The music evolves into something more, not something else.
Despite the line-up changes that Norwegian black metal stalwarts Ragnarok have gone through of late, with drummer and founder member Jontho at the helm, the band’s sound has remained untouched. And so with their eighth album, Psychopathology (reviewed here), to be released on 25 March 2016, Ragnarok have produced a black metal album par excellence. Here, guitarist Bolverk and long-time drummer and now-vocalist Jontho talk to MR’s Jason Guest about the line-up changes, the album, working with Marduk’s Devo, the importance of music, and the evolution of black metal…
Thank you very much for taking time out for this interview and congratulations on Psychpathology, another excellent album from the band.
Bolverk: No, thank you bro and thank you for supporting the scene. It’s great to hear that you like our new album. We are naturally very proud of it and we think it’s another step forward for the band and for ourselves as musicians and songwriters.
There’ve been a few changes in the Ragnarok camp of late. HansFyrste left the band in 2014, Jontho stepped out from behind the kit and took over as vocalist, and Dauden’s Malignant joined on drums. How did these changes affect the band?
Bolverk: We are a stronger unit now. More tightly knit with a common goal for the band to write better songs, improve as musicians, play more gigs, play bigger and better gigs, deepen our friendship… and so forth. We are constantly working to keep the band going and creating and developing the Ragnarok brand of Black Metal.
Jontho has taken over as vocalist. A long time ambition?
Bolverk: Jontho has always been the frontman for Ragnarok, even if he has been stuck behind the drums. When we found ourselves looking for yet another vocalist, there was already a quiet agreement that Jontho was going to give it a go. Jontho is a born frontman and he owns the stage, so it was just a matter of getting the singing down. After a lot of work… him and me practicing old school in my basement with an old boomblaster and him screaming to the CDs, he passed with flying colours, I think. The vocals for Psychopathology is just that – PSYCHO – and I’m really looking forward to following him as he develops as a singer.
Did you consider any other vocalists?
Bolverk: As I said under the last question, we didn’t really consider anyone else. A lot of people out there showed their interest, and thank you all for that, but we were pretty much set on having Jontho out front.
What has Malignant brought to the band?
Bolverk: Malignant is one of the biggest Ragnarok fans I know and he is a very dedicated musician. He is also very dedicated to Ragnarok and when he got the opportunity to play with us, he grabbed it with both hands. I was laughing my ass of when we started rehearsing together in the spring of 2014, because his drumming style is so similar to Jontho’s that he even sounded like Jontho when he played mistakes.
So, to the album. Your eighth album in over twenty years of Ragnarok, what did you want to achieve with Psychpathology?
Bolverk: With Psychopathology we wanted to make something extremely sick and brutal, as well as musical. This is the eternal challenge for Ragnarok… to keep the initial spark of hatred, evil and madness and at the same way present it in a way that does our own personal musicality justice. Apart from that, we didn’t have a game plan or anything, we just went for it. Even if Malignant and myself haven’t been with the band from the beginning, we were both fans and it’s important for us to stay true to the Ragnarok heritage. Every band however has the need to develop in some way or another, but it’s very important to us to keep the extreme aggression of the music and the lyrical themes.
With all the changes in the band, how did you approach composition for Psychpathology?
Bolverk: The composition of Psychopathology was much in the same way as we did Malediction. I make the riffs and put the songs together, then we meet in the rehearsal room to arrange the songs. Some parts are removed and some parts are added. Jontho has the last word on what goes and what doesn’t, but I feel we have a mature dialogue around the music. Sometimes I need to be stopped when I get a little bit too creative, and sometimes Jontho needs a push to do something new. I feel that our cooperation has developed very well over the years and usually we agree. Jontho did the lyrics for ‘My Creator’ this time around, while I did the rest, but his ambition is to write more of the lyrics in the future.
Did you have an idea of how you wanted the album to sound or did each of the tracks and the whole thing take shape as it was being developed?
Bolverk: The album is not like a concept album or anything, but we tried to cultivate the madness and violence that always has been a part of Ragnarok. Some songs have a slightly different lyrical theme, but we think they all fit nicely under the title Psychopathology. The sound of the album was all in the hands of Devo. He knows Black Metal and he knows Ragnarok and we trust him to present the songs in a way that is worthy of Ragnarok. The production of Psychopathology is really good and we have Devo to thank for that. I already look forward to working with him again on the next album.
How long were you working on the material and how did it evolve since writing began?
Bolverk: The writing process is a perpetual process. Some of the stuff is years old and some of it is brand new. Sometimes a riff needs a long time before the riffs to go with it turn up and sometimes it just comes to me as finished songs that can be tested in a day or two. We didn’t really have much material left over from the album, but since then I already have the framework for five future Ragnarok songs. The creative process is pretty unpredictable. Sometimes weeks can go by without new stuff turning up and then suddenly weeks of inspired creativity can give birth to a lot of new compositions.
Marduk‘s bassist Devo has again returned to work with the band for the album. What did he bring to Psychopathology?
