February 26, 2013

Botanist - IV: Mandragora

Review by Justin C.

Art by M.S. Waldron

For those who may still be unfamiliar with the strange, black metal phenomenon that is Botanist, here's the short course: Botanist is a one-man black metal band, and the two primary instruments are drums and hammered dulcimer--think of removing the soundboard from a piano so you can strike the strings directly with mallets, like a xylophone. The albums--four so far--are all about The Botanist, a man who really loves his plants but doesn't care too much for humans. They lyrics tell of his hopes and dreams for the destruction of the human race, leaving only plant life behind.

Botanist's fourth album, Mandragora, finds The Botanist raising an army of mandrakes, which in legend are humanoid plants with screams that can drive people mad or kill them outright. The track listing reads like an instruction manual for creating a human-destroying horde, with titles like "To Amass an Army," "Nourishing the Fetus," and "Mandrake Legion." Creating mandrakes is a fairly ghastly process that starts with hanging humans in trees, but I'll leave it to the reader to learn the rest of the details from the lyrics. The misanthropy in the music is pretty standard fare for black metal, but the context is certainly unique.

The menace in the music itself is ratcheted up a bit from the previous recordings. The dulcimer is distorted for the first time, making it sound like some kind of evil harpsichord. Check out the sinister bass line--another Botanist first--in the second track, "Nightshade," or when the vocals rise from the usual low croak to a pained scream in "Nourishing the Fetus." None of these bits are particularly wild deviations from the previous albums, but given the self-imposed limitations on the instrumentation, even the slightest changes can seem monumental.

What has impressed me most with the progression of these albums is the quality of the songcraft. I hesitate to use the phrase "novelty act" because of its negative connotations, but when your main melodic instrument is as unusual in metal as a hammered dulcimer, you can't create four albums worth of material--certainly not material that's worth listening to--without solid songwriting. The melodies on the previous album, Doom in Bloom, are haunting and lovely, and Botanist has kept that up on Mandragora. The song "To Amass an Army" could almost be a ballad, were it not about trying to destroy all of humanity with ambulatory plant monsters.

If the first three albums weren't your cup of tea, it's unlikely that Mandragora will convert you. But, if you haven't bothered with the previous releases because the whole thing sounds like a bit too much to take, I'd urge you to dip into "Doom in Bloom" or Mandragora and reconsider your opinion. I've read that the man behind Botanist may have as many as five more albums in the works for the series, making this potentially one of the strangest and most epic musical arcs in any kind of pop music.

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  1. I love the fact that the sound is so individual. Love what he does with the dulcimer. Music stands on it's own though aside from the fact that he uses an odd instrument.

    1. My thoughts exactly. An acquaintance of mine that used to play in an indie rock band once told me that if he couldn't strip away all the effects and play one of his songs on nothing but a beat-up old acoustic guitar or a junky piano and still make it interesting, then it wasn't a very good song. Good songs should be able to, at least in part, transcend the instruments and the sounds we're used to hearing, and Botanist certainly proves that.

    2. Agreed that you could play good black metal songs on an acoustic guitar, it just wouldn't black metal really. The harshness is missing. What really makes this album work for me is the distorted dulcimer which moves it closer to a 'real' metal sound.

    3. It's an interesting point. Did you consider his earlier, non-distorted-dulcimer recordings "less" black metal? I was comfortable (more or less) calling them black metal because of the Abbath-ian croaked vocals and the general lyrical content, but the line between what is and isn't black metal could be hazy.

    4. Yeah, I guess I do. Metal isn't _really_ metal without a distorted lead instrument - be it guitar or hammered dulcimer. IMHO off course.

  2. speaking of acoustic black metal, Austrasian Goat doing an acoustic version of a Darkthrone song - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RF5XNuIyjhY