Review: Botanist — Collective: The Shape of He to Come
Would you like green metal and ham? Would you eat it on the lam? Would you play it like a flam?
Sorry. Don’t answer that.
If you are anything like me, you dig Botanist‘s outsider hammered dulcimer metal. You find it charming and cerebral. It is not something you feel like listening to often, perhaps because listening leaves you more perplexed and drained than fulfilled. You really dug the middle albums of Botanist’s ever-evolving career, but the schtick, as it were, is starting to grow thin for you. You listened to that last Botanist full-lenght, VI: Flora, and you thought “Yeah, that sounds cool” but it didn’t really stick to you. You’re waiting for hammered dulcimer fetishist and Botanist mastermind Otrebor to evolve the “green metal” formula in some drastic new direction.
If you are anything like me, then Collective: The Shape of He to Come is the Botanist album you have been waiting for all your life.
From the very first notes of “Praise Azalea the Adversary” (which, by the way, constitute a most heartfelt and (ahem) dulcet intro), I felt love. Love without object. Love without ownership. A sort of free-form love disassociated from any person, place or thing. Experiential love in and of itself. A smile unfurled on my face. I seem to remember laughing. (Had I been drinking all afternoon? Yes. Shut up.) My emotional state was hardly altered when, around the 1:53 mark, all that serenity was ruptured by sour hostility. Even the horrific yelling and discordant dulcimer-hammerings which conclude this track are impotent to rob it of its essential beauty.
Given the profound effect that “Praise Azalea” had on me, I was not prepared for the intensity to be ratcheted up several notches on “The Shape of He to Come”, which is just about the most heavenly song I’ve heard all year. With groveling apologies to The Dark Master, I’ll speak that word again: HEAVENLY. Pregnant with layered vocal choirs and a heart-flooding descent of a chord progression, the song’s first movement sounds like pure worship. But worship of what, you ask? I don’t know. If you were to ask Otrebor, he would doubtless just say “plants n’ shit”. But as someone who does not exactly worship plants, much less pray for some chlorophyllic savior to rise up and cleanse the earth of the human stain, I’d have to say it just sounds like the worship of whatever it is you happen to worship in the privacy of your own home. Beer? Sex? The Risen Christ? Again, the object doesn’t matter; all that matters is the experience itself. (Wait, I just realized I totally have been praying for some chlorophyllic savior to rise up and cleanse the earth of the human stain. Shit. Oh well, moving on.)
As with most of the songs to follow, “The Shape of He to Come” is a deep, dichotomous listen, flowing organically from the aforementioned pretty crests into low troughs of apocalyptic basting and ashen howls. It’s an emotional tug-of war which, miraculously, never sounds the slightest bit contrived. These days, when we have so much music to listen to and so little time, it can be difficult for artists who do not play at 0 bpm to justify spinning compositions beyond the 8- or 10-minute mark. And yet here, Botanist does just that, drawing the listener so deeply, hopelessly into mysterious, ivy-choked labyrinths that you’re not likely to notice when nine minutes have gone by. (If you’re anything like me, you’ll be pissed that there aren’t nine more minutes to go.)
As the album title suggests, Collective: The Shape of He to Come is the work of a collective. Up until now, all Botanist records have been conceived by Otrebor and executed with occasional help from his shadowy cohorts. This time around, Otrebor wisely opens the floor to compositional input from said cohorts–with glorious results. This is just the shot in the arm ol’ Botanist needed. Instead of the intriguing yet somewhat monochromatic palette of shoddy percussion, hammered dulcimer and demonic toad croaking to which we Botanist fans have grown accustomed, The Shape offers a whole slew of new sounds. Most striking among them are the aforementioned choir-like vocals, with their power to dazzle and transfix. Elsewhere, we are surprised by beefier harsh vocals and solo clean vocal performances and–holy shit!–melodic bass guitar! This confluence of new sounds serves to flesh out the skeleton of Otrebor’s style; to give myriad dimensions to a sound which was brittle and closed-off and, over time, almost self-defeatingly homogenous; in effect, to legitimize the concept of “green metal” beyond mere semantic play.
While each of Otrebor’s collaborators brings something vital to the album, it is Bezaelith of Lotus Thief who ends up stealing the show. It’s as if this dulcimer-driven music was tailored for her voice alone–and all the other voices which accompany it are but shadows or profanities or the shadows of profanities. Not that she dominates the record, sucking up all the air–she does not–but when she appears, especially in solo, she calls down all the imponderable gravity of the celestial spheres. She closes out the album at the helm of the acoustic folk song “To Join the Continuum”, which, in its patience and ethereal frailty–in its pronounced absence of metal–proves that Botanist is a much more versatile entity than anyone could have imagined. Otrebor’s self-coined “green metal” is a world unto itself. Letting his friends join him there was a risk, for sure, and one that pays off in spades, as there really isn’t a single misstep from the start of The Shape to the finish.
Simply put, The Shape of He to Come sounds holy, the musical equivalent of a religious experience. Botanist is not the first ostensible black metal artist to attempt to capture the sound of (non-Satanic) spiritual rapture. So Hideous and Liturgy did so previously, to what I would call varying degrees of success. Both of those acts are pretty highly regarded, and yet neither one struck a lasting chord with me. The Shape strikes several chords; several hundred chords; countless chords. And it does so without the benefit of crystalline or even just kind of good production. The album is as loose and lo-fi as ever. And perhaps it is this juxtaposition of beautiful instrumental performances and a disregard for studio polish that gives Collective: The Shape of He to Come its revelatory edge.
According to the album’s press release, there will be more collective efforts from Botanist in the future. I sure hope so. I hope all of Otrebor’s future works take on a greater degree of collective approach. He built his bizarre brand alone, in the shadows of the San Francisco scene, and there is nothing else like it out there. But most artists who insist on toiling in isolation eventually suffer fatigue and burn out. I don’t know exactly who this “He” who is “to come” is, or exactly which “shape” He’ll take; all I know is that He can’t get here fast enough.
5 Out ov 5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell