Botanist – I: The Suicide Tree / II: A Rose From The Dead

08/01/2012 § Leave a comment

“Special ‘thanks’ to all those, real or unknown, who lacked the vision, commitment or ability to make a band happen with me” say the linear notes to this album. So Otrebor – otherwise known as The Botanist – decided to go it alone. This first offering from the black metal entrepreneur contains just three ingredients in the music: vocals, drums and hammered dulcimer. Black metal, for the most part, is not a genre known for taking immense leaps forward in terms of originality, so it’s refreshing to see a different instrument make its way to the foreground of a band’s sound. This release is a semi-autobiographical concept album which tells the tale of a reclusive sociopath known as The Botanist who lives in a lush, vegetation-filled environment called The Verdant Realm. Commanded by the demon Azalea, he creates an army of Mandragoras, known as The Mandrake Legion, to wipe out humanity and return the Earth to its rightful owner, nature. It is for this reason that The Botanist describes his own music as “eco-terrorist”.

This album comes in a double gatefold pack bearing, unsurprisingly, multiple drawings of plant life. I can only imagine that the specific identities for each picture were painstakingly chosen by Otrebor and bear a relevance to something going on in the album’s story. I can’t personally lay claim to any expertise in this area unlike The Botanist, who seems to spend all his time researching plant life when he’s not bashing away on his drums and hammered dulcimer. The lyrics are highly complex, and I’ll be honest, difficult to understand descriptions of the slow asphyxiation of the human race through environmental means. As verbose as they are verdant, I couldn’t help thinking this is what I’d be hearing if The Mars Volta ever got involved in experimental black metal. What doesn’t help is the rather small but elaborate font in which the lyrics are printed, making reading them a real struggle, but fortunately in this marvellous internet age there are various other – and more comfortable – means through which to view them. The Botanist probably wouldn’t approve, but you can’t teach an old Luddite new tricks.

There are actually two separate albums here in one, and you’ll no doubt have noticed the immense quantity of tracks, numbering forty in total. However, in spite of this large number the entire thing doesn’t go over 80 minutes, made possible by some extremely short track lengths. Most of the songs in this release don’t extend beyond two minutes, with some being a lot shorter than that. The Botanist’s vocals are some of the best I’ve heard in black metal – mid-ranged, guttural and spiked with a latent undercurrent of hatred. In a sense their timbre mirrors The Botanist’s state of mind – pained, angry but patient in resolve. His dislike for the modern world might well be vehement, but he has the time and forbearance to put his plan into action: when you’re commanding an army of plants, radical differences aren’t going to happen overnight. The album is all about gradual change after all, it is the slow unravelling of The Botanist’s plans, like leaves growing from a stem, which are mirrored in the lyrics and vocal delivery, though juxtaposed by the fast double kick drumming and pace of the instrumentation.

Let’s face it, the dulcimer is one of the main things which is going to attract people to this album, it certainty did for me when the promo was offered. It’s an extremely beautiful instrument and one which hardly ever gets a look-in in the metal world, but I can’t help feeling that it’s played with a good degree of limitation here. Black metal is a style suited primarily to guitars and drums, and transposing its style onto an instrument like the dulcimer just ends up crushing the quantity of that instrument’s output, like owning a mazarine butterfly but keeping it in a hamster ball. As a result, the dulcimer’s sound rings out beautifully in tone, but its notation is very limited indeed, being played more percussively than musically. The second thing which limits this album is the shortness of the track lengths. Hemming them in at around two minutes apiece doesn’t really give them room to move or breathe, and it’s in the longer numbers such as the five minute title track A Rose From the Dead when things really begin to take off.

In spite of this, both albums are highly interesting pieces of work, and some of the most unique stuff that black metal has come out with recently. My only wish is that Otrebor would give himself some slack with the track lengths; expanding them would, in turn, allow the creativity in the music to loosen up. The dulcimer is a wonderful addition in concept too, though at the moment it feels almost gimmicky since it’s not allowed the free reign it deserves, like a highly obedient sheep dog kept chained in the corner, dreaming of breaking free from its farmhouse and running uninhibited through the corn. In a way I’m reminded of the violins in Lake of Sorrow by The Sins of Thy Beloved: if you were to remove them from the music, you’d remove its only interesting element.

