Title: III: Doom in Bloom
There's a debate to be had about the continued usefulness of the term 'black metal' and whether or not it's become something of an empty signifier, both in terms of some notion of a unified field theory, and on the more simple level of sonic descriptiveness. In truth, though, away from the rabid fancies of the kvlt-ists there has always been those who are willing to take the sacred template and run into the glacial forests with it. And for a good while now the black metal underground has been alive with acts doing strange and wonderful things, and 2012 is proving to be something of a golden year.
Enter the Botanist. It is a such a ridiculously, well, fertile creation it's hard to know where to begin in describing it. The Botanist (singular) plays what is loosely black metal, he plays it entirely on drums and hammered dulcimer. He inhabits 'The Verdant Realm' where he surrounds himself in flora and awaits the coming apocalypse. The Botanist receives incantations from Azalea, the Satan of the verdant realm, from which he works up plans to speed up the downfall of man and the coming of the budding dawn. His work is a form of mystical eco-terrorism, creating hypersigils in form of music and text with which he seeks to hasten the apocalypse. He comes on like a cross between Wodwo, manifestation of the forest, and an avatar of that archetypal black metal figure, (minus the hammy anti-Christianity): pagan, cut off, hidden and possessed by the ancient spirits of the forest. But there is also something closer to the ideals of Ted Kaczynski at work here (albeit without the threat of actual violence) - man blundering and beyond salvation, subservient to technology, blindly destroying the planet, needing to be stopped...
But uberous concept aside (and the artwork by MS Waldron only adds to this: it's strange and glorious), is what Botanist is doing musically worth attending to? And it's pretty much an emphatic yes. On earlier records (I: The Suicide Tree and II: A Rose From the Dead) there was a real lo-fi oddness about the sound, coming on at times like a more vaudeville Macabre; but on III: Doom In Bloom, the production is cavernous and broad, the drums and dulcimer combining in an almost glassy piano-like throb that reverberates cleanly in the ear canal. This vast created space gives room for the vocals to swirl and coalsesce, by turns pitch-black, vomited or backgrounded and whispered, swirling like fog. On the 13-minute 'Quoth Azalea, The Demon (Rhododendoom II)' the pace moves from the album's signature doom-laden crawl to a not-unlike Godspeed semi-crescendo at the mid-point, Botanist grakking out his floral manifesto:
'I am yours, pentatheric master
Your germination is my task
May your red plantae legions
Sow the seed of the Budding Dawn
Tearing down the human presence
Uprooting their destructive ways
Your dominion will I engineer
May flora again reign supreme'
At its close, the track retreats into a kind of sinister sylvan calm, the dulcimer again coming closest to its glacial pianistic resting point. This gives way to 'Deathcap' more atonal and doom-laden, the lyrics veering closer to a notion of metamporphosis and symbiosis, the subject losing itself inside the toxins and eventual renal failure and death. These twin themes come to dominate the album, and in truth the template comes to be a fairly simple one. In terms of precedent of the sound, you might think of the cleaner moments of Xasthur, or the more military-minded Earth of The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull but it's pretty much out there on its own, and lyrically? It's definitely out there on its own, with a track like 'Vriesea' little more than a delineation of a epiphytic plant family inside of which certain breeds of frog have been known to live out there entire life cycles.
There's a second CD of recreations and remixes courtesy of friends and several former associates of the Botanist, based around drum patterns imagined and discarded during the recording process of III: Doom in Bloom. These run from darkly atmospheric ('Matrushka') to the more symphonic 'Cordyceps' by former bandmates Ophidian Forest, to the almost chamber-black metal of Arborist's 'Total Entarchy' (featuring what could be a theremin, or might be a headless, screaming geranium). These tracks flesh out the thesis and in my mind should be seen as an almost entirely separate project so as not to detract from the oddness and purity of what the Botanist is trying to achieve.
Is it black metal? I suppose formally and technically it probably isn't - it's too spacious, too resonant; but on some other thematic level it simply is black metal, or at the very least a close genetic relative. It's also daft and brilliant. Fly agaric anyone?
These first appeared at the Liminal.
