Botanist blend sincerity and experimentation on the warm yet mysterious VIII: Selenotrope, challenging a scene swamped in memes and gimmicks to approach their sometimes bizarre but always beautiful sounds and words with openness and seriousness.
Release Title: VIII: Selenotrope
Label: Prophecy Productions
Release Date: May 19th, 2023
Location: San Francisco, California
Written by George
Memeification has been a blessing and a curse on black metal. At its best, it enables online communities of fans to undermine those purists whose paragraph-spewing elitism so often makes the genre itself a laughing stock in the eyes of others, as well as lending us a means by which to gently lampoon the trite and the gimmicky without – usually – resorting to bullying artists and their followers. On the other hand, though, it can license an attitude of insincerity that distances us from the notion of ever taking anything seriously, and at its worst it allows genuinely hateful sentiments to creep in under the guise of satire and comedy. For an example, look no further than the bile spouted on YouTube channel Hipster Black Metal, where one can enjoy “parody” videos in which female black metal artists are publicly mocked for their appearance and people of colour are insulted for their interest in the genre. Or don’t look there – the guy doesn’t deserve your views anyway.
Given the universal power of the meme, it’s something of a miracle that San Francisco’s black metal plant-worshippers Botanist have managed to fly largely under the memers’ radar. I vaguely recall seeing a photo of a guy in corpse paint watering some flowers once (if you’re reading this you probably know the one), but I honestly can’t think of any others besides that rather light-hearted (and, frankly, quite funny) example. And that, I think, is a good thing. If Botanist were doing what they do as a gimmick or to get a reaction from the scene then of course they’d deserve everything that MS Paint and the Impact font could throw at them. I am confident, though, as a years-long collector of and listener to Botanist, that this music – while employing the brazenly unconventional method of swapping guitar for hammered dulcimer and featuring lyrics almost all of which concern the decidedly un-Satanic matter of plants and fungi – is written absolutely from the heart, with the utmost care and sincerity, and expresses its creator’s genuine fascination with the world of green things.
While this view has been at the back of my mind for some time, VIII: Selenotrope is the album that, for me, drove home how amply we are rewarded for daring to take Botanist seriously. Previous albums in the numbered series (the Roman numerals denote mastermind Otrebor’s solo creative efforts, while the unnumbered albums are written in collaboration with other members) have painted vibrant pictures and invited us into the strange, wonderful and often hostile “Verdant Realm” in which much of the lyrical content takes place, from the thorny, twisting, grindcore-short passages of I: The Suicide Tree / II: A Rose from the Dead to the epic tale of the mandrake army rising up against mankind as told on IV: Mandragora. Only very rarely, though, have we felt anything like the gentleness and warmth suffusing this eighth instalment.
Opener ‘Against the Selenic Light’ eases long-time listeners into this new sound gently, still showcasing Botanist’s trademark buzzy, percussive sound with unapologetic force – though already there is a softness in the layering of the instrumentation and in the spacious melodic lines, complemented by whispered vocals that, as we soon learn, have entirely replaced the screeches which constitute one of the very few compositional elements that earlier albums hold in common with traditional black metal. The Botanist – Otrebor’s conceptual recording persona – is no longer furiously warding off human interlopers into the Verdant Realm, but has instead become newly tender under cover of night, coaxing the nocturnally-blooming flowers after which VIII: Selenotrope is named into full display – ‘in a singular annual performance’, we hear him breathe just over a minute in.
With second track ‘Risen from the Rain’, these hints of warmth blossom forth. Major-key black metal is an ever-pleasing rarity, but Otrebor chooses not to force it upon us as such, first rolling through a chord progression that, though resolving to that major key, dips into a minor section that seems to inform the expression of joy with an underlying wisdom. Then, though, the piece erupts into a chorus of blastbeats that bring out the promised exultant colour. Those familiar with Botanist’s erstwhile output will have enjoyed a similar effect during the chorus of ‘Callistemon’ from 2014’s VI: Flora. I’ll get my sole, vanishingly minor gripe with this album out of the way now: while there are more such moments to come on the album, to my particular ear they don’t quite hit the way they could or should. I don’t know why – perhaps they’re too far apart, perhaps the melodies don’t quite reach me, or perhaps it’s something in the production, but whatever it is, I can’t help feeling that their warmth doesn’t quite reach me deep down. But on with the review.
