I’ll try not to jump too far into the deep end of the hyperbole pool on this review, but honestly, I’m really excited about this album. I guess I should thank Matt Barnes, aka Forest Swords, for bringing me out of retirement to pen this review.
What’s so exciting about another Electronic music album with plodding beats and Hauntological vocals, you ask? Well, my young Jedi, this is one of those albums that stands out amongst its peers, carving through all the potential regurgitations to collapse a myriad of recognizable influences into a wholly new confluence. Think back to DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing…, an album that really didn’t present listeners with elements that hadn’t come before, but reworked the tributaries into the thread and a huge cross-over success was put to tape. Or how about Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children? With its retro-futurism, like a page out of pulp sci-fi novels, but shot out into the space-time fabric to occupy a new spot. One that bred a sense of familiarity into the exploration of the new. Now, this shouldn’t serve to get your hopes up that this is Shadow or Boards. Nope, but you should get your hopes up, if you haven’t yet heard Engravings yet. Get ready to have it etched into your mind like earworms from Khan!
Upon first playing Engravings, I noticed the guitar. Its style almost quizzical to me. So much was going on in that playing style that it could have schizophrenically short-circuited, but it refused to and charged forward to clarify its own voice and style. Within Barnes’s approach to phrasing, I could hear bloodlines traceable back to some of the mellower moments on an ISIS album, in those momentum-building stages of a song where the soft was precluding the crushing. Even some of the tonalities of Barnes’s guitar take on that Hydra Head lineage, but without just merely aping. That riffage was then blended with a melodic sense that recalls the Japanese minimalism of a Shamisen or Koto. This coupling begot a phrasing style that was tight, repeated itself in form and variation, and stung the senses just enough to be annunciatory. Finally, the genetic mapping of Barnes’s style forms when infused with a touch of old Delta Blues and swims in the sweat of its own reverb. However, I must say that Barnes has tempered the fields of reverb he employs, almost frivolously, by backing down from the near over-use on Dagger Paths.
With all this descriptive time given to the guitar stylings, it is noteworthy that Barnes does not go outside of his range or capability (at least to these ears). And while the guitar is significant and fairly unique, it is not allowed to take over and dominate all other sounds on the record.
On “Thor’s Stone”, the percussion is just anviled out by Mjolnir, enough to just make you cringe in ecstasy and say, “that’s nasty!” This is a big, almost serious track; it comes as heavy as the Asgardian it pays homage to. At the break, where the vocal sample comes in, giving the listener the proper cue of anticipation, the drums return even heavier. Like going to war on a dancefloor. Unlike Swords’ previous work, the drums now had a swing. In fact, you could even call it a type of funk. Despite the fact that this track is decidedly more sober than its playful counterpart, the funk of the drums immediately called to mind “Virgins of Bergen” by Mesak. But then the track just ends. Structurally, this might be one of my biggest demerits for the album. Many of the tracks on Engravings build like songs, with progressive transitions in their form and variation, but often end like trans-galactic transmissions: with razor immediacy.
The next track of note does happen to be next in the batting order, but that is not authorial laziness, I assure you. Somehow, “Irby Tremor” contains some of the most Delta-tinged guitar phrasing and sounds, but shifts far away from that by being heavily inflected by Burial. Without aiming at the bullseye of HyperDub, the cavernous back bass drops here fart out a geyser’s guttural rhythm. And then again, maybe this is where I initially heard a connection to Third Eye Foundation, as the grating synth churns out its own alien phonemes in a distant yell. This may be indicative of an artist (and album) that displays so many influences so boldly, but with subtlety, that the ear scampers and reaches.
Now, even though I have made reference to Burial, I don’t want you to think me contrary when I say that one major stylistic change from Dagger Paths to this album is the fading out of 21st Century Dub styling’s. Sure, they’re still there, just flattened into the mix a bit more. Perfect evidence of this is “The Weight of Gold”. This cut struts around like it’s a Dub cut, but it’s actually a real Deru-esque style of HipHop head-nodder masquerading as otherwise. It is on the surface, with the echo boxed guitar, that this is a Dub cut. The ornaments on the tree say Dub, but the branches of the tree say HipHop. Maybe you need to also think Clams Casino to get the HipHop framework I’m pointing to. I could see spinning this track in-between Peaking Lights, the aforementioned Deru and some old Scientist.
The broader brushstrokes Barnes is working with here show a maturing artist, who had a fine first record, but is now hitting his stride and finding his own style as he whittles it into shape from all the outer layers of influence.
The biggest bummer, to me, is that Engravings is not amenable to being played in a room full of people. At least, not those bent on listening carefully to music and not talking too much. It is a record that need be played quite loudly (duh), but also, most effectively in a solitary state. It is one of those records that needs to be intimately cultivated one-on-one. Light the incense and pack a bowl, it’s gonna be a long night in with Matt Barnes. (Gabriel Bogart)
Get It Here: Tri Angle Records