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Forest Swords - Engravings

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Artist: Forest Swords

Album: Engravings

Label: Tri Angle

Review date: Aug. 27, 2013

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. Past quests to place a sound in the foreground or background or all the way to outer space involved cramming a drum kit into a tiled bathroom, or pulling the reverb system out of a Hammond organ. It’s now a lot easier to take a track of, say, lone piano, and audition it in a six-sided parlor, and then in a concert hall.

There’s an argument to be made for staying with real-world atmosphere when recording a real-world band, but for the artist who works digitally from the start, reverb settings can start shaping a recording before the first note is drawn. Early digital echo, the kind that fueled 4AD’s 1980s catalog, had a frazzle that pins those recording in time. Today’s plug-ins are so numerous and subtle, it’s the range of depths that’s distinct, rather than the resonance of a particular effect.

Barnes makes his tracks feel sparser than they actually are. On "Friend, You Will Never Learn," there’s snare, bass, chimes and a sharply clipped gospel choir sample. The chimes are soaked in enough echo that it’s hard to differentiate the source and echo, much less what the instrument might be were we to hear the chime unadorned. There’s as much going on as a four-piece band, even more when you throw in intermittent guitar upstrokes, but each thread has it’s own glow. Woven loosely, the parts unspool at different depths, like shadowed mountains and passing headlights.

Forest Swords tracks are trots, without refrains, building like a soundtrack with steady rhythms. Dub is a factor, with numbers like "Irby Tremor" sporting familiar enough reggae baselines, and even some old Atari zorches shooting through. Yet his work often holds back from locking into a groove, remaining stately and faintly medieval, akin to early ‘70s art rock. A bit faster, and his complex percussion patterns would boil, but Barnes prefers the tension of a simmering pot. Engravings shares something with Harry Fraud’s Adrift mixtape, which has hip hop luminaries like Danny Brown rapping over samples from the Comus era, pitting the city against weird pastorals. Barnes has stated that he uses fewer samples than it seems, and I’d guess most of the bass and spy-guitar licks are his own playing. But both producers pull judo moves, using gentle tugs to pull you to the ground, getting a heavy sound while avoiding heavy gestures.

Barnes style was fully realized from the start, and the new Forest Swords material doesn’t differ much from the debut EP, Dagger Paths, from three years ago. One development is working with vocalists. Rapper Haleek Maul got a backing track recently, and on Engravings, U.K. bass regular Anneka gets a featured vocal (under enough reverb that it’s effectively wordless, though the syllables "give up the light" eke through). It’s a departure from the bluntly chopped vocal samples that he usually uses. Her vocals gather over the course of the track, and by the end, they’ve created a choir.

Engravings does find Barnes reaching new peaks, even if he’s not radically adding to his sound. “The Weight of Gold”, combines all his main ideas and maintains the minimalist spell. The first half is foghorn feedback, a ship coming to dock. When that fades, harpsichord glitter takes its place. A blurred crowd of voices shows up in the second half, and a low-end chant — maybe a pow-wow from a Hollywood western — forms around a kick drum. The mix of noise, nocturnally bright tones, and discarded old stock phrasings wouldn’t be easy to recreate without magnetic disks, yet it feels like an ensemble performance, each of the players waiting their turn to step forward. Together, they become abstracted figures on a landscape with realistic perspective. For an artist who puts his effort into isolating sounds, they resonate. They stick together.

By Ben Donnelly

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