MacDara Conroy reviews IV: Mandragora, the latest grim fairy tale from arboreal avant black metal act BotanistI realised the hammered dulcimer was the hipster instrument du jour when in town recently one afternoon, passing through the Grafton St/Wicklow St axis, I walked by not one but two different buskers playing the feckers. And not very well, I might add. Someone who does play the hammered dulcimer very well, however – and completely destroying that hipster tag in the process – is Otrebor, the shadowy figure behind the one-man arboreal black metal project Botanist. Upon the simultaneous release of its first two albums – I: The Suicide Tree and II: A Rose From the Dead – on Andee Connors’ eclectic tUMULt label in 2011, Botanist emerged not a sapling but a fully formed growth, exhibiting a confidently idiosyncratic sound comprising just vocals, drums and, yes, dulcimer.
When Otrebor plays the hammered dulcimer on those first records, the emphasis is most definitely on the ‘hammered’ part – he whacks the bejaysus out of those strings, all the while howling and cackling plant-obsessed lyrics like a mad witch casting spells over a bubbling cauldron. And then there’s that hollow tree-stump snare sound, as if he’s ignoring the skins entirely and just playing the rims. Tap-tappity-tap. It reads ridiculous I’m sure, but those elements really do entwine into a captivating blend of off-kilter melodies and decaying drones, hopping from one idea to the next like a medieval Robert Pollard, most songs barely breaking the two-minute mark if that. And it’s all wrapped up in a narrative ‘lore’ concerning the titular Botanist, a crazed man of science retreated to his ‘Verdant Realm’, and the spirits that dwell there awaiting the extinction of humanity. The most succinct description for the Botanist experience, at least on those first records, is ‘weird’. But that weirdness is what makes it so special.
Last year’s III: Doom in Bloom took a different tack, featuring slower, drawn-out arrangements with intricately layered melodies, owing far greater to doom than black metal in essence. At the same time, Otrebor channels the voice of the Botanist in a more human register for much of the record, and hides his vocals lower in the mix. And while the percussion is bigger in density and volume, it’s also more anonymous, and grounded in this ordinary realm – which makes sense upon learning that the drums were recorded for an abandoned doom record even before the conception of the Botanist project. The end result, however, is the Botanist sound loses some of its character and personality, even if I can see what Otrebor was trying to achieve with it. (The accompanying disc of full-band collaborations and reinterpretations, Allies, is an interesting digression but a digression nonetheless.)
So now we come to the fourth chapter in the Botanist’s grim fairy tale, IV: Mandragora, which finds a home on San Francisco ‘dark music’ label The Flenser. Thematically, it heralds the coming of an army of mandrakes to destroy humanity and reclaim the earth for its plantlife; musically it sits somewhere between the restlessness of the first records and the determined slowness of Doom in Bloom. From the first strains of ‘Arboreal Gallows (Mandragora I)’ it’s pleasing to hear the return of that forest-hewn drum sound and a more forceful vocal mix, yet this time in a cloudier atmosphere conjured by that dreamlike, almost shoegaze dulcimer riff. The focused ‘Nightshade (Mandragora II)’ is similarly swathed in a low-fi haze of string vibrations and feedback. This addition of noise to the Botanist arsenal is welcome in theory, but while it works in places – the brooding ‘To Amass An Army (Mandragora III)’ and ‘Nourishing the Fetus (Mandragora IV)’, and the epic closer ‘Rhyncholaelia Glauca’, mostly benefit from the added crackle and buzz – the results elsewhere are too intrusive. The overwhelming miasma of rigging dulcimer vibrations on ‘Mandrake Legion (Mandragora V)’ bleeds over the rumbling bass drums and woodpecker blastbeats till they’re virtually drowned out. And there’s a barely detectable ghost of the overlapping melodic lines of ‘Sophira Tetraptera’ that are flattened by the lack of sonic fidelity.
That production choice could be an attempt to evoke the mindbending chaos of a marching plant army, or just a mistaken regression; I’m in two minds about it. When such things take your head out of the music, maybe the battle’s already lost. But the strength of the compositions here shouldn’t be ignored; they feel like a natural progression, and show Otrebor’s willingness to learn from himself. If IV: Mandragora makes anything clear it’s that Botanist is an evolving thing, for better and for worse. It’s an organism growing in self-awareness. And it’ll be interesting to see what it mutates into next.