In my opening paragraph I referred to this release as semi-autobiographical for a reason. Like Lawless’s Jonathan in The Crimson Idol, Otrebor uses the identity of The Botanist as a thin veil for his own. Putting this album together in solitude and writing about the destruction of the human race gives me some clues as to his misanthropic mindset, and possibly why it was best that he attempted this project single-handedly. The power of the Mandrake Legion is obviously his exaggerated route for improving this planet, and one which I don’t entirely disagree with, we will all return to the Earth from which we came after all. With three more albums already in the works and nearing completion, I will be watching his progress with a keen eye. This double release is an admirable starting point, and I can only hope he continues on this path of creativity. Hopefully there are even greater – and more lavish – things to come.

Rating: 3.5/5

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Ovro – Revisited

05/01/2012 § Leave a comment

I’m not always passionate about albums which have to be rehashed and reformatted, but in the case of Ovro’s “Revisited” an overhaul was vital. A lot of the work on this disc can be found on the CDR “Estrainer”, such a limited release that it’s impossible to find a copy. The term “revisited” doesn’t just apply to some older material in an improved form though, but to a spacial and geographical return as well. Many of the tracks within this album contain field recordings from Ovro’s trip to St Petersburg, jimmied into her trademark style of glitch dark ambient. “Revisited” is an emotional journeying for the petite Fin, both as a reworking of her older music seen dragged into the daylight for a makeover, and an aural scrapbook of her Baltic expeditions.

I first came across Ovro’s work a few years ago through the Horizontal/Vertical EP released under Drone Records. Even though it was put out in the same year as “Revisited”, there is a stark difference in feel between the two releases. “Revisited” has much more centre, much more focus than the H/V EP, which in comparison comes across as an experimental dark ambient orphan, the runt of a drone litter thrown on the “by the same artist” pile and glossed with special packaging. “Revisited” is altogether a greater and more intriguing work. It shows Ovro as a thinking dark ambient artist, one who gives subtle clues to her real interests, real world identities and concerns, all expressed through the mirror of her select aural voice.

One has to be careful with field recordings. In my mind there’s always the question of whether one passively collects ambient sounds or goes looking for them, and the former seems far more genuine. It’s akin to the difference between writing music naturally or intentionally aping your favourite inspirations. Fortunately a lot of the sounds within “Revisited” are incidental rather than overblown, mixed well with the atmosphere and the dark ambient underlay. As usual, Ovro punctuates the music with her usual stuttering and glitching white noise, breaking up the ambience which can so easily wallow in self-stagnation.

The field recordings are the main attraction here, comprising anything from distorted vocal patterns to crowd buzz to snatches of street conversation, but with a professional aptitude Ovro is able to create something intriguing, unsettling and beautiful out of them. Strangely enough, even though the majority of the sounds were collected in Russia, this record has more of a Middle Eastern feel. There are no silken arabesque clichés here though. Even in the closing cadences of the wonderful “Ukok” we feel as if we are an unseen, unwelcome interloper in a private mosque, hazardously listening to something never intended for Western ears. These sounds were meant to pass without remark, but here they are, stolen from their ephemeral timelines and permanently pasted onto our subconscious.

“Revisited” is very much a work of personal intrigue but one which likes to retain anonymity and introspection. It’s more of a showcase than a journey; at no point do we feel as if we are following our mentor around as much as being sporadically map-pointed to various destinations. This unfortunately works to the album’s detriment since there seems to be little cohesion, little meshing of themes, everything is just dropped in and swirled around for effect. We’ll never totally understand the stories behind these sounds, but we can still relate to their emotional gravity. This, perhaps, is the most vital thing being communicated here – we don’t have to physically exist in a location to appreciate its effects. The power and weight of a single sense can be enough, and Ovro is highly capable of demonstrating how.

