Forest Swords – ‘Engravings’ (Tri Angle)

Matt Barnes, the man behind Forest Swords, is not a typical artist. Aside from initially shunning any management or PR agencies and choosing to handle everything himself, as well as turning down gigs and collaborations to retain complete creative control, he used the attention gained from his critically acclaimed 2010 breakthrough EP ‘Dagger Paths’ as a sign he should take a sizeable step back from the industry. Barnes instead spent a couple of years working on art projects and installations, and although he was still creating new music, it wasn’t until the last year that he set about making his first full length.

Entitled ‘Engravings’ and out on the Brooklyn based Tri Angle imprint, Barnes has written, recorded and mixed the album entirely himself. And just to make sure it has as much of his heart in it as possible, he completed all the mixing sat outside in The Wirral where he grew up.

The album is a wonderfully absorbing haze of washed textures and muted atmospherics, embedded with crisp notes and striking riffs that speak of an artist in total control of his craft.

Structurally his songs usually start out with a looping sound that sets the scene, gradually elements then seem to grow from within, steadily transforming the track into fascinating new forms. That initial ambience maintains a presence, but through the unrushed sequencing of spliced vocals, piano keys, stirring guitar riffs, warming dubs, skittering drums and a myriad of effects, a quietly dramatic narrative begins to unfold. The understated quality in these journeys is captivating.

While many artists can build these enticing textures in interesting ways, rarely is it achieved with such vision and clarity. ‘Irby Tremor’ for example opens with a wash of squashed horns and seemingly unconnected effects, before switching to a pipe melody that whistles over stark, echoing percussion and a looping bassline. A gloriously bold guitar riff then comes soaring through to take charge, but then quickly gives way to a far gentler one. The mood is taken down further and some murmured vocal samples flit up and down, before the pipes, guitars and squashed horns all make a return in the equally engaging finale. Each component is not only clearly defined but has a huge impact on the tone of the track. The simplicity of each section allows them each to make their mark, while the complexity of piecing them all together creates his emotional, dramatic effect.

Barnes has a flair for taking disparate parts and constructing something really rather magical with them. His signature finds that rare aesthetic beauty that comes when juxtaposing energies are married effortlessly together in the same breath. The album throughout is subtle yet arresting, expansive yet deeply personal, hopeful yet tinged with despair. It’s a work of outstanding guile and character, and let’s just hope the well earned praise Barnes will receive doesn’t trigger another retreat from producing records.

Robert Mccorquodale

‘Engravings’ is available now on Tri Angle Records