Review: Botanist Pushes Their Dulcimer Black Metal Forward with VIII: Selenotrope
Although ostensibly in line with the atmospheric black metal scene, Botanist constantly rejects convention. The San Francisco project’s entire concept centers on the use of Hammered Dulcimers instead of guitars. This unorthodox instrumentation has led Botanist’s discography down many interesting rabbit-holes—apparently only getting accepted into the Metal Archives database because of their 2020 album Photosynthesis. Regardless of whether that album stears closer to traditional metal than albums like Ecosystem (2019) or The Shape of He to Come (2017), their follow up Selenotrope doubles down on Botanist’s avant-garde tendencies and throws some pretty cool new ideas into the mix.
Principal songwriter Otrebor has progressed far past the point of approaching his plant-obsessed dulcimer metal as a simple sum of its parts. It’s frankly astounding that opener “Against the Selenic Light” can sound so natural with blast beats driving the instrument’s tinny resonance. The more noticeable departure becomes the vocals, which exchange screams for literal whispers. Call it “black metal ASMR” if you want, but it’s more effective than it might seem. The whispered vocals have a cadence and pitching similar to regular black metal screams, while cementing a gentler vibe for the album. This doesn’t come at the expense of energetic percussion melodic motions, but toning back the harshest aspect of most black metal, the vocals, is the biggest chance this album takes (and wins!).
Look no farther than the driving double kick drumming and blast beats of “Risen From the Rain” to hear the continued exuberance of the musicians Otrebor has assembled for this album. If anything, lack of competition with harsh vocals puts more emphasis on the complex melodicism and dancing arpeggios found in each dulcimer performance. Indeed, the instrument more than cuts through the mix hooked up to electric pickups, making the whimsical chords of “Epidendrum Nocturnum” not only functional, but powerful. This track also spotlights Selenotrope’s other secret weapon, Otrebor’s melodic singing voice. Botanist has never featured singing this densely harmonised, lending another unique timbre to distinguish this iteration of the band’s sound.
The improved singing really takes the cake on cuts like “Angels Trumpet,” especially in the chorus department. Equally important, the arrangements are more than worthy of these harmonious, uplifting choruses. Ironically, Botanist has carved out their niche to the point where the “dulcimer metal” angle stops mattering as much as the universal quality of the songwriting. Otrebor’s vision clearly stems from an emotional core, not just interesting aesthetics for their own sake. Granted, no one could find aesthetics like the dulcimer-only title track, but its true memorability boils down to beautiful musicality and ambient depth. It’s hard not to imagine Selenotropic flowers blooming in the moonlight (how black metal is that?) as spectral notes ring and decay in the cold air.
As Botanist’s longest album yet, deeper cuts like “Mirabilis” and the 15 minute closer “Sword of the Night” have more at stake for meriting their inclusion and length. The former’s bass line becomes its saving grace in this way, as Tony Thomas follows the pristine dulcimer chimes with a warm, nuanced cadence. In a similar way, Botanist saves some more propulsive, punky beats for last to give the album’s last hurrah more ways to stand out. But once the tempo drops during the midsection, the singing takes over sounding like a choir of woodland elves. Between these additions and the latent entry of quivering organ drones, the final few minutes of the track surge back with the combined energy of every past element. The irony becomes that even at their most forceful, the album’s delicate undercurrent shines through till the last.
Botanist have more than established their territory in weird metal music, but Selenotrope shows that they can still unveil new aspects of their sound. Otrebor continues to push themselves as songwriters, and this continues to pay dividends well over a decade into the project’s existence. By any stylistic metric, the aura of Botanist has reached an impressive precipice this time around.
Botanist’s Selenotrope is out now via Prophecy Productions.