Monday, August 18, 2014

Botanist: VI: Flora (2014)

Fawning Over Flora

It’s always important to know where a reviewer is coming from. So in case you missed it, I’m a huge Botanist fanboy. I’ve been covering the band since the beginning, posting one of the earliest reviews and interviews with the band. The band has made multiple appearances on my year-end lists. I also have a Botanist patch from supporting the recent Kickstarter.* With that record set straight, you should also note how I’ve turned on bands I once loved in the past, when they’ve failed to deliver. But that won’t be an issue here.

Even if you don’t like what Botanist does, you must admit that it’s fascinating. In case you don’t know, this is the “black metal” band with an eco-terrorist storyline and hammered dulcimer instead of guitars. So with that ground completely unexplored, you can see there has been a lot of room for experimentation. (You might say it’s fertile ground.) This latest full-length has been a completely new experience, just as each before it, and it just might be the band’s best.

This review ended up being one of my longest, so you can skip down to "The Review Proper" if you're not interested in how this fits in with the rest of the band's discography, or current trends.

The Greater Context

To give the brief history, Botanist has always been working far ahead of the release schedule, with several albums written before the first was even released. The band’s first two albums were a double-album. These were, in retrospect, a crude but compelling direct port of black metal to the dulcimer. III: Doom in Bloom slowed things down considerably and added denser arrangements, for more of a doom angle. IV: Mandragora synthesized those approaches into a more fully-realized sound.

The fifth record has not yet been released, the stated reason being that the sixth is the better follow-up to the fourth. At first I speculated that it could just be the band/label being cute, or behind-the-scenes dealings holding up the fifth album (the band’s projects have been on several labels apparently by design). But upon hearing it, I believe it could be a very calculated decision to strike while the iron is hot. VI: Flora sounds like Botanist’s take on that brand of black metal so adored by the black metal tourists over at NPR and Pitchfork. The uplifting kind of black metal. So releasing Flora now makes perfect sense; in another year’s time, the mainstream fling with this kind of music may be over, so they might be getting more exposure and profit through that decision.

When reached for comment, Botanist mastermind Otrebor pointed out the first three songs were recorded before the first Botanist album was released, and the whole album was recorded before the end of 2011. This was before that style had garnered any mainstream notability.** This underscores the band's credibility and authenticity without refuting my theory about the release schedule. The historical record of course backs him up, as samples of several unreleased albums have been on since the beginning.***

The Review Proper

Opener “Stargazer” is nothing if not beautiful, while bright and shimmering notes abound throughout the recording. The caustic black metal rasping has been buried in the mix, as well. I also wouldn’t call the slower songs (“Rhizophora” and “Wisteria”) doomy, as the slower songs from the previous two full-lengths. But don’t mistake that for a de-fanged Botanist. (Or de-thorned, as it were.) The album is exceptionally dynamic, so there’s plenty of room for brutal blastbeat drums and unnerving dissonance between those more positive intervals. Yet even when it does sound positive, there is an undercurrent of menace. Longest track “Leucadendron Argenteum” is a fine microcosm of the album, alternating between light and heavy to glorious effect.

It’s almost a postscript to note that, as with the previous two albums, other instruments have been added to make the soundscape more lush (the harmonium is a notable inclusion). It’s not a thing that’s immediately apparent when you listen, but it is a nice touch.

It's also nice to see the return of the seemingly innocuous botanical illustration as cover art. I find that somehow more effective than the more traditionally "metal" illustrations that graced the last two covers.

Though I can’t say for certain without hearing V, it appears this is the next logical step for the Botanist. (Another fruitful experiment, perhaps.) VI: Flora keeps all the elements that make the project the stunning wonder that it is, pushing it to new frontiers with the added confidence and experience the previous efforts have accrued to its creator. Don’t be surprised when you see this one high on my list at year’s end.

The Verdict: 5 out of 5 stars

* And, full disclosure, I was sent a beanie as a gift because of my "journalist" status.

** The first Botanist album was released in July 2011, while Roads to Judah and Aesthethica were released in April and May 2011, respectively. This is certainly long before Sunbather sounded a brown note in the hipster press.

*** After reading this review, Otrebor repeated that Flora was simply the best album they had to release right now. He said more, but the short story is the fate of the fifth Botanist album is still uncertain. He gave me the strong impression that it will see the light of day at some point.

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