In 2007 the Swedish one woman black metal act, Turdus Merula, released a promising demo, The Paths of Life. The demo demonstrated a strong sense of mood, melody and atmosphere. However, the songwriting often lacked focus. Nontheless, the demo clearly showed that Turdus Merula had promise. With her first official full length, Herbarium, Dísa (the woman behind Turdus Merula) shows that she has the compositional skill and thematic focus to match her melodic and atmospheric sensibilities.
Obviously, Dísa is heavily influenced by Burzum. From the pulsating rhythms to the aqueous guitar work, Varg’s fingerprints are all over the album. That said this is not like listening to Wigrid’s Hoffnungstod where every element of the sound is lifted directly from Burzum. Dísa brings a number of interesting additions to the style resulting in a very inspired sound. For the most part Dísa opts for piano over keyboard. The rich sound of a piano gives body to the music that a keyboard simply cannot replicate. The album opens with a stunning minor chord sonata for piano and guitar and ends with bleak and discomforting solo piece for piano. Elsewhere the piano provides subtle background melodies and a peaceful undertone that effectively contrasts with the harsh, blackened surface sounds. She also employs a lot of tribal percussion in the slower passages, which highlights the archaic spirit of the album. Dísa’s droning snake-like growl is also quite original.
Herbarium is a concept album about hallucinogenic and poisonous plants. The word “herbarium” refers to a collection of dried plants. Each of the song titles refers to a plant with both hallucinogenic and toxic qualities. There is a distinctly ritualistic dimension to the music, from the hypnotizing blast beats to the dissociative riffs; all the sounds are oriented toward replicating the feeling of an altered state of consciousness.
The raw production really accentuates the delirious style of the album. During the faster passages, the lower end of the sound spectrum loses all clarity. One cannot distinguish the bass drum and the bass guitar. This stands in strong distinction to the sharpness of the toms, cymbals, piano and guitar. The music takes the listener to the threshold of two states of mind: one vivid and one obscure. In one respect the music feels profound, as if it were on the brink of an epiphany. In another respect, it effuses a foreboding sense of danger.
While every song on Herbarium is excellent, “Conium Maculatum” is the highlight. In contrast to the feverish pace of most the album, “Conium Maculatum” slows down to a doom metal tempo. The multiple layers of eerie, hypnotic guitars slowly build toward climax, recreating the sensation of descending ever deeper into a trance. The measured tribal percussion sounds like a heartbeat slowed to brink of death. Other highlights include the tribal drumming and harmonic guitars on “Mandragora Officinarum” and the ecstatic buildup on “Actaea Spicata”.
Herbarium is a very impressive debut with very few flaws. One issue is that the drums are a little too far to the forward in the mix. At times, this accentuates the sound of the music, but at other times, it starts to wash over the guitar melodies. Considering that the melodies are so good, hearing them washed out is frustrating. On the whole Herbarium is an enrapturing album that is bound to please ambient black metal fans. Like consuming one of these plants and being unsure if you have taken too much or just the right amount, Herbarium is both a haunting and riveting experience.