Forest Swords: Engravings (Tri Angle)
The proper debut full-length from Matthew Barnes incrementally expands on the palette of sounds he’d laid out on his first couple of EPs. Where Engravings does succeed is in giving a more fully formed impression of those ideas from his first releases, with each of these feeling more deliberate and accomplished than their predecessors. Where I’d say it lacks is in its dynamics and sequencing — I feel as though many of these tracks are interchangeable, and there isn’t much of a narrative arc to the album as I hear it. But this is a small gripe, considering that each of these tracks could easily stand alone. And there are some pleasant surprises in the arrangements, like the odd piano and mallet meets soul of “An Hour” or the odd syncopated sample refrain of “Gathering.”
Despite having so much in common with his previous Dagger Paths, he has largely perfected his rather unique sound that incorporates tremolo stringed instruments, lo-fi, stripped down homemade percussion, dubby delay, lonely guitar, and manipulated, circular samples of cut-up voices, noise, and crude flutes. The latter is a key element of many tracks, especially “Irby Tremor” with its strange appropriated horn samples and wheezy flute samples over a deep, dubby arrangement. At times that sampling style reminds me of Matt Elliott’s sampling tactics as Third Eye Foundation, where seemingly ordinary instruments become disorienting loops of sound. Only on “Anneka’s Battle” does a human voice actually carry the track, featuring a guest vocal from Anneka Warburton (who’s also done time collaborating with kindred artist Blue Daisy). Falling toward the back end of the album, it’s a welcome diversion into something familiar.
It all converges with style on the syncopated clatter of “Friend, You Will Never Learn,” the eight-minute finale that combines all of the aforementioned elements with an emphasis on murky strings, choral stabs, and noodly melodic patterns. It took me time to form my opinion of the album, weighing Forest Swords’ unique aesthetic against how little it’s evolved here. However, while Barnes has far from reinvented himself here, he’s more finely honed his sound and is showcasing his individual sense of style with flair. In the short attention span of the internet age, a listener like me can sometimes forget that evolving as an artist is an organic and fluid and — gasp — gradual process, and this incremental evolution is likely just one in a series of improvements to follow. In that sense, Engravings is a satisfying creative success.