gospel of Judas Iscariot” dabbles in death metal licks akin to Impaled. But “Jonestown Lullaby” amps it up to the same levels of the closer. It mixes clean guitars and cathedral choirs with soundclips that remind me of Evergrey‘s “When the Walls Go Down.” The result is a big, building piece that acts as the perfect setup for the closer.
In the end, this brickwalled beast sits hand-in-hand with Psychopathology. It’s, unfortunately, nowhere as strong as an album like Collectors of the King but it’s still better than most of the black metal smut filling the promo bin. The new vox of Jontho, as well as his absence behind the kit, is something I’m still getting used to. As nothing from this new era of the band has quite jumped out and excited me. Yet. Of all the bands in the world, Ragnarok is one I will never lose faith in. But, for now, enjoy Non Debllicata for what it is. Another solid release from a band that shows no signs of slowing down. A band that fills every one of their releases with pure, black metal passion.