Forest Swords - Engravings | Album Review | By Volume

I'm afraid of heaven because I can't stand the height. I'm afraid of you because I can't be left behind. St. Vincent - Regret
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Forest Swords

Engravings

Inspired by himself; manifesting himself.

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Author: on August 26, 2013
9.0
Tri-Angle
August 26, 2013

Ask fans of Forest Swords’ Dagger Paths EP what made it such a fantastic release and they’ll likely stumble over their words in an attempt to shape the un-shapeable, intangible mood it carried. Numerous aspects complimented each other, but maybe timing was most important; released in 2010, it was the right sound at the perfect time. Forest Swords, also known as Matt Barnes, played reverb-heavy production against accessible, melancholic beauty and unconventional influences from Eastern instrumentation. It was easy to get lost in its exotic nature, and you mightn’t even realise Barnes was covering Aaliyah for the first few listens of “If Your Girl”. What carried the release to the highest of tiers was its length. Playing with similar ideas and themes throughout, it would have needed more variety to perform as well at album length – Barnes could get away with it on an EP. Three years’ abstaining from music production have passed, and Barnes’ full-length debut has arrived on the Tri Angle roster. The music world has moved on a fair amount in this time, and interestingly, Engravings feels strikingly familiar, albeit with a hardened character.

On his first album, Barnes builds upon the foundations laid in his previous release. Engravings isn’t an exact continuation of his musical narrative; it’s much more a story with its own beginning and end, taking the best of Barnes’ prior ideas and developing them with maturity. This works well, largely due to his belief that furthering projects might mean taking elements away as much as it means adding them. Certainly, the album is much less convoluted than its predecessors, as the artist strips back on the weight of numbing reverb and sonic humidity. At the same time, Barnes extends his repertoire to include a wider array of instruments available for looping, opening a vast number more doors to explore, reducing claustrophobic tendencies. There isn’t much point lingering with comparisons to his old releases, so I’ll round the point off simply: If you like Forest Swords’ other work, be it his own releases or production for the likes of How To Dress Well, you’ll enjoy Engravings.

Everything about Engravings is atmospheric. Ethereal ambience, doom metal drones and riffs stretch across the release, sure, but it’s also atmospheric in a more traditional sense; each track paints its own picture, each sound a brush stroke that adds as much texture as it does human personality. Traits and characteristics leave an imprint by way of production that isn’t quite clean and polished, at least not to a 2013, ‘year of the pristine AlunaGeorge and Disclosure’ level. Engravings traverses its landscapes with the deftness of sweeping panoramic shots and the ever so slight bobble of human perspective. “Thor’s Stone”, the second track harking back to Barnes’ home of the Wirral, is memorable for its lead wind rhythm that conjures rustic China in the mind and brings it to life like breaths between the beats.

Brooding dread and bittersweet regret manifest their selves in the clamorous coming-together of harpsichord reverb, barely-there bass movements and haunted cries that make up “The Weight of Gold”, rounding off a similarly-themed half of the album. A break away from the tricks we know Barnes can pull is hinted at on the prior track, “Onward”, in which he plays with the pacing of the proceedings – he conveys inevitability well on other tracks, yet here he has us waltz with anticipation, as we’re left screeching chalk and throbbing bass when not taunted by Penrose steps embodied in a melody, later turning into a percussion-propelled pursuit.

Over the course of the second half of the LP, Forest Swords ties up the loose ends of his refinement of the Dagger Paths EP in order to conquer new ground. We are made to play the waiting game during “An Hour”, a song which lasts both a moment and a lifetime. Its pensive agenda drains and leeches as it plays out, wiggling its way through the ear canal and becoming a part of the body one hates to depend on. It isn’t the most interesting song, yet it also channels the history and weight of the record’s namesake – a flawed, vital period of Engravings. “The Plumes” is another song that stumbles and plods through mist, however this time shoegaze riffs are shoved into the audible environment of a monk’s temple mid-ritual, followed by the final track, formed with the orchestral delicateness that These New Puritans mastered on this year’s Field of Reeds.

When “Anneka’s Battle” begins, the transition feels rushed for the listener, though not for the album. After the sluggish travel of “An Hour”, confrontation is forced and we must adapt and cope with the new circumstances. It’s the most vocal-led song on the record, with Barnes taking a more subtle backseat with his production; the synth progressions bring the album into the now, as does the decisive percussion hits and intriguingly aggressive nature of the beat. Barnes’ drum-work announces how far it has come at its most important moment, where it vacates the spotlight for silky croons to spread wings, instead of chopping up choral samples for the texture. “Gathering” begins with a collage of such a take on vocal pieces, though acting as a cushion for the track instead of a dressing, during an extended build-up. Part-way through, Barnes uses an isolation of piano to invite the listener to almost take part in the experience, as ghosts of abandoned ruins almost form into being.

Engravings is rounded off with an epilogue that answers a select few questions prompted by opener “Ljoss”, making sure to leave ample room for ambiguity. Perhaps most importantly, what it means for music to be ‘quintessential Forest Swords’ is redefined by Barnes, who tones down broke guitar string vibes for beat-driven productions and expansive string and synth movements on an album-long epic fit to soundtrack experiences in both the modern and ancient worlds. You’d be hard-pressed to hear a full-length album in 2013 this impressive in its heavy, emotionally crushing and devastatingly impressive integrity, though it is by and large an extension of Barnes’ previous work. Fortunately, his older pieces appear as inspiration and not manifestation, as Barnes essentially ponders over the past of his own creativity with a new perspective. Engravings is an album that still lives, still has experiences to offer and moments to share, yet pores over its own archaeology. Encumbered by his own creative history, Forest Swords can’t help but carry his essence into a debut that couldn’t fit more perfectly in the Tri Angle collection, thanks to its intuitive cultivation of influences industrial, Eastern and everything between.

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