The latest chapter in a series of LPs released by Botanist, the brainchild of Bay Area music savant and naturalism-enthusiast Otrebor, Flora marks a significant step forward for the “black metal with a hammered dulcimer” concept. The album offers a more textured, resonant and rich-timbered sound than previous releases, and contains moments of rare, strange beauty that prove the dulcimer is no gimmick.
Botanist´s sound benefits from being both alien and familiar. The drumbeats and simple repetitive riffs recall nineties black metal. But the winding, ascending notes and resonance of the dulcimer create a bright, iridescent quality that suggests ever-changing sunlight filtered through a floral prism. The music tends to crescendo, as the hammer strikes louder and more assuredly, providing a warm, summery and yet wholly unconventional mood that always seems to be working towards something. Whereas simply having a guitar might generate a pleasant gray but ultimately flat hum, the dulcimer sounds out with an almost brassy percussive bombast, functioning as secondary beat as well as a melody. It comes packed with its own reverb and delay, sounding almost electronic in the black metal-esque context, but also feels ancient, like a simple mantra calling down through the ages.
I use “black metal” here as convenient shorthand (so you know to expect shrieks and blast beats), but nothing in Botanist´s current sound relates to the old, and admittedly stale, Norse ways. There is no grim or depressive pretense, frostbitten sparseness, or any effort to conform to genre expectations—only the drums and growls anchor it to tradition. Otrebor has embraced the possibilities of the hammered dulcimer, adding a sense of excitement and joy to his ongoing botanical obsessions, instead of reveling in the bleak mood of ecological apocalypse that sometimes animated his earliest efforts. Flora makes you want to visit the forest or greenhouse instead of running away from them.
Sometimes the simplicity of the music slides too comfortably into a slightly dull repetition where the sameness becomes overpowering and, to be perfectly honest, a little boring. This is in part a limitation of the instrumentation, the narrow expressive range of the dulcimer as a melodic instrument. But it´s a small price to pay for something truly new, an expansion of the heavy metal toolbox, and I hope Botanist´s music helps open a path to more percussive, resounding sounds in metal, instead of just using major chords and calling it innovation like some other US “post”black metal bands that shall remain nameless. Botanist may have a gimmick, but it´s a powerful one that points to new, more potent directions in this music.
01 – Stargazer