Posted by: Necci – Aug 21, 2012
Anybody who has been an avid fan of music in whatever its forms for any substantial length of time might find it hard to be genuinely surprised by anything at this point. There's a lot of impressive, moving, or even technically proficient work out there, but with each spectacular album taken in, the shock of hearing genuinely novel music for the first time wears down until the listening experience is reduced to appreciation without awe. One could defer to the axiom that there's nothing new under the sun, and in most cases that would be correct. But every now and then something comes from so far out of left field that it's disorienting in its strangeness and uniqueness. Last year's pair of releases from Botanist were an excellent example; two albums consisting of a melange of components so seemingly incongruous that it's hard to imagine the songs existing at all: a single musician playing one of the more unique takes on black metal to date, using only drums, vocals, and hammered dulcimer, with lyrics about botanical matters crystallizing into an account of a scientist retreating into nature in the face of humanity's devastation. It was strange, difficult music that managed to alienate many of the people it most impressed. After hearing so singular a concept, taken to so extensive an extreme (interesting as the idea is, the length of two albums is a long time to sit through most things, much less dulcimer blastbeats), it was difficult to imagine how Botanist could take the concept anywhere without becoming repetitive. But that same defiance of expectation that made the first two albums compelling characterizes the newest release, another double album that pairs a disc of new solo work with another featuring a variety of artists who have constructed new songs using the drum tracks featured on the first disc.
Maybe it's just because of the stark contrast with its predecessor, but Doom In Bloom is oddly accessible. Gone are the rapidfire succession of minute-long blasts and harsh tangles of dulcimer overtones underpinning croaking vocals. The songs instead stretch from between seven and thirteen minutes, allowing all the melodic components, unconventional as they may be, to shine through and breathe. There's a triumphant, almost exuberant feel to the songs, despite their apocalyptic overtones. That the songs tend to be slow to mid-tempo (though occasional faster moments do occur – most notably on segments of “Amanita Virosa”) emphasizes the dulcimer's strengths as a melodic instrument – namely its tendency for individual notes to sustain and interact with their successors, something that often lent the first two Botanist albums a knotty, discordant feel but on Doom In Bloom conveys upon it an impression of individual notes cascading over top of one another, building on each other before receding back to nothing. Occasionally other instrumentation is employed, some bell-like tones in “Panax” or what sounds like a harmonium in “Vriesea”, but the instrumentation is roughly the same as before, only more expansive and better developed. Similarly, there's slightly more variation with the vocals as well – though the black metal screech and the demonic croak are still present, large swaths of the songs rely on instrumental passages and a greater emphasis on slightly more subtle textural use of the voice.
I'm assuming, given the numerical continuity in the titling, that Doom In Bloom is a conceptual extension of Botanist's previous releases. However, while those tended to nestle intimations of cryptic narrative into fairly literal, if reverential, depictions of plant life, the newest starts out with a stronger declaration of plot, detailing a demon named Azalea who's controlling plants in an attempt to eradicate humanity and all traces of its destructive tendencies. From there, the lyrics tend to recall the earlier albums more strongly (if there's symbolism or nuance that I'm missing, and I feel like there probably is, it's because I myself am no botanist and a Google search can only be so enlightening). There's a strong duality present between the depiction of plants that can sustain life and those that can end it, with “Ganoderma Lucidum” and “Ocimum Sanctum” representing the former and “Amanita Virosa” and “Deathcap” demonstrating the latter, an implicit reflection of the inextricability of being and its complementary opposite, a meditation on the perpetual push forward that each gives the other. Some of the material seems less obviously related to the overarching thematic concept, such as “Vriesea,” essentially a list of plant species. That most of these seem to be native to tropical regions (thanks Wikipedia) may reflect some facet of the larger theme (doubt it's a coincidence), something about regional fertility perhaps, it's hard to say with any certainty. Which is admirable really – there are so many artists whose concept albums, especially where political and environmental issues are concerned, are heavy-handed and didactic. So to hear an approach to the subject that's far more opaque, if not always subtle, is refreshing.
The album's second disc, Allies, is considerably more varied in both tone and quality. Each of the artists, despite basing their contribution on a Botanist drum track, take a vastly different tack. Some are extremely successful – Arborist (a perfect band name match for Botanist if I ever heard one) contributes a weird, gnarled chunk of folky metal that sounds like a halfway point between Tom Waits and Striborg, complete with woozy slide guitar and theremin clawing their way out from under layers of distortion; Bestiary (featuring members of Creation Is Crucifixion, Human Quena Orchestra, and Grayceon) offers a solid example of ethereal, gothic doom metal; and the Dutch sound artist Matushka bookends the album with meditative yet unsettling dark ambient soundscapes. Others aren't necessarily as great, though, with songs like Lotus Thief's “Nymphaea Carulea” sounding like a warped, low-fidelity version of Evanescence, or something equally difficult to imagine in relation to the project as a whole.
It's difficult, however, to consider Allies in the same context as Doom In Bloom, despite its successes. It's a fascinating concept, an ambitious extention of the album proper, and (one can only imagine) quite a logistical hurdle. Some of the material I would absolutely love to hear more of, but even the most compelling material often diverges so dramatically from Botanist's conceptual approach that the core philosophy threatens to be side-tracked. Some of the lyrics are actually really well-written (the Arborist song comes to mind) and some are far less adept (the Ophidian Forest song runs with the plants versus people concept but phrases it like it's a Cannibal Corpse song, complete with clunky metaphors propping up forced rhymes), but ultimately none of the other artists' work really captures one of the unique aesthetic facets of the Botanist project that has so defined it so far.
But this willingness to take chances and to avoid the path of least resistance is one of the great things about Botanist's music. In addition to being thoroughly unlike anything I've heard, it's work that's as daring conceptually as it is musically. While the band's earlier albums were spectacular and wholly realized, they were somewhat off-putting in their lyrical density and jarring dissonance. Doom In Bloom refines both halves, fortifying the thematic content so that the concept can be comprehended more clearly and stretching the songs' structure so that the melodic intricacy can be drawn out, but neither straying from nor dumbing down the approach. And while the general aesthetic is similar in many ways to previous Botanist albums, it's still a unique, beautiful, and thoroughly strange release, independent from its predecessors in as many ways as it is a continuation of them.
By Graham Scala