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White Noise: Forest Swords - Engravings

Friday, 30 August 2013

Forest Swords - Engravings

Label: Tri Angle

While obviously grounded in the aural domain, some music is so imagistic that one cannot help but find listening a visual experience. On certain albums, each song will soundtrack imaginary films, as melodies and rhythms engage the cinema of your inner eye as well as your ear. Matthew Barnes’ astonishing debut EP as Forest Swords, Dagger Paths, was just such a record. Drawing liberally from distinct pools of influences; dub, rock, Eastern melodies and even RnB, it was not Barnes’ corralling of genres which impressed the listener – it was the mesmerising power of that music to evoke atmospheres, images and moods. The sound of Forest Swords was strikingly original: clattering percussion and deep dubby basslines conjured hazy atmospheres which bordered on the mystical, as powerful guitar riffs coursed through the terrain; resulting in a sound that felt ancient, powerful and seductive.

After three years of radio silence (he has been missed), Barnes finally returns for Forest Swords’ first LP, Engravings. This fittingly marks his entry to the Tri Angle stable, whose reputation for experimental long players, atmospheric but always pop-aware, precedes them. Do not expect a grand departure: Engravings is in every way a continuation of the Forest Swords sound, a deeper exploration of the project’s meditative terrain, delivering and even exceeding the promise so evident in those early releases. While this may disappoint the few hoping for a dramatic stylistic shift, the majority will not fail to be humbled by the depth and power of Forest Swords’ first full-length statement.

Thor's Stone

Indeed, while on first listen these songs may sound similar to Dagger Paths, this is mostly due to Barnes’ establishment of a remarkably distinct sound, which he plies here in a dazzling array of iterations. Each track is a rich tapestry of sound, offering new ground for the listener to chart and explore over repeated listens, revealing hidden depths. Yet this is not opaque music – the mist has cleared somewhat since those early EPs, and there is a new clarity to the arrangements as Barnes refines rather than piling on layers, drawing out the essential hooks and grooves in each distillation.

The music of Forest Swords comes pre-aged and organic, the simmering atmospherics and hefty lope of Ljoss introducing the sound that the album will continue to explore. As the song wears on, the ambient sounds are tied brilliantly to a chunky guitar riff in trademark style, showing Barnes’ talent for marrying vital experimental atmospheres and arresting melodic hooks. Follow-up Thor’s Stone is another strong example, where a mesmeric Eastern melody comes out of nowhere to dominate the distorted vocals and rattling drumhits of the track’s second half.

The Weight of Gold

While the conflation of referenced genres is difficult to unpick, some of the album’s strongest songs veer closer to established forms. Sinuous dubwise basslines underpin the syrup-thick atmospherics of Irby Tremor, only to be cannibalised by haunting synth sirens and sudden squalls of distorted melody.  Meanwhile a greater interest in vocal manipulation can be found on the likes of Anneka’s Battle, as the singer’s voice is twisted elegantly around some of the album’s more delicate guitar-work, before surrendering to a whirring synth which brings the track to its hypnotic conclusion. There are clearer traces of electronic manipulation than were present in earlier works, such as the numerous canny intros and outros which take the form of staccato vocal manipulations, fluidly serving as both mood-setters and palette-cleansers between the main courses. Late entry Gathering is in fact composed of these stop-start vocal samples, the liquid keys of its latter half making for one of the album’s most bewitchingly transcendent moments.

An album so rich in detail and mystique is sure to draw different listeners to different highlights, but a pair of melodic crescendos make for some of the album’s most nakedly beautiful moments. There’s a trace of the eternal in the beautiful piano loop that makes up the core of An Hour, an RnB-infused number with ghostly vocals that you’ll want to return to. It is earlier, however, amidst the angular percussion of Onward where Engravings achieves what is, for this reviewer, its prime moment of sublime inspiration. Building over a soft, lingering guitar melody, the gasping percussion and sluggish basslines disappear, giving way to the rise of an astonishingly moving string section, distorted as if heard from a tinny radio yet sacrificing none of its emotional power. The percussion builds anew, a fevered march, atavistic in its yearning and unstoppably propulsive – and then it’s gone. A single moment like this in an hour of music would make for something very special indeed, but Engravings is full of these strokes of inspiration, the engaged listener need only enter the forest and seek them.


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