Though ethereal and intense, Forest Swords’ debut album is nonetheless imbued with a buoyant spirit that never makes it depressing, and contains some of the most beautiful compositions to ever defy genre, says Daniel Jones.
At times, the artificial nature of synthesized music can overwhelmingly evoke the cold emptiness of concrete and metal, leaving little or no room for the warmth of the organic. Matthew Barnes’ aural landscapes are certainly colored by the rain-soaked grays of post-dubstep, but they’re also tinged with the blues of melancholic guitar (strangled as much as plucked), twisting orchestral flows, and stretched-apart wails, the language of which is naggingly familiar while remaining elusive and off-kilter. Perhaps that’s why Engravings, his debut LP as Forest Swords, has such an absorbing feel to it from the very start. There’s a rich, earthy vibe to the 10 tracks that evoke a sort of New Age vibe as envisioned by William Gibson.
Appropriately, the melding of old and new is a major sound theme for Engravings. Lush strings as smokey-dark and warm as whiskey are entwined with the static of radio transmissions on opener “Ljoss”; its propulsive chorus of intangible chanting and wooden percussion soon becoming hypnotic. Barnes has an ear for knowing exactly when to insert an aural oddity, and nowhere on the album is that more evident than on “Irby Tremor”. Emerging with a snatch of what sounds like the scene transition music to some shattered ‘50s sitcom, it soon develops a beat that mutates between the swagger of a Spaghetti Western hero and the wind-swept flutes of ancient mystics. Here, too, the vocals once again elude clarity, climaxing with searing synth stabs and a monstrous garbled chant. It’s a moment of brilliance when he drops a glitched-out snippet of big-band horns in the middle of all this and manages to make it feel organic; perhaps that’s also due to the semi-nebulous production quality of so much of the album—it lends an air of fevered daydream to the listening and occasionally makes you wonder what it is you’re really hearing. That deception is another quality that makes Engravings so rewarding; that knowledge that even as you’re being swept away by the immediacy of the waves of bass and pulsating sound, there are more subtle motions going on beneath the surface.
As amorphous as the vocals might be throughout the album, even when used sparingly they play a major role in the compositions—not only for organic purposes, but also as another instrument entirely. By removing clarity from the vocals, Barnes turns them into ethereal echoes of their owners, ghosts in the machine. “Gathering” is built almost entirely around snippets of human voice, rising in a crescendo of twinkling lights, while the broken mechanical chug of “Onward” soon becomes a delicate drift into a liquid flow of chopped-and-reformed gasps. The skeletal beat and harpsichord flairs of “The Weight of Gold” are empowered by immense soulful chants. By the time the album’s final track, the ecstatically straining “Friend, You Will Never Learn”, hums into existence; one thing has become clear about Forest Swords. Though his sonic textures may place him in the same bleak box as labelmate The Haxan Cloak, his work contains a vital human element: hope. On his first album, Barnes has brought an arresting element of positive emotion to experimental electronic music that’s rarely seen. Though ethereal and intense, Engravings is nonetheless imbued with a buoyant spirit, and contains some of the most beautiful compositions to ever defy genre.˜
Engravings is out now via Tri Angle Records.