Rating: 3.5/5

Herbst9 – Ušumgal Kalamma

01/01/2012 § Leave a comment

It’s difficult for me to accurately express my tremendous admiration for this project. Herbst9 are one of the few remaining envoys of communication from civilisations past, carrying into the 21st century a musical dedication and interpretation of the true tenets and beliefs of Sumer. Since the genesis of this enterprise, Henry Emich and Frank Merten have never faltered in producing some of the finest works the ritual ambient genre has ever seen. Ušumgal Kalamma [Dragon of the Land] is no different and this time round we are greeted with a full double album of original material to close the Mesopotamian trilogy that started with “Buried Under Time and Sand”. I have no reservation in saying that Ušumgal Kalamma is the finest of the three albums: it’s a refined, mature and reverential gift to the present day, born from unending research, respect and fascination for the past. But unlike others who use ancient civilisation purely as an inspiration, Hersbt9 seems to have been birthed directly from it. There is something so genuine and unquestionably sincere about this project which makes the orthodoxy of its sound so effective and compelling.

Ušumgal Kalamma continues the venerative path of its predecessors but also weaves in selective new elements, both thematically and musically. Of particular note is the citing of, and quoting from, the Akkadian poem “Ludlul Bel Nemeqi” [I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom]. The core of the poem centres on the physical unalleviated suffering of Shubshi-meshre-Shakkan, but who perseveres in his faith and dedication to the gods in spite of having no knowledge as to how long his afflictions will draw out or what indeed he is being punished for. The tone of overcoming prolonged suffering seems to be a prevalent theme on the album, with the tracks “She Filled The Wells Of The Land With Blood” and “Birds Of Sorrow Are Building Nests On These Flanks” referring to the trials of the goddess Inana and her efforts to triumph in the face of oppression. The first of these tracks is particularly important since it is a quote from the tale of Inana’s rape by Shukaletuda, where in delivering a plague to the land of her oppressor she turns the water to blood. This is not only a mark of revenge and retribution but it also strongly signifies the power of femininity and sexual affirmation, the River of Death. Sexuality is a theme which has always been loosely implied and employed in the works of Herbst9, unavoidable largely by even the mention of Inana, but here it appears again, especially the incantation which begins “Ereškigal, Rise From Your Throne” carries a remarkably sensual feel to it.

Disc one gives us more of the traditional sounds that many listeners of this project’s later works will be familiar with. As with “Buried Under Time and Sand” and “The Gods are Small Birds but I am the Falcon” the disc contains nearly an hour of exuberant, ritualistic ambience soaked in a trench-deep and sometimes unsettlingly dark tone, with heavy use of vocal incantation, both male and female, in English and Akkadian. As usual the ancient sound of this work is authentically employed with no hint of interest or attention given to the importance of the modern age. Herbst9′s intention is not solely to stand in awe of Sumer but to use it as a reverential path and tool in the same way as a craftsman might hone new objects out of old, trustworthy materials through understanding, experience and imagination. Sumer is not a labelled exhibit but an integral, symbiotic life-force that sparks within the musical heart of this project, in turn spawning new creations through age-old practises.

Disc two sees the use of a slightly more ambient and ethereal sound than on previous albums. Whereas in the past, older works may have been slightly heavied by the weight of sampling, the balance has been struck perfectly here. This time round Herbst9 uses an intricate and interactive use of its influences to create a calmer, introspective theme through employing sparse use of vocal samples and drones. Not only this, but here we see a new influence nudging its way to the fore, as in the excellent “The Sage Lord Ašimbabbar” Emich and Merten use the sound of a guzheng to create a uniquely Far Eastern feel. This rears its head again for the stirring finale “The Great Child of Suen” which incorporates further Far Eastern atmospherics before crossing over to more accustomed Near Eastern territories in its closing half. This change is a welcome and intriguing addition to the work of this project, and one which which gives this album a new temporal and spiritual perspective.

It is this exchange of new and familiar sounds, an intensely mystical atmosphere and skilful execution that makes Ušumgal Kalamma the immense success that it is. Maybe it is because the project has such a fine comprehension of the timelessness and relevance of past tradition that the music comes across with such soul and meaning. Piecing together the authority from thousands of years of convention, this album comes across as a multiple-layered work of astonishing depth and brilliance. Albums such as these truly are what ritual ambient music should be about, using the understanding of ancient thought to explore our own emotional processes and to improve and enhance our existence on this Earth. Ušumgal Kalamma is both a perfectly fulfilled fantasy and a dark reverie for those with an interest in this genre, and on a slightly more modest level, the crowning pinnacle of the band’s musical and devotional output so far.

– Sackler Gallery, British Museum, 31st December 2011

Rating: 5/5

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