Bolverk: Devo is a dream to work with. He knows his stuff. He is a Metal Head. He knows Black Metal. He knows Ragnarok. He knows us personally and he shares our ambition to present an album that will blow people away. As a guitar player I value his input on overdubs and the small details that finish off an album and for the overall sound I put all my trust in him. A lot of the feedback we’ve received on the album so far has a lot of good things to say about the production.
The artwork is by Marcelo Vasco, noted for his work or Slayer, Machine Head, Dimmu Borgir, Enslaved and many others. Why choose to work with him? And how much direction did you give in its design?
Jontho: I know his work from before and I love his work and we had a plan back in the days to work together. Now we finally did and it went out great. I just explained the concept for him and I sent lyrics and music for him to get inspirations. I can add here what he said about it. Vasco reveals exclusively for And Justice For Art: “I’m really happy that I finally could work for them.”
Regarding the cover concept the artist explains that Psychopathology goes “deep in a particular dark and morbid world of the sick human mind and it opened many paths and directions where I based my thoughts to create the cover atmosphere. It’s a mix of sickness, pain, fear, darkness and the most tragic illusions.”
How does the Ragnarok of 2016 compare to the band of the early days?
Jontho: Hard to say because of all the line up changes because we are different now than the earlier days. But we still have the Ragnarok spirit and atmosphere in our music. The line up we have now is the strongest ever. I have never worked with such dedicated persons than Bolverk and Malignant! Need to find a bass player now, or maybe we just continue to be a threesome and use session. After all we have to find the right one now, ‘cause I am sick of line-up changes! We are more brutal and the music and lyrics are a lot more intelligent than earlier. Now we are better than ever.
What does the act of making music mean to Ragnarok?
Bolverk: For me Ragnarok is my creative outlet as well as the outlet for all my hate and aggression. It gives me a way to express myself that helps me handle the other sides of life in a better way. I have been a metal head and a guitar player for over 30 years and it’s an honour for me to help carry the flag of Ragnarok into the future.
Many argue that black metal has become commercial in the sense that, because anyone can access the music, the true spirit of black metal has become diluted and dulled. Do you agree?
Bolverk: I think all music has to evolve, you know. You can’t expect to preserve the simple, natural and juvenile atmosphere of the early Black Metal. As people get better playing their instruments and better writing songs, the music is going to evolve, not necessarily into something else, but into something more. If the bands were to repeat themselves over and over again for 20 years, it wouldn’t really be that interesting, would it? The same happened to punk. You can obviously copy Sex Pistols and the Ramones, but it has already been done, hasn’t it? Sex Pistols had a bunch of good pretty commercial songs, but as they really couldn’t play very well it turned into punk. It’s great and I love it, but it was then, you know. I wouldn’t really expect them to do the same thing today and it wouldn’t be very interesting either. The same goes for the Black Metal bands. You can’t expect musicians to live in the past. I respect bands that evolve, but that doesn’t mean that the aggression, brutality and evil has to be left behind… the music evolves into something more, not something else.
What is your opinion on the intellectualisation of black metal? Is black metal something that can – and perhaps should – be rationalised and understood?
Bolverk: For me, music is mainly something physical, not intellectual. I like the music that makes me want to move… that grabs me by the balls and makes me think wow… I’m also a sucker for a good melody and I especially like music that combines brutality and melody in a smooth way. I think Black Metal is a state of mind rather than a genre of music. For me Venom is still Black Metal as well as Emperor and so forth… It’s about the atmosphere you create within the listener more than the musical acrobatics you manage to convey.
Any plans for shows in support of Psychpathology? And if so, will we be seeing you in the UK?
Bolverk: We haven’t played in the UK since 2010 I think, so it’s high time we come back. We have some festivals planned for the spring and summer, Steelfest and With Full Force to name a couple. We go to South America in the summer and there is a European tour scheduled for October. I don’t think that includes the UK though. We welcome all offers and look forward to playing in the UK again soon.
What would be the ideal setting for a Ragnarok performance?
Bolverk: As our music is very physical I think the perfect Ragnarok gigs have been in the mid-sized venues when they have been packed and there is sweat running down the walls. I can’t really say that I personally like Spotify and all that streaming stuff, I like to hold a product in my hands, you know, but it has done wonders to the availability of the music. There is no doubt that more people at the gigs know our music and lyrics better than before and I like the fact that the music is so available. If you see a gig coming up, it’s very easy to check out the band and see if you like it. In the past you either had to buy a product or rely on friends to share the bands with you, now it’s much easier, and I think we profit from that. It’s a great compliment when people turn up for our gigs and are true fans… it’s a great honour for us.
What does the future hold for Ragnarok? Is there more music on the works?
Bolverk: As I said earlier, the song writing process is everlasting and so is playing live. We are constantly working on music and gigs, but it’s tough out there, you know… a lot of good bands are competing for the tours and the festivals.
Thanks again for taking time out for this interview. Do you have any closing words for our readers?
Bolverk: I love being a Metal Head, you know. I’ve been for a long time and the scene has given me a lot. The Metal Heads are the same all over the world. It is a unique community and we have to protect what we’ve got. We’ve got to stay together and support the scene… fans, promoters, media and the bands. Thank you for the interview and thank you for supporting the scene. Hopefully we meet soon at a venue near you.