Black metal, often known for its more abrasive, sonically claustrophobic approach to music, has undergone a bit of a sea change in recent years as more and more acts seek to broaden the previously restrictive genres self-imposed walls, bringing in a variety of sonic textures, instruments, and styles not generally associated with this most misanthropic of music styles. By doing so, via bands like Deafheaven, Panopticon and Liturgy have brought black metal a broader audience and raised its profile both critically and commercially.
While it will never be considered mainstream, black metal has certainly come into the light much more than in previous years as a new generation of practitioners seek to expand the genre’s sonic potential beyond break-neck drumming, machine gun guitar work and strangled, howled vocals. Where Deafheaven incorporates elements of shoegaze, opting for a stylistic detour within the black metal context, Panopticon opts to add elements of their own very personal musical heritage, adding elements of bluegrass, and traditional music. Having released Kentucky, which provided a blackened view of their cultural heritage through interstitial spoken-word interludes and brief moments of bluegrass music, Panopticon pushed the instrumental boundaries of what could be expected from black metal.
Taking the concept even further and operating concurrently out on the West Coast, San Francisco’s Botanist eschews guitars altogether in favor of amplified hammer dulcimers as their primary instrument. Initially taken as a somewhat novel concept that saw the group receive a great deal of praise and critical accolades in 2011, Botanist has since expanded upon the initial hook to create a series of black metal epics ranging from blistering hammer dulcimer and drums recordings to what they’ve come up with on VI: Flora.
An esoteric sound to begin with, the original electric hammer dulcimer format is now augmented by harmonium and 12-string bass, which allows for a broader tonal palette a here leads to a more atmospheric, less percussively abrasive sound. While not outright shoegaze-indebted black metal, VI:Flora shows off a more sprawling, less insistent iteration of the group, resulting in a listening experience that could very well bring about a broader audience due to its greater level accessibility and the rising profile recently afforded less traditional black metal acts.
Still possessing intricate, highly rhythmic drumming, the more martial, almost marching band snare sound of their early recordings has here been tempered in favor of an overall warmer sound that better compliments the more contemplative dulcimer work on display. Sprawling opener “Stargazer” immediately establishes this new tone with an more accessible approach not only in songwriting, but also overall production that makes it clear Botanist is looking to move beyond being a niche or, worse, misanthropic novelty act.
As is often the case with this style of music, the vocals are buried in a roiling cacophony that, along with the traditionally strangled approach to black metal’s vocalizations, renders them unintelligible. Here the vocals sit so low in the mix they border on inaudible, further obscuring the tale of, according to press materials, the botanist’s retreat into the Verdant Realm. Having gone mad watching the environmental destruction at the hands of man, the botanist seeks solace amongst the flora and fauna as he awaits mankind’s inevitable self-destruction followed by the glorious resurrection of a world dominated by plants. It’s all fairly thematically heady stuff, but, without the aid of a lyric sheet, completely and totally obscured and lost on the listener.
Fortunately, there is still much to be gained from the music itself. Almost deliriously sprawling in its scope, VI: Flora draws inspiration more from the dramatic, almost euphoric elements of post-rock and shoegaze than it does black metal, making for a much more compelling, and at times uplifting, listening experience given the enhanced production and broader tonal palette from which they are now working.
“Pteridophyte”, a type of plant that reproduces via spores and includes ferns among its ranks, carries a majestic, soaring melodic line underscored by frantic, break-neck drumming that occasionally lets up enough to allow for the primary melodic figure to continue its coruscating ascent. One of the more accessible tracks on an album full of them, relatively speaking, it displays the work of a group looking beyond the claustrophobic confines of a traditionally misanthropic, staunchly non-populist genre and into a future in which genre labels become less a stigma and more a jumping off point.