Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Forest Swords - Engravings


The PR and administration departments of Tri-Angle Records must have one of the more prolonged and active of days as of late. Not that there's anything wrong with a label who decide on carefully hand-picking their artists and, what some might describe as, limiting their activity to say a handful of LPs per year. But if you're one of the [lucky] people to land a role in promoting, or maybe just handling the day-to-day, month-by-month going's on, needless to say 2013 has offered you some pretty challengeable developments. First we had The Haxan Cloak's arrival on the label and now, a few months after Excavation sank-rather-than-swam its way into our ears, Matthew Barnes' Forest Swords moniker is the next 'big' talk-about landing at one's doorstep and into Tri-Angle's cabinet. I don't mean to convey this as them being overly-proud of their acquisition; it's more a light-hearted referencing to their joy of offering Forest Swords' full-length debut, Engravings. And after what was one of the more celebrated - to the point of artistic strain for Barnes - releases of 2010, Dagger Paths' prolonged message felt more a break from the changing landscape of electronic music, without necessarily going as far as to accuse/prove such a change was anything but needed. The delightful mix of dub, minimalism and other-Worldly discovery Barnes offered, instead, stood like a vocal counter-response, but remained focal on its own objective; its own wandering voice amid a crowd chock with low-frequency beats, spliced vocals, and moreso, long-lasting appeal. 

Ljoss then, doesn't open the album as if the record is materialising out of some vague presence or existence. If anything, the use of viscous guitar strings that emerge out like they're in flux between solid and liquid state, alludes more-so to Barnes' way of drawing from the non-physical past to reminisce with the present. Coupled with the simple, clatter of percussion and voices that chant in the backdrop like they're calling out rather than casually professing, gives the track its weightless passage and nostalgic essence without necessarily denoting anything specific or entailed. Thor's Stone likewise seems to hold priority in the sound's sonic and tonal quality to pronounce a realization of space, but one that lies idly between positive and negative. In the midst of Barnes' hard-striking strings and horns coated in reverb, there's this eery warmth enshrouding the listener, but feels evermore like a damp and cold alternative to its native texture. Perhaps in reference to Barnes producing the album outside on his laptop, perhaps too a continuing allusion to the concept of past memories in present surroundings. Amidst this two-state implication, Forest Swords continues to demonstrate prowess in dabbling with genres to achieve the lonely, yet personal vibe of his visuals. Irby Tremor's more upbeat drums, lavish guitar textures and humane triangulation of vocal tone not only brings to light Swords' referencing - and thus in result, acknowledgement - of the urban scenery against the more personally-natural introspect of fields, forests and landmass, but too can be read as a gestural nod to his home-city [Liverpool]'s rich musical culture.

I wouldn't go as far as to say this proves to be an undermining identifier to Swords' sound, or that the linking between Barnes' music and fellow Liverpudlian's is present. More, as we move onto Onward - from the very first hammering of these concretised drums - the focus tends to shift more into the memory-induced side of things. And more specifically, the manner at which such things tend to loop and repeat themselves. For one of Swords' most repetitive and simplified of compositions, the track goes about relying on this style of delivery to relay that feeling of repetition as more a psychological one, more-so than a musical one. Amid the pattern of out-of-focus keys and bass synths emerging from beneath the percussion, there's a feeling of reminiscence and return, without needing any emotive or indicative context. It's when the somewhat cinematic, and quite aged strings (that sound like they've been taken straight from off the opening to a 50's drama film) fade into view that Barnes captures that two-fold effect on both memory, and nostalgia as one singular constant. Admittedly, the quality of the recording doesn't entirely transpose in as well with the sounds before it, and the position it holds in the track's layering does feel rather rigid and off-balance. But aesthetically, Barnes still succeeds in counterbalancing minimal instrumentation with the appliance of texture and effects to a given recording. 

If there's one thing Barnes succeeds at when working as a producer, rather than as a musician/artist, is when on examples like An Hour Barnes continues to prioritise balance and steadiness in his music. Here, the track offers a further use of conflicting tonal and textural sounds that without Swords' appliance of reverb and coated distortion, may not have worked as well in creating that interconnecting sensation running through the album. So despite the presence of these more open percussion sounds and spacious distortions swirling about the surrounding space, Barnes - perhaps again due to the external influence from the outside environment - returns to encompassing rhythmic elements into his piece so as to initiate a sense of pace and progression in a track that at times is unclear on where exactly it's heading, or even what specific visual it's attempting to conjure. Moments such as these are where I worry Barnes begins to drop in consistency in his quest to remit with past/present surroundings at the cost of his own music's presence and clarity with the listener. 

