Liverpool's Matthew Barnes, aka Forest Swords, has been relatively quiet since dropping 2010's Dagger Paths EP - and for a genre that shifts and changes constantly, staying quiet for any period of time could be considered a dangerous move. However, rather than sounding left behind, Barnes has returned ahead of the game with debut album, Engravings.
This record is the logical next step for Forest Swords. The music remains - and I use this word under great duress - haunting, like club music created for a venue located somewhere in limbo. But it's a record that avoids being tagged solely as a witch house/hauntology affair (like some of his Tri Angle label mates) thanks to Barnes' willingness to combine the sounds of house music, dub, R&B and post-rock. One minute, as the spidery and reverb-heavy guitar lines weave hazy patterns on 'Irby Tremors', you might like