The Brilliant Black-Metal Album About Plants Wiping Out Humankind

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Botanist's new record Mandragora imagines a world in which flora has defeated fauna—and in the process, strips the metal genre down to its most essentially metal.

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A metal band called Botanist sounds like it must be a joke. Metal, after all, is supposed to be hard, cold, brutal and ... well, metal. Metal bands have intimidating names like Oppressor or Immolation or Obituary or (ahem) Metallica. They do not—I repeat not—christen themselves in honor of plant care. Save that hippie tree-loving crap for folk music.

The thing is, folk and metal aren't completely divorced from one another. This is especially true for black metal—the subgenre in which the one-man act Botanist (whose one man is named Otrebor) fits, to the extent that he fits anywhere. The Helsinki seven-piece Finntroll, for example, sound like they could play at a Renaissance Fair. Bands like Enslaved (from Norway) or Drudkh (from the Ukraine) work to link their music to a pagan volk past, channeling Norse myths or Ukrainian folk tunes into a howling atavistic rage against modernity.

Botanist's folk leanings, though, are more idiosyncratic than any of these bands—and arguably purer, at least in some sense. He doesn't dream of wiping out modernity. He dreams of wiping out humankind altogether. It's not the volk past he celebrates, but a past (and/or a future) where people no longer blight the earth with their incessant crawling and breeding. Or in the words of "Arboreal Gallows" from his new album Mandragora:

Pagan rite
Invoke the gods of the trees
Dangling in the boughs
Human prey held high

Their necks snapped irrevocably
Penance for their crimes
Atonement for their sins
From their death shall spring life

Death throes ejaculate
From the corpses plummet
Into earth imbibe
To sow the seed of the nightshade
Mandragore arise

Not that you can make out the lyrics when you listen to the song. Otrebor's vocals are little more than a strangled gargle—it sounds like he's the one dangling in the boughs with his neck snapped. The music starts with two wooden clicks of the drumsticks, what sounds like an exhalation, and then a black metal drone filling foreground and background, shifting and pulsing, occasionally pausing to change tempo and then resuming its relentless rush.

Black metal is often defined by that buzzing drone. Usually, for bands like Norway's much-imitated Darkthrone, that buzz sounds like iron clattering in some foul pit, broadcast to you over a broken radio connection. It's the noise of satanic mills, in other words; the grinding of war machines being hauled by the orcs of Saruman. But for Botanist the buzz is higher, clearer, more crystalline, less like orcs than like feral elves or swarms of great gleaming bees. The dulcimer and the drums fuse into a single percussive blur—a ringing timbre that's a kind of spiky, twisted mirror image of shoegaze's ecstasy.

Botanist brilliantly takes all these things that are not metal—British folk, shoegaze, New Age—and shows that they are, in fact, more metal than metal.

Like black metal and folk, black metal and shoegaze have affinities ... affinities that Botanist's approach makes unusually clear. Donovan's gentle whimsy or My Bloody Valentine's high-volume transcendence—there's an otherworldliness in both of those, a desire for magic that's the emotional core of their music. Whether you're wearing your love like heaven with Donovan or blown a wish with My Bloody Valentine, you're moving into a clearer, more translucent world, where flesh and death dissolve into a fey, shimmering joy.

That feyness is in Botanist too. It's just that the joy that rises up has been resolutely sundered from its last human link, so you end up celebrating not the release from the body and the mundane, but the extermination of both. On "Mandrake Legion," the cascading dulcimer starts to approximate a choral voice. There's almost an echo of Enya or Vangelis there—a gentle breeze of New Age uplift whispering about "Mankind's ashes" and "Wailing horror." Sail away, sail away, and Orinoco flow will strip the flesh from your bones.

The brilliance of Botanist, then, is that he takes all these things that are not metal—gentle British folk, shoegaze, New Age—and shows you that they are, in fact, more metal than metal. The dreams of obliterating force or of rotted bodies returned from the dead—Cannibal Corpse and Emperor and Gallhammer—are all just more human byproducts. Fearing them is just honoring our own stain: putting our own meat on a hook and gibbering before it. If you really want the true unflinching coldness of anti-life, Botanist says, you need to stop and smell the flowers.

The last track on the album, "Rhycholaelia Glauca" is a description of the title orchid, laden with technical botanical terminology and set to a slow, dissonant processional, as if the plant has come in glory to take its crown. "Oblong pseudobulbs fusiform / Mountainous epiphyte / On cork bark grows / Oblong pseudobulbs fusiform," Otrebor gags while the dulcimer rings. "Aromatic sweetness / fill the air." It sounds like he's celebrating his own asphyxiation. For Botanist a better world, a more joyful world, a world of a new age, is one in which humans have gone back to the mulch that spawned them. To care for the world is to loathe the parasites that crawl upon it. Botanist hates more purely because he loves—which is why his metal that seems like many things that are not metal often sounds like the most uncompromising metal of all.

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Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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