‘Epidendrum Nocturnum’ is arguably the darkest track and the most reminiscent of Botanist’s earlier material, at least in its opening couple of minutes. Which is why the appearance of clean vocals – soft enough to feel almost reminiscent of a lullaby – just after the two-minute mark is so striking here. These lead into a spaced-out break that feels a little like an updated reworking of material from the creeping slowfest that was 2012’s III: Doom in Bloom, and which carries us smoothly into the meandering gentleness of its follow-up, ‘Mirabilis’.
‘Angel’s Trumpet’ brings us into the second half of the album, and as well as featuring a gorgeous clean-sung chorus constituting one of this reviewer’s favourite moments on the album, it expertly initiates a slow build toward the climax which comes – more or less inarguably – with the final track. Ascending vocal melodies mingle with a growing sense of sincerity and focus to create the sense that, while this evocative hymn is in itself a high point of the journey, something grander is yet to come. Without breaking the anticipation, ‘Selenotrope’, a clean instrumental track, provides us with a moment to breathe, bathing in an alien yet beautiful moonlight ambience. Some might feel that a title track ought to be some great anthem typifying an album’s whole sound, but I have just as much respect for those artists who bestow title-track status on a song that might otherwise be passed over as filler. It’s a fine stroke of arrangement that allows penultimate track ‘Sword of the Night’ to roll forth with an impact enhanced by the contrast. A little more serious, ‘Sword of the Night’’s dark verse melodies remind us of the night and its creatures – reproduced in the album’s stunning specially-commissioned artwork – pressing in around the pool of light in which these moon-blooming flowers’ performance takes place. Still, though, there is that sense of a rising and a building – to something unknown, yet enticing.
And so we come to ‘The Flowering Dragon’. As this 15-minute epic finale opens, single dulcimer notes ring over quietly restless drumrolls before erupting into full, triumphant instrumentation. A clean, major-key vocal line sings the culminating scene – ‘Flowering dragon in the darkness blooms/ By the shimmering light of the moon’. The hymnal quality of this album then emerges once again, as the mood of exultation gives way to a slow middle passage in which clean vocals layer one over the other in a harmony expressive of deep reverence. And then, following a short instrumental break, we come at last to the close of the album – perhaps, if such a term is even appropriate here, the ‘heaviest’ part of the album, thanks to the renewed vigour with which the Botanist hammers the strings of his dulcimer over sections of blastbeats, relenting only for brief moments before the clean vocals ascend with cinematic drama to the major fifth and resolve with pleasing finality to the keynote.
I am lucky enough to own the two-disc edition of VIII: Selenotrope, which features the sister album ‘Moonflower’. Aside from the fact that Botanist have more than earned their signing with such a prestigious label, it’s a wonderful thing that Prophecy Productions put so much thought into their special editions, not only as regards presentation, but also in terms of the material they include. Instead of throwing a few demo tracks or live recordings onto a bonus disc, Prophecy have allowed the Botanist to showcase an entire album’s worth of original ambient material – and yes, for many, this second disc probably won’t get many plays. There’s not much I can say about it on the surface other than that it’s eight tracks of pleasant moonish ambience. For attentive listeners, though, it not only lends depth and contrast to the ‘main event’ – it also stands in its own right as an alternative, more patience-demanding portal into the nighttime Verdant Realm. And as it happens, though I’ve neglected to mention it thus far, most tracks on VIII: Selenotrope themselves feature a good minute or two of instrumental ambience at their end, much in the fashion set by now-labelmates and collaborators Lotus Thief (for whom Otrebor provides drumming services) on their phenomenal 2014 debut Rervm. Given the space lent to these passages of calm, maybe we ought to start viewing them not as filler, but, collectively, as the still and quiet ground from which the energy and dynamism of drum and riff spring.
I’ll end by saying that I had the privilege of speaking with Otrebor on the merch table before a gig some years ago and he was one of the most chatty, charming and humble guys I’ve ever met. And, to boot, it was one of my favourite-ever live shows. The clarity of their sound meant they were able to perform the whole thing over a recording of singing birds. Reader, if you ever get the chance to witness Botanist’s singular performance, under no circumstances should you let it pass you by.
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