As weirdly matched as Thief and Botanist might seem, this split LP was inevitable. Thief’s mastermind Dylan Neal actually played in Botanist before he forged his own path of repurposing Gregorian chants as electro-industrial music. The projects share an experimental edge, which begs the question of whether they’ll bring the best of each other in a joint project. Botanist’s Cicatrix side marks a return to their primal roots, while Thief’s Diamond Brush side emphasizes rock instrumentation more than ever.
To Botanist’s credit, they’re no longer “the band who plays black metal with hammered dulcimers instead of guitars.” The unorthodox instrumentation is too natural to comment on as a gimmick. Cicatrix can be appraised on its musicianship and songwriting alone. In that regard, people who hopped on board with Botanist with Collective (2017) or Photosynthesis (2020) might get thrown off by the abject rawness of opener “Juglans Nigra.”
The brittleness of the dulcimers and whispery vocals recall a prior era of Botanist, which makes sense considering the majority of these songs originated from an experimental session that occurred between IV: Mandragora (2013) and VI: Flora (2014). The most DIY aesthetic remains the drums, which ride the line between loose and sloppy playing. It certainly comes off like people hitting hammered dulcimers and screaming in a basement, but that’s really the charm of cuts like “Styrax” and “Antirrhinum.”
Averaging out at two minutes, the two tracks’ stripped-down approach doesn’t lack Botanist’s unique atmosphere and melodic sensibilities. It’s actually refreshing to hear the band’s core instruments getting straight to the point, recalling a time where atmo-black-metal wasn’t dependent on elongated songs.
“Cicatrix” takes more time to elaborate and marinate on certain ideas, stressing the artistic legitimacy of the approach Botanist took during these sessions. But the true surprise of Cicatrix comes via the remixes of singles “Balete” and “Streptocarpus,” which were released last year. With lusher arrangements and more hard-hitting production, it’s a welcome ending to what’s otherwise a throwback to Botanist’s earlier sound.
Up until this point, Thief has preferred sampling and synths over real instruments—so the opener of the Diamond Brush side of this split compares to Uniform’s transition from Wake In Fright (2017) to The Long Walk (2018). “Hyena” comes through with whacking half-time drums and a filthy guitar tone, as Neal balances chanted and melodic vocalizations. It’s certainly a contrast to the neo-classical electro-industrial of The 16 Deaths of My Master (released on the same day, no less), but it goes to show how Neal doesn’t rely on his niche to write compelling music.
In fact, the more rock-ish passages make the sampled choir music stand out even more, as heard on “Acid Queen.” The sampled vocal harmonies emerge much more emphatically, often becoming a transitional point between electro-acoustics and pure electronic music. In either case, Thief continues its quest to create certified bangers from sacred music. The aggression of the beats in “Firethroat” have a similar appeal to metal-adjacent electronic/rock artists like Health. To a similar effect, the title track comes through with brooding dissonance, bombastic switch-ups and emotive singing.
Where it’s the witch-house-meets-break-beat vibes of “2700 Years” or seismic synth-bass, twangy guitars and plodding syncopation of “Corpse Sprout,” Neal always finds a way to tastefully implement church music into his soundscape. The latter brings the heaviest guitar riffs ever put on a Thief song, as noise patches and ominous modulations rise to a fever pitch. And yet, the song drops down to nasty rhythm break in an instant. Neal’s ability to combine haunting dynamics and club-ready beats continues to put him in a class of his own.
Cicatrix and Diamond Brush provides an interesting takes on Botanist and Thief. The former unveils an overlooked portion of its dulcimer black metal pilgrimage, while the latter shows a side no one has heard until now. Thief takes the bigger “W,” actively fleshing out his style as the less popular of the two, but as a whole this split provides a nexus of creativity that no one could find anywhere else.