Botanist – IV: Mandragora Review

The children’s story of Goldilocks and the three bears has had a poisonous effect on the rhetorical skills of too many.


Yes, sure, it’s just a story about some thrill-seeking lady who likes her porridge neither too hot nor too cold, but “just right.” Beyond that, though, the structure of the choice involved is a logical fallacy when extended to nearly anything more consequential. The Goldilocks trope —

*Scornful crickets.*

— suggests that the middle ground between two extremes is necessarily a wise or correct choice. Might work for some things, of course – warm bowls of breakfast food, perhaps – but there’s no logical reason why a position of moderation or compromise should be inevitable in politics or shipbuilding or arson or any other such pursuit. Music, even. All of which is to say, there ain’t no need to make every allegory a syllogism.

*More crickets, their scorn now tipping over into blind rage.*

But now, to the matter at hand: Given my general antipathy for “middle ground by lazy default” arguments, I am extremely loath to admit that Goldilocks provides the perfect explanation why Botanist’s IV: Mandragora is the one-man project’s finest album to date. Since emerging in 2011 with the double album I: The Suicide Tree / II: A Rose from the Dead, no other music has matched Botanist’s singularity. And while some might dismiss mainmain Otrebor’s guitar-less, hammered dulcimer-driven black metal as the epitome of gimmickry, the completeness of his conceptual vision and the haunted and alien tones of his music clearly indicate that this – whatever you’d like to call it – is some sort of a real thing.

Thus, I had greedily devoured Botanist’s three preceding albums, and while each has many individual charms, Goldilocks reared her implacable head as soon as I clamped my ears around the new album IV: Mandragora. It went like this: “Ah, of course! I/II were too much Ildjarn, and III was too much Jesu.” Simplistic, but schematically accurate. The opening pair of albums left me slightly unsatisfied because I wanted to see where the songs could go if they were given room to stretch out. III: Allies, on the other hand, opened Botanist’s palette up wonderfully, and produced an album of truly beautiful, clanging, doom-drenched sonatas, and yet it felt plodding, repetitive, and over-stretched.

IV: Mandragora strikes a perfectly winning combination of the preceding albums, and as such is a rich, multifaceted, and fully-realized album that nevertheless still seems to indicate that Botanist has got some fascinating new places to go in the future. These seven songs easily shift between brittle blasting and corrosive vocals (“Sophora Tetraptera”), and rich, contemplative melodic passages (“To Amass An Army (Mandragora III)”). Otrebor also cycles through an impressive variety of vocal styles, from muted, almost Slint-esque spoken passages to more traditional black metal shrieking, and from amphibious Abbath croaks to more emotive, overdriven hardcore throat-scraping. The album’s closing track, “Rhyncholaelia Glauca” also throws in some low, choral chanting.

“Nourishing the Fetus (Mandragora IV)” is a wonderful song, and probably the best example of Botanist’s alchemy. It trades in beautiful open harmonies and satisfying chord progressions in the mold of Alcest, yet is constantly in motion, driven by ever-shifting drum patterns that sometimes work in full blast, and sometimes engage in playful cross-meter exchange with the hammered dulcimer. “Rhyncholaelia Glauca” closes the album with a nearly-ten-minute span of all the moods that Botanist is capable of evoking, and demonstrates a much more capable command over dynamics and pacing in extended compositions than the previous albums revealed.

I suppose the reason I don’t feel too terribly shitty about invoking the Goldilocks syllogism —

*Even the crickets have shoved off by now. Silence.*

— is that although IV: Mandragora is the finest album Botanist has released, one never gets the sense that it represents a future holding pattern or a new normal. And really, maybe that’s the most interesting thing about this project: Despite the intentionally restrictive instrumental choices, Otrebor continues to find new ways to wield these sounds. Botanist’s future doesn’t look likely to be one of tepid compromise and moderation; what looks like a middle ground now may just be a temporary resting place, a new set of runner’s blocks that will send this project racing down some new sun-shimmering, red gravel trajectory. Or, y’know… whatever the botanical equivalent of that is.

But for now, there’s still no noise like this noise.

Posted by Dan Obstkrieg

Happily committed to the foolish pursuit of words about sounds. Not actually a dinosaur.

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