Though not exactly my favorite band in the metal canon, there are few acts I’m more excited to talk about than Botanist. While some avant-garde bands attempt to breach genre boundaries by removing as many traditional melodies and discernible rhythm patterns as possible while still qualifying as music, these Californians take an experimental approach by simply modifying the tools of the trade. By swapping six-string guitars for the obscure yet beautiful hammered dulcimer, they practice modern black metal on a structural level with a completely unique sound capable of moments more beautiful and more terrifying than one is likely to find anywhere else in the genre. Collective: The Shape of He to Come, their seventh LP in as many years, is an attempt to further not only the boundaries of the scene but also their own aesthetic. It’s hampered by issues that have plagued Botanist since their inception, but it’s a marked evolution and an impactful album nonetheless.
The Collective header of this record is meant to highlight a break from Botanist’s main line of albums as their first team effort. Whereas vocalist/drummer/dulcimist(?) Otrebor previously handled all songwriting and instrumental duties, the band’s live lineup has provided contributions on this particular outing. TSoHtC‘s sound is distinctly familiar in a way that only a band as unique as Botanist can pull off, but collaborative input has brought marked changes. Layered, melancholic cleans largely replace Otrebor’s harsh vox and the average track length has greatly increased, but far more significant adjustments have been made to the band’s dulcimer arrangements. The Botanist of old channeled the unbridled forces of nature in its simplicity; Botanist on The Shape, conversely, comes across a complex marriage of abrasive black metal and spiritual grandeur. There’s a borderline religious level of reverence accompanying the grandiose, cascading note progressions, and for much of the album, the effect is completely captivating.
Despite the record’s majestic tone, there’s a sort of loose playfulness to many of the dulcimer performances that deliver a contrasting sense of levity. Melodic patterns jump huge spaces between notes in quick succession like ricocheting raindrops, and the resulting effect, while technical, perfectly reflects Botanist’s pro-nature thesis. The compositions, while consistently intriguing, can feel a bit long-winded; at ten minutes apiece, the three “metal” tracks feel a bit bloated and occasionally disjointed. The title track, in particular, suffers from the latter issue, featuring a jarring instrumental break at its midpoint that sounds like it should be a transition into a new track altogether. Even so, the intricacy of Botanist‘s soundscapes sweeps me up in the catharsis; while listening in the moment the songwriting issues melt away, and it’s only on post-listening reflection that these problems become obvious.
The more pressing concern with TSoHtC, in keeping with Botanist tradition, is the record’s production. There are certainly worse sounding Botanist records, but it’s a damned shame that the sonic evolution didn’t have a greater impact on the engineering. The snare drum, when coupled with the unadventurous drum performances, creates a metronome-like effect that’s hypnotic in a way that some will love and others will loathe. Meanwhile, the lightly distorted dulcimer drowns out much of the mix aside from the choir-like clean vocals, which I find a bit dispassionate in execution. “And the World Throws Off its Oppressors” thankfully provides relief from any production mishaps as a nostalgic, stripped-down folk tune that recalls memories of good times by the campfire. The opening and closing tracks are similarly minimalist affairs that grant the album unexpected and welcome variety, with the back end of the opener (“Praise Azalea the Adversary”) hinting at the atonal cacophony that accents much of the record in disturbing fashion.
The Shape of He to Come is a complex work that, admittedly, took several spins to connect with me. It’s not as immediately engrossing as many of Botanist‘s older albums, and I think that the shorter tracks of a record like VI: Flora might be a better starting point for newcomers to the band and their unique, potentially jarring approach. Yet despite some bloated cuts and disappointing production, this is a beautiful effort that transcends its surface level problems and stands out in the context of the band’s catalog, even if it’s not strictly their best. There’s truly nothing else that sounds like Botanist, and as a direct result of The Shape, I’m intensely curious to hear where Otrebor’s willingness to explore new ground will take his avant-garde oddity.
DR: 8 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Avantgarde Music
Websites: verdant-realm-botanist.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/Verdant.Realm.Botanist
Releases Worldwide: September 1st, 2017