C/T REVIEW – Forest Swords: ‘Engravings’

Albums / Words

24 Sep 13

Matthew Barnes, the thumbs behind Forest Swords, is in no rush. ‘Engravings’ follows gallant EP ‘Dagger Paths’ three years on – and time crops up in tracks ‘Onward’ and ‘An Hour’ which are backbreaking quests in sonic upheaval.

Opener ‘Ljoss’ feels retro like a mid-century MGM soundtrack – it’s a proudly calorific feeding frenzy of beats and improv that implies the variety of the full record waiting in the wings.

Onwards, towards that variety, we find the Eastern sounding ‘Thor’s Stone’ working a wind section and ‘Irby Tremor’’s percussive clicks which could re-write The Jungle Book’s ‘Elephant March’.

All the while, beats drop like rainfall and compliment pop flutters not dissimilar to AlunaGeorge.

A harsher melancholia drives ‘An Hour’ and ‘Gathering’, as misplaced grooves sprint further into the open gates of Barnes’ mind. Still as decorative, as full of movement, vocal loops and softened piano reveal shadows of the man behind these full-bodied soundscapes.

‘Engravings’ is even more assertive at close of play – ‘The Plumes’ and implicitly titled outro ‘Friend, You Will Never Learn’ rock funk grooves with game-changing furore, spitting unspoken tales that we must try to decipher in our own way.

This is fist-clenching dance music to keep Espen and the Witch on their toes.

Engravings is a return from the brink. When Matthew Barnes – alias Forest Swords – was diagnosed with tinnitus, a hearing disorder, his options were to retreat forever into those mystical shadowlands which he and his music call home, or to reinvent himself: a modern Beethoven, figuratively sawing the legs off the piano to let the vibes flow through; feeling the music more than hearing it.

Fortunately, he chose the latter. The successor to Dagger Paths is a subtle, tactile record – which invites you to press an ear to the tabletop on which your speaker rests to appreciate the textural plurality of the drones, vibrations, and scrapings here lain down with as much custodianship as can be expected of dub music.

It’s in the name. You can all but trace your finger along Engravings; its dark, wandering motifs scratching out an oriental expressway between feelable places. From the rugged, Norse mythology of tunes like ‘Thor’s Stone’, though cluttered Middle Eastern bazaars (‘The Plumes’), all the way to the edgy, film-scapes of Japan (‘The Weight of Gold’).

It ends with ‘Friend, You Will Never Learn’, whose splicing-together of bits conforms to dub’s usual protocol to recycle rather than collect pieces anew. Barnes’s recycling friend, we imagine, can only ‘learn’ when they too begin to collect new sensory experiences.

Say what you like about him, but Matthew Barnes AKA Forest Swords knows how to keep us, (well, me), waiting with bated breath. No sooner had he unleashed his debut release, 2010’s staggering eight-track EP Dagger Paths, and left me slack-jawed, he had gone to ground again and vanished. Three years later, and, despite feeling like I’ve been waiting sodding ages, I am pleased to report that Engravings, Forest Swords’ first full length, is nothing short of stunning.

It starts, somewhat quizzically, with a lumbering, shimmering drone. Brave, sure, yet ‘Ljoss’ simply serves as an introduction, a deliriously teasing appetiser that effortlessly trickles away to reveal the punishing groove of ‘Thor’s Stone’. Engravings is a goldmine and it modestly displays its wares; the hypnotic chanting of ‘The Weight Of Gold’, the curiously danceable samples of ‘Gathering’ interspersed only by icy piano keys and the ‘The Plumes’, a change of pace that snarls and spits with moody chords.

Throughout Engravings, there are countless moments of intricate beauty, from deft flutters of percussion to truly gorgeous soundscapes, which have clearly been meticulously, painstakingly pondered over again and again, ensuring that repeated listens are essential and, yes, inevitable. Hell, maybe I can forgive Mr Barnes for taking three years to craft this exquisite record; just don’t leave it so long next time, OK?