Review: Botanist ‘Paleobotany’

Of all the words used to describe Botanist, the one that might do it best is ‘unconventional’. Their early offerings were some of the most utterly raw and sonically unique offerings in black metal: a minimalist combination of blasting percussion, tremolo riffing hammered dulcimers, and almost comically grim vocals; misanthropic lyrical diatribes that focussed on specific species of plants; an imagery and narrative of the lone, nature-obsessed, hermit-esque Botanist that felt so vivid it might just be real. Botanist skewed the genre’s conventions, whilst simultaneously showing a certain reverence to the black metal ethos.

Botanist 'Paleobotany' Artwork
Botanist ‘Paleobotany’ Artwork

Hailing from San Francisco and having released a lot of music via The Flenser, Botanist are often lumped together with post-black metal/blackgaze bands like Deafheaven, Bosse-de-Nage and Cormorant. But, even with their unconventional approach, Botanist have always had far more in common with more traditional black metal.

My early interest in them was mostly driven by intrigue more than a deep enjoyment of their music. However, since debuting in 2011, their musical output has become steadily more expansive, and the act has grown from a one-man outfit to a full band, with founder Otrebor leading a lineup that has changed and adapted through the years.

Unsurprisingly, the music has also followed suit. Over their last three albums, the group has increasingly introduced lush layers of instruments, vociferous drums, big roaring growls and emotive clean singing combined with progressive and ambitious songwriting, in addition to lyrical themes that feel far less cryptic and caustic.

It’s a path well-trodden by many traditional black metal bands. Think of the progress of Enslaved, Ulver, Ihsahn and others, and you get the picture of the direction Botanist have driven their music. This progress has all reached a pinnacle with Paleobotany. It’s a wonderful album, full of grandiose, majestic and often beautiful songs about the natural world before mankind.

The core of the album’s tracks strikes a balance between melancholia and darkness. In tracks such as When Forests Turn To Coal, Strychnos Electri and Wollemia Nobilis you’ll find twisting, grim melodies that transform into rich progressive passages. There is a wonderful flow to these tracks that feel remarkably natural despite their complexity.

It’s a wonderful album, full of grandiose, majestic and often beautiful songs about the natural world before mankind…

The growling vocals that lead these tracks roar with real depth, and they’re placed just perfectly in the mix to be focal without overpowering the instrumentation below. Even on Archaeamphora and Dioon, with their epic clean and choral vocals, there is a perfect balance of sounds that almost becomes hypnotic.

There also tracks with an overall more positive sheen such as Aristolochia, Magnolia and Sigillaria. These tracks are primarily lead by the clean vocals, which really do stand out with a dynamic delivery that still feels melodically focussed. The absolute sublime album closer Royal Protea is unexpectedly succinct but feels like a total summation of everything this record is aiming for, both musically and lyrically.

In the middle of all of this, there is the truly breathtaking The Impact That Built The Amazon. Using just clean vocals and hammered dulcimer it brings all the energy of the album into a beautiful, sombre, reflective point making it a perfect centrepiece.

The hammered dulcimers, which sound somewhere between a guitar, a harp and a piano, have an intangible quality that in this context, remains completely unique. It’s the core sound that sets Botanist apart musically. Even as the musical structures and ambitions develop, there is an instrumental thread that continues to tie everything together.

Paleobotany truly feels like a peak for Botanist. There is an almost perfect balance between anguish and radiance, agony and ethereality, woe and sanguinity. While their early albums felt like a treatise on humanity’s futility in the face of the natural world’s power, Paleobotany is different. This record appears like a guide to the lessons humanity can learn from nature, and how we can better humanity by remembering that plants were here before us and will be here long after we are gone.

Label: Prophecy Productions
Band Links: Facebook | Bandcamp | Spotify | Instagram

Scribed by: Will J