Forest Swords, ‘Engravings’ – Album Review
Forest Swords, aka English producer Matthew Barnes, surprised a lot of people back in 2010 with his debut EP, ‘Dagger Paths.’ In the midst of a deluge of Burial-aping “post-dubstep” exports arriving out of the U.K. and a spike in druggy, slow-motion rave in North America known as witch-house, ‘Dagger Paths’ was achingly unique, even while acknowledging where electronic music was at the time.
The music on ‘Dagger Paths’ was slow, bluesy, and physical -- a house of cards made of left-field samples, obscure field recordings and the odd guitar loop. The result was a dense, hypnotic pastiche of muted colors, sore muscles and burnt emotions.
Forest Swords’ proper full-length debut, ‘Engravings,’ arrives three years later on outsider-electronic heavyweight Tri Angle. The album picks up immediately where ‘Dagger Paths’ left off, but it’s soon apparent Barnes is approaching his music with a little more ambition. The sample sources are more wide ranging, and the song structures are far more complex and inventive than those on ‘Dagger Paths.’ But while much of ‘Engravings’ soars, Forest Swords’ push for sophistication sometimes spreads the music thin, and Barnes struggles to connect all the dots.
‘Engravings’ has its share of truly astounding moments that mark Forest Swords as a minor electronic visionary. ‘Onward’ opens with a decaying industrial clack before a gentle synth melody works its way into place, followed by tiny peripheral details. It all gets slowly subtracted, leaving only the throbbing sub-bass pulse before Barnes drops a compressed string sample on top of it and some live tribal drumming comes charging in. Standout ‘The Weight Of Gold’ somehow jumps from glimmering chamber music to shuddering dub funk, distorted ghostly cries forever toiling beneath.
Songs like these show how dexterous and creative Barnes is, as he pieces together subtle live arrangements and samples to give the music an extraordinary breadth. But in a lot of ways, it’s ‘Engravings’ undoing as well. The scope of the samples often make it hard for these songs to mesh seamlessly. Barnes leaves much of ‘Engravings’ atmospherically dry, and while it's commendable he doesn’t use reverb as a crutch like a number of his contemporaries, a lot of the music here never amounts to more than its individual parts, leaving the songs are emotionally flat and disparate.
Even with ‘Engravings’ flaws, however, it’s clear Forest Swords is a fascinating and singular voice in contemporary electronic music. If nothing else, the record displays the transformative potential of sample-based music. The album is full of compelling left turns and detours -- even if they don’t all add up or have much deeper emotional significance. ‘Engravings’ is a another step for a producer with a clear sonic vision. It’s only a matter of turning that vision into something meaningful.