Uniqueness is often conflated with interesting ideas in our modern music consumption landscape. There’s plenty of experimental music that, while undeniably different, is pretty deniably good. I’ve encountered albums of all-acoustic black metal and blackened trip-hop on my travels, both of which defied the norms of their genres but were hardly well-executed or engaging.
All that said, there’s still virtue in risk-taking when it comes to music, something that Botanist have done consistently throughout their short but prolific career. The group has tinkered with the post-black metal formula in a different way than their Bay Area peers like Bosse-de-Nage and Deafheaven. Of course, they’re most well-known for their instrumental choices, opting for hammered dulcimers rather than the genre’s textbook guitar tremolo attacks.
But beyond this, Botanist have carved their own unique, striking lane of post-black and blackgaze. The atmospheres and progressions the band unravel conjure heavy dream pop and ethereal wave vibes, akin to Alcest with a much more raw, earnest sound; imagine a wise druid instead of a flighty tree sprite. The band have developed their style significantly from lo-fi double album I: The Suicide Tree / II: A Rose From the Dead to recent, higher budget highlights like VI: Flora and Collective: The Shape of He to Come.
Ecosystem is yet another excellent development in this journey. Furthermore, it further demonstrates how versatile Botanist can be with their signature, dulcimer-led sound. As exhibited on opener “Biomass,” the instrument can be delicate and melodic one moment and then contribute to a larger, sweeping musical flourish the next. It somehow holds a similar and contrasting role to traditional black metal guitar, creating the genre’s signature atmosphere while maintaining a bright, resonant tone unlike any other instrument in metal. It’s almost like a prettier, more reserved harpsichord.
On the music itself, the band weave bright, sharp notes with all-consuming melodies, the sonic equivalent of sunbeams shifting in intensity but remaining consistently bright. Black metal howls trade-off with deep, vaguely Gregorian chants. A key element on “Alluvial,” among other tracks, is the dynamic interplay between the dulcimer and drums. In general, the percussion is voracious, uninterested in merely phoning in a mix of blast beats at varying tempos. Instead, the drumming matches the bounce and movement of the hammered dulcimer, echoing its intensity and mood with each new shift.
With that said, there are still plenty of more “traditional” moments on the record. Much of “Harvestman” maintains the melancholic and pensive air of black metal’s roots, opening with off-kilter notes ringing out over fast-paced percussion. Still, the album’s variety remains, as the mood immediately shifts on “Sphagnum.” The song’s almost operatic vocal arrangements soar over the black metal equivalent of The Cure‘s darkest moments on Pornography. As an added bonus, the band throw in some syncopated dulcimer/double kick drum action in the midsection to make an already engaging track all the more interesting.
A recurring theme is this “melancholic” theme. Much of Ecosystem is genuinely beautiful, but the album is also never content staying still, shifting constantly between new and seemingly contrasting ideas. Yet, the central strength of Botanist’s songwriting is their understanding of the dilemma outlined in the opening paragraph. They actively try to defy genre norms and take their own path, but they do so with full knowledge that they’re capable of doing so successfully. As a result, their music thrives, and every moment feels like a celebratory woodland ritual.
By the time listeners reach “Acclimation,” the band still won’t let them fully wrap their heads around what’s happening musically. The tail end of the track unravels like a progressive, funeral doom track before erupting back into a triumphant blackened atmosphere. Similarly, “Abiotic” is a dulcimer-led cross between the gloomier, mid-paced moments of Ulver and Kayo Dot‘s careers, which then breaks out into the brightest blackgaze moments of the album on closer “Red Crown.” It’s a fitting one-two punch that summarizes the general evolution and variety of the album as a whole.
On Ecosystem, Botanist once again prove how to achieve a seamless intersection between ingenuity and accessibility. Though not what most listeners will expect from an album rooted in black metal, it’s the kind of album that commands full attention from its opening moments through its final notes. During that journey, newcomers and longtime fans alike will encounter Botanist’s finest and most refined work yet. It’s an album that enhances and builds upon all the previous alluring ideas from a band producing an inimitable sound.
Ecosystem is available Oct. 25 via Aural Music.