Review Summary: Even at his most dissonant and daring, Forest Swords brings an intangible warmth and intimacy to his music.
Here in the infancy of the 21st century, electronic music is really establishing itself as an unorthodox medium of expression. A wave of excellent new artists (Mount Kimbie, James Blake, Four-Tet) have made the terms ‘organic’ and ‘eclectic’ viable in this genre by incorporating elements of contemporary jazz, Latin, soul, post-rock, and everything in between. The results have been nothing short of revolutionary, but this new surge and a mess of pale imitations begs the question: where to go from here? Cue Forest Swords, experimental electro project of Matthew Barnes, whose 2010 EP Dagger Paths
netted wide critical acclaim and several year’s-end ‘Best Of’ spots. Three years later, Engravings
is Forest Swords’ first ever album, but as far as second releases go, the young artist beats a potential sophomore slump with unassuming ease.
What makes Engravings
stand out immediately is its unconventional engagement with dynamics, and their unique interplay with melody. Just take the opening cut “Ljoss”, where a gentle flurry of notes swells to the fore only to recede beneath a sparse backbeat, a theme that repeats so seamlessly that the track itself seems to sigh along with the mournful vocals. Each offering boasts a masterful grasp of this kind of thematic relationship between structure and intention, and it’s evident that Barnes fully understands the importance of not just what a song is doing musically, but how
it does so. Along this vein, the instrumental selection is excellent; it brings to bear a wide array of sounds without seeming pretentious or overreaching, and in some cases is downright incredible. Spacy post-rock guitar wanders comfortably with syncopated vibraphone and piano in “An Hour”, and slow burning hip hop beats give way to a rasping wood flute in “Thor’s Stone”, without any of it feeling the least bit cumbersome. This kind of variance affords each track its own distinctive signature, and overall prevents the album from ever becoming tedious or repetitive.
A final touch that truly makes this release innovative is its stellar use of vocalization as both a subtle flavoring and working rhythmic component. Barnes never abuses his vocal samples, and on most tracks he lets them shine through in brief bursts that linger and refrain (the gospel groove of “Friend, You Will Never Learn” or the stark desperation of “The Weight of Gold”). However, the exception is just as captivating, with “Gathering” building its entire rhythmic backbone from a tug-of-war between choral samples that gradually builds into an ethereal argument of stunning beauty. Always, this careful consideration of the ‘how’ of music is ever present, and it brings a startling intimacy to the proceedings, an intangible warmth and life to even the most dissonant and alien pieces of this album.
The sheer amount of novelty and depth that Forest Swords’ latest offering brings to the table is going to draw your attention, but it’s ultimately the delicate familiarity and quiet intimacy of Barnes’ production that will keep you listening. Brimming with minimalist energy and overflowing with creativity, Engravings
is undoubtedly one of the most exciting debut albums of the year, and I for one cannot wait to see what this artist has in store for us.