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Album Review: BOTANIST Paleobotany

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7.5 Reviewer

Botanist is a black metal band that uses hammered dulcimers instead of guitars. Back in 2009, this might've been enough to raise people's eyebrows. But after 15 years and 11 full-lengths, the brainchild of one Otrebor has needed to progress beyond its bizarre instrumentation.

Evolving from a solo project to a full band, the songwriting behind Botanist has measurably grown. Not only that, but the soundscapes themselves have become especially interesting in recent releases. Take last year's Selenotrope for instance, in which the usually screamed vocals took on a whispery quality. For Paleobotany, the vocals again become the most obvious change. Otrebor's clean vocals stake a powerful, emotive claim on this album. The results, while more accessible, show Botanist striving to become more than an experiment and become a more universal addition to the pantheon of modern music.

The decision to switch things up like this pays dividends right off the bat because it emphasizes that nothing about "Aristolochia" should surprise anyone who has heard even some of Botanist's music. The tinny, reverberant ringing of the dulcimer does exactly what it should within the black metal context, with the drums and bass giving the propulsion and bulk necessary to fill out the arrangements. But Otrebor's vocals immediately become the show stopper, striking a balance between the ethereal serenades of Neige (Alcest) and the theatrical austerity of Kristoffer Rygg (Ulver). Perhaps to stress this new direction, the opening track has practically no growls at all, and even when they arrive they're noticeably now in the mix. The dynamics and harmonic tension of the clean singing take center stage.

There's something undeniably awesome about a blast beat accompanied by singing instead of screaming, which is exactly why the chorus of "When Forests Turned to Coal" hits so hard. The dulcimers spiral through layers of harmony and dissonance alongside a truly beautiful vocal performance, topped off by bassy throat singing. The effects of this melodic approach help open the Botanist up to different sonic territories, like the groovy bass line that starts "Magnolis." Even so, the rhythm section never deviates too far from the atmospheric black metal foundations, which in turn keeps the dulcimers returning to the Burzum-ish quality they've possessed (at least, in the realm of chords, moving lines, and modulations).

The overarching awesomeness of Paleobotany is how firmly Botanist has established itself as far more than an experiment with unorthodox instrumentation. A track like "Archaeamphora," by any standard, is a great addition to prog-ish music. Even as it uses the good-cop-bad-cop vocal interplay, the sheer beauty and ambiance of the track just deepen over its six-minute run time. In some instances, the bass takes more of the spotlight than the dulcimers, which says a lot. Even when a cut like "The Impact That Built the Amazon" focuses entirely on the dulcimer, it serves as an acoustic ballad with soulful lyricism. The point is, Otrebor and company are focusing more and more on songwriting, and it's paying off.

As the album progresses it seems that Botanist only gets more comfortable with its chosen form, as "Sigillaria" comes off more like a Pink Floyd song than anything remotely black metal. Think of it like Katatonia or Opeth, channeling their unique musicianship into something less punishing. It works quite naturally, considering how patently non-heavy dulcimers are. Perhaps it's a natural extension, instead of locking in with the growl-centered "Strychnos Electri." In this way, deeper cuts like this veer closer to classic Botanist than the first handful of songs.

In this way, long-time fans of Paleobotany will still get plenty of the dulcimer black metal goodness they've come to love. The only real issue becomes the way the lower, more death-metally vocal delivery is a bit of a contrast with the high-end trills of the instrumentation. It's not badly performed, but at least some of those sorrowful black metal shrieks would have been a nice contrast to the bestial snarlings on "Wollemia Nobilis." Luckily, any slack is suitably picked up by "Dioon," with its excitable drum soloing, multilayer vocal harmonies (a la Viking-era Bathory), and almost djenty drums.

For the album to come full circle for a final burst of melodious jubilation through "Royal Protea" speaks to how much emotional ground Botanist successfully covers. Overwhelming, yet calming, Botanist continues to find new ways of bringing their sound into new territories. They could have used their "dulcimer metal" as a gimmick but instead used it to carve an ever-deeper niche in the modern underground.

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