Artist: High Aura'd
Title: Sanguine Futures
It’s becomingly increasingly difficult to write in any meaningful way about ambient releases, such is both the proliferation of music and by extension, the sheer amount of expended digital text. It’s not an exaggeration to say that some releases have as many purple reviews as there are physical copies available. All of which means, when a record of exceptional quality does arrive you find yourself reaching for higher superlatives or more abstruse adjectives to ecstatically describe the sonic phenomena as they unfold. What this situation does do is force you back to essentials: what, precisely, makes for a good ambient recording? And the answers are fairly simple: appreciation of atmosphere, tone, duration and architecture. And safe to say, High Aura’d (the recording alias of John Kolodij) has absolute mastery of all of these facets. Broadly put Sanguine Futures is elemental ambient music. Yet there is something more than just pretty evocation at work here: Kolodij has a granular approach to his compositions meaning each strata, each seam is carefully crafted, to the point where you can almost feel the bedrock and grasp at the clouds of vapour – these are compositions that invite a kind of habitation. On a track such as ‘Sleep Like the Dead’ there is a geological heft to the outer layers of the drone, and the heartbeat, when it comes, is bulbous and warm. ‘La Chasse-galerie’, is suitably wild, like its subject matter: a wild hunt, roaring high above the trees, peaking in a glorious crescendo, redolent of Yellow Swans at their most ecstatic. Thinking of other antecdents, I keep coming back to the Eno of On Land especially on the long eerie swamp-song of ‘Mercy Brown’ which has, at its heart, the story of an exhumation of a 2-month old corpse, a corpse whose heart still contained blood… Sanguine Futures is full of these kinds of layered readings, readings that double and intensify the already dense sonic material. Stunning stuff.
Artist: Isnaj Dui
Title: Abstracts on Solitude
Isnaj Dui is the latest recording project of Kate English who has been releasing music under one guise or another since 1995. Abstracts on Solitude is her first release for Hibernate. It’s an eerie, sensual album, full of the blooming low cadences of the bass flute, a seldom-recorded member of the flute family, often overlooked for the fact that in an orchestral situation it is easily drowned out. English uses the flute to create a kind of tremulous biosphere, inside which the subtly-effected electronics, treated dulcimers and thumb pianos creak and flit. The cover of the record acts as a kind of map for the overall sound of the album. At first glance, I saw both a landscape and an abstracted view of a female chest – the fact that it is neither of these, but a blurred close-up of a circuit board is instructive. For these are intimate creations that act like body maps: the breath of the flute, the strange synaptic clicks and whirs of the electronics, the drum-hollows of the dulcimer, the percussive thumb piano. That said, the composer always maintains a sense of that which lies beyond, particularly on the beautiful closing track ‘The Last Will Become A Darker Grey’ which has an almost Delius-like pastoral melancholy.
Artist: Padang Food Tigers
Title: Ready Country Nimbus
Another strong release from Bathetic in what is proving to be quite a year for the North Carolina based label. Padang Food Tigers are Stephen Lewis and Spencer Grady, two members of Rameses III, who have released several gently beautiful long-form drone albums since their inception in the early ’00s. With Padang Food Tigers, the duo have boiled down their explorations to a spare essence, creating humid fragile miniatures from acoustic instruments and field recordings. The tracks, most no more than 2 or 2.30 mins long, are like captured moments or brief sketches of nature: a simple guitar pattern or lambent piano figure laid over distant church bells or stuttering chaffinch song. It brings to mind Bruce Langhorne’s mournful score for The Hired Hand and Scott Tuma’s rusty, elegiac folk explorations, and at times it does feel like a study in smuggled American primitivism. Should one care about spurious ‘authenticity’ when something sounds this natural and right?
Label: Handmade Birds
This isn’t nearly enough space to do justice to a record with such scope and heart, but there we are. Kentucky is ostensibly a black metal album, but it takes what are becoming tired tropes and gives them life, utilising the bursting drive of the blast beat and the icy nihilistic barrage for humanistic purposes, to give voice to the long dead. Austin Lunn (the sole member of Panopticon) has always dealt with difficult subjects (the last album, Social Disservices was about the appalling state of the youth care system in the States) but with Kentucky it’s like he’s found his perfect platform. It tells, via 3 long, more metal-based tracks and 5 shorter Appalachian folk and bluegrass workouts, the story of a state and its people’s relationship with the coal mining industry: the effect on the landscape, the horror of the daily work, the vile treatment of workers by the industry, the pitch battles between unions and the big corporations. It features, alongside the naked roar and violence of Lunn’s at times all out war approach to black metal, spoken word passages, field recordings (one particular heart-stopping moment has a 91 year old woman on a picket line declaring “I’m prepared to die, are you?”) and the simple uncanny presence of the volk in songs such as ‘Which Side Are You On’ written by Kentuckian Florence Reece in the wake of harrassment of her union founding husband by police and mining companies. If that sounds like the record might be a mess, then that’s not an unfair assessment – it’s a new juxtaposition of sounds and one that often jars. But it’s so strong on power and emotion that it builds its own deliberate structure around itself. By the 4th or 5th listen it makes perfect sense. A colossal achievement.