Music Reviews

Forest Swords Engravings

(Tri-Angle) Rating - 9/10

Over the past three years, or thereabouts, Brooklyn-based Tri-Angle Records has established itself as an incredibly consistent purveyor of fashionably unsettling work in hip-hop inflected electronica. Arguably, it’s the clearest case of a label possessing a unifying image, identity and sound since the early days of 4AD. It could be said to be a bit of a surprise, though that what might well be Tri-Angle’s defining release has come from the considerably less-hip shores of the Wirral.

But then that’s not the only thing that’s surprising about Forest Swords. For a start, the project – the work of one Matthew Barnes – came very much fully formed (and for anyone who spent time with his 2010 Dagger Paths EP, Engravings’ sound will be fairly familiar, it’s just a bit foggier and considerably more expansive here), it’s a happy coincidence that his and Tri-Angle’s mutually compatible aesthetics found each other. More surprising, though, is the work’s very existence in itself as Barnes has kept something of a low profile since the release of that EP, apparently in part due to an on-going hearing condition. Lead single Thor’s Stone was uploaded to Soundcloud only a few months ago, with seemingly little fanfare about it, but was quickly jumped on upon with excited fervour by pretty much every music site and forum going, and deservedly so – driven by a woodwind riff so elephantine that it could’ve come from a flute carved out of an entire tusk of ivory, it still somehow walked the line between thoughtful and attention grabbing.

And for those who weren’t paying attention at the time, Engravings announces its arrival in no less grand a manner, as the opening Ljoss kicks off with an anticipatory jangle straight out of a Spaghetti Western. But while the album remains quite consistently big through its fifty-odd minutes, it never comes across as aggrandising. Rather, it’s like a walk in the woods on an autumn day – it might be vast, yet it’s also pleasingly intimate, and while there’s a definite chill in the air, it’s still a nourishing experience - the guitar shimmers that underpin the track Anneka’s Battle capture the shivering of tree limbs in the breeze; the vocal samples tucked away behind The Plumes’ tentative guitar and piano more like accidentally stumbling upon some Wiccan ritual. Which is somewhat appropriate, considering Barnes’ preferred method of composing that involves lugging his laptop into the great outdoors. 

That’s not the only fine line being walked in Engravings. While there’s a definite sense of nostalgia at its core, in part because of the influences being fairly easy to spot – the trap-nodding vocal pitch-shifting that’s a common feature of much of Tri-Angle’s output (and indeed of pretty much all contemporary bedroom producers), Morricone, Basinski (during his time away Barnes delivered site-specific DJ sets involving disintegrating dubplates), martial arts film scores (or at least those arty ones directed by the respectable likes of Zhang Yimou, and perhaps the name Forest Swords itself is a nod to their pastoral action sequences) and odd stabs of dub – it, in a way, feels like music for the future, in its using a digital creative process to sketch out something believably organic. 

Perhaps Barnes could be accused for being a bit too comfortable to rely on the same bunch of tricks, many of which were looking very hokey long before he got his hands on them, but they’re often not without purpose. Artificial needle jumps and vinyl crackles are often about as convincing and tasteful as those scratchy ‘film’ effects endlessly shoved on top of student and corporate videos to laboriously pretend we’re in a generic ‘olde-timey’ setting, but something like the odd choices of cutting points of the samples that comprise Gathering see them used to turn out uncannily abstract shapes. The Asian influence of some of the record’s scales and sounds might be so broadly stereotypical as to be almost insulting, but in context they’re more potent, being akin to flicking through the pages of a travelogue from the shelves of an antiquarian bookseller and being taken aback by how simultaneous simplistic and strange they are in their presentation of exotic cultures - if the past is a foreign country, then squaring that by looking through their eyes at actual foreign countries can be a dizzyingly melancholic experience. 

Considering how everyone has seemingly suddenly gone gaga over Barnes, (overlooking the fact that Dagger Paths received some fanatical reviews on its release because, hey, three years is a hell of a long time on the internet) it’d be easy to write-off Forest Swords as something effortlessly cool and tastefully empty, but that would be denying the strange alchemy he has in fusing his raw ingredients together. The vast majority of his vocal samples are entirely indecipherable, and yet are entirely relatable, as in the transcendental rallying cries of The Weight of Gold, while so many of his riffs are bare-bones and simple, yet carry so much in them (Onward’s climactic drumming section in particular being blood-boilingly invigorating). That they somehow manage to fit together to seemingly describe an entire world makes Engravings something of a minor (key) marvel.