Release Date: Sep 17, 2013
Record label: Tri Angle
Genre(s): Electronic, Pop/Rock
Over the past three years, or thereabouts, Brooklyn-based Tri-Angle Records has established itself as an incredibly consistent purveyor of fashionably unsettling work in hip-hop inflected electronica. Arguably, it’s the clearest case of a label possessing a unifying image, identity and sound since the early days of 4AD. It could be said to be a bit of a surprise, though that what might well be Tri-Angle’s defining release has come from the considerably less-hip shores of the Wirral.
When people borrow Gertrude Stein’s notorious phrase “there is no there there,” their meaning is usually pejorative. But in the case of Forest Swords (a.k.a. Matthew Barnes), it seems instead appropriate as the highest compliment. Engravings, his first full-length, evokes a grayness of place so completely that it is utter, that there is no there there because there is only there there.
I've always thought the reason Matthew Barnes' 2010 record Dagger Paths had such a hold on electronic music fans was its non-electronic nature. Its dank atmosphere, warm guitar tones and dusty textures were thoroughly acoustic, as if the album were the work of a woodsman inspired by his surroundings. (Indeed, Barnes lives in a strikingly beautiful corner of England called The Wirral.) Its follow-up further emphasizes these qualities: though it was recorded on a laptop, Engravings was mixed outdoors, and only after a failed attempt to record the entire thing outside.
Merseysider Matthew Barnes’ debut release as Forest Swords, 2010’s Dagger Paths EP, created an awful lot of interest for such a nascent new artist; attention well deserved. In his debut release, Barnes established himself as a hugely promising and illuminating presence within experimental UK electronica. Since that release, Barnes has been unable to follow up that promise as Forest Swords’ progress has been stymied by a significant hearing problem, forcing him to take a break from music.
On Forest Swords’ 2010 EP Dagger Paths, the web of dub, psych, dance, and drone spun by UK producer Matthew Barnes felt instantly singular. So singular, in fact, that the task of creating a worthy follow-up must have seemed daunting, which I assumed was why it took him a while. It turns out there were other reasons-- for one, he suffered from hearing problems that made his new work sound different with each listen, and forced him to consider ending Forest Swords.
After releasing the Dagger Paths EP, his highly lauded debut as Forest Swords in 2010, Merseysider Matthew Barnes experienced significant hearing problems, namely tinnitus. He returned to his graphic design and producing background for three years, and went relatively silent. We saw and heard remnants of his talent, with Barnes producing tracks for How To Dress Well’s Total Loss‘, but no solo work.
From New Jersey cloud rap beat-maker Clams Casino (A$AP Rocky, Lil B, the Weeknd) to Kanye West's newest British charge, Evian Christ (the 24-year-old produced "I'm In It" on this year's Yeezus), NYC-based Tri Angle Records has become part of the vanguard pushing the boundaries of electronic music in its short history as a label. Set to join the ranks is Merseyside, UK resident Matthew Barnes, who finally releases his debut album, after hearing problems kept him sidelined from working on a follow-up to his 2009 EP, Dagger Paths. Much like his labelmates, Barnes's music tends to occupy dark, sometimes claustrophobic spaces that wouldn't feel out of place with rappers rhyming overtop.
Forest Swords is Matthew Barnes, a Liverpudlian producer whose sound is singular and hopelessly gorgeous enough to induce oppositional descriptors such as "ancient but contemporary" and "epic but intimate". This is his first full-length release and it's restless – exploring dub, post-rock and R&B – but each track coheres seamlessly into a whole of a record. The only human voices are processed and reverbed into wordlessness so that they sound as dread-laden as they do ecstatic.
In an oft-cited XKCD comic strip, writer Randall Munroe demonstrated an easy way of making people of any age feel old; citing a generation-wide cultural touchstone (Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Finding Nemo) and asking if they realised how long ago it had come out. Punch line aside, it made a neat point about our inability to date cultural trends – some releases continue to seem fresh, current, and are consequently assumed recent, whilst others date quickly or fade in appeal, quickly appearing completely outmoded. Toy Story 3 came out three years ago! As did still-loved records like The Suburbs, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Total Life Forever.
The phrase “exciting UK producer” is only matched in ubiquity these days by “exciting young Chicago rapper,” and Forest Swords is the latest to add to the former column. Much like the violence-affected verses of Chicago’s youth, the project of Matthew Barnes is colored heavily by his home, instrumentation barely hanging on in the rainy wind, everything doused in a hazy, gray downpour. Barnes’ debut LP as Forest Swords, Engravings, isn’t solely inspired by present aspects like today’s weather; instead, it’s a blend of the modern prevalence of dub and the harsh mysteries of Norse invasions in England’s distant past.
2013 is shaping up to be a vintage year for the kind of electronic music Björk would relax to in the bath. She’d love Fuck Buttons’ kraut-industrial blizzards. She’d adore Jon Hopkins.And she’d certainly enjoy Forest Swords – who, for his debut LP, has given himself the task of exploring his Wirral hometown’s Norse roots. The result is a set of remarkable electronic rituals with an endearing, mystical quality.
Matthew Barnes’ first full-length album as Forest Swords (following an acclaimed debut EP in 2009) is a collection of soundscapes that are alternately chilly and evocative. The best of these tracks combine icy ambience with heavier, doomy grooves for an evocative, almost creepy experience. The more lackluster pieces are the ones that seem to lack a musical hook and try to get by on atmosphere alone.
Some words - great words, in great books - have the power to deftly sweep the floor out from under their reader like a French waiter showing off his tablecloth-pulling party trick. Words don’t need Hollywood budgets to painstakingly build a life-sized Hogwarts, or to fashion perfect countryside scenes waiting to accommodate Mr Darcy flouncing along on his horse. Words are exciting because they can defy what our physics teacher told us was true.
Three years ago, Matthew Barnes emerged from The Wirral with an almost album-length EP, Dagger Paths. It immediately caught the attention of the music press with its strange, blurry mixture of psychedelic pop and languid dubstep. Engravings follows the same vein, but with Dagger Paths' rougher edges honed into a series of enigmatic spectral half-songs that swirl and bite in successive layers of oblique, occasionally abstract, textures.
Reverb — the kind of detailed delay that sets the layers of a track in distinct and unnatural places — is destined to be one of the signature production techniques of our era. Matthew Barnes, who records as Forest Swords, is among the best at it. The tightly controlled effects of a digital audio workstation, a.k.a. a laptop with music production software, allow for productions where the space around the elements plays as much a role as the notes themselves.
Forest Swords’ debut EP Dagger Paths was something of a revelation. Matthew Barnes drew on the melancholy of Burial, Grouper and DJ Screw, and forged it with dub, pop, R&B, techno and drone into a dense and evocative style that sounded quite unlike anything else. The text accompanying Engravings, his first album for Tri Angle, describes how Barnes took a break from music after Dagger Paths, returning to the Wirral to record and produce Engravings over a yearlong period.