So despite Anneka's Battle running an alternate route in demanding vocal strength marrying with the instrumentation clearly percussion-fronted, things seem to want to reflect back to that populous of rhythm and pace. I'm let confused then by Barnes' sudden change-of-heart as he shifts from this ethereal conjuring of mood to, here, something far more downtempo-themed and removed from the once personal solitariness. It's not that I find the shift in genre puzzling; as I've expressed, the change in style Barnes shows in his use of beats and percussion is one of Forest Sword's biggest charms. I just feel that this track lacks what the previous offerings did so well at, in letting their listener [re]discover the wonders and mystery to Barnes' environments, rather than (what sounds like) yet another typical suburban snapshot far removed from that singular alienation of previous. It's a massive contrast in quality to what follower Gathering shows with its almost similar category of sounds and emphasis of such. Though while the vocals here are instead looped, sampled and ran through numerous effects and processes, I'm attracted more by the execution - as well as the delivery of these vocal-like loops - because of the way they tend to capture perfectly the jostling properties to Barnes' out-of-the-city environment. The hollow wind, the stance of trees and darkening forestry, the very expanse of fields and cloud-covered chilly air. While the track does later include a twinkling of keys and echoing piano, it's the vocals still that commandeer the effectiveness shown, and it gives Barnes' projection a prolonged and challenging role in the psyche of its observer. 

The Plumes, despite standing as the shortest track on the album, is another case where Barnes allows his Forest Swords sounds to convey a little less clear-cut answers and instead deliver an ambiguity to the visuals being crafted. The distorting waves of guitar and droning effects later applied seem to deliver that obliqueness of scenery, while the use of vocals - which here, sound slightly tribal or at the very least native to a distant land - seem to add a certain unidentifiable warmth and closure to production that comes across tepid at best in its vibe. Because of this, the two decisions taken by Barnes gel together progressively well - thus creating this content state of mind, and an independence with the surroundings without professing as to the deeper, more emotional connections from out such a position. And with the eight minute climax Friend, You Will Never Learn, Barnes' lasting message is one of bold contesting, but a contest Forest Swords takes single-handedly with clear and direct focus. Past the initial signal of wavering synths and tepidly pulsing notation, the percussion seems to sway almost between styles like it too has caught itself afflux amidst the hip-hop and downtempo tendencies Barnes has offered up until this point. But beyond these shifts, it's the melodic properies that stand out the most here; an afinity of urban scenery conjuring from out the track's accompanying of tapped beats and hearty bass drums. The vocals too expell that inner sanctum of both collective and conflicting identity - both male and female usherances acting as if in opposition of one another, but not necessarily retaliating or even arguing with the other party. Simply acting in accordance, much like many an urban or suburban daily life.

I can recognize the solace Matthew Barnes seems to target in his close-net privacy of sound that's equally as ensprawling as it is spacious. The great benefit to Engravings is that it balances Forest Sword's skill for textural diversity and intrigue, yet at the same time combines these different aesthetics to offer a scene that while not exactly discreet, prides itself on the focus of Barnes' selective imagery at the time. The emphasis then on these personal narratives, these pin-point moments in time, gives Barnes' use of natural instrumentation, the simplified expression of such, and the electronics that weave everything together a more personal connection with the listener. But what's more, is that this record achieves all that without ever having to rely on the familiarness of moody or atmospherically trope ideas in contemporary electronics. There's barely any dark or malevolent opportunism, neither is there a sense Barnes gets so desperate to the point he fills the remainder with inhuman sounds or deconstructed instrumentations. Yes, some moments on this record feel so personal they act like momentary snapshots rather than fluid captures, and Barnes' interest in differing sub-fields delivers this in less favourable and desired shifts in style. But to deliver a debut - that at one time was at risk of never being - that addresses Barnes' early-life environment and conveys it as both a mystery to as much himself let alone the listener, shows that Forest Swords is an alias that centres equally on the vibe as well as the content. To tie that in with a theme so (literally) close to home, while playing high risk with his listener's understanding, pays off with a debut that showcases Matthew Barnes' trimphant step into full-length performance.
~Jordan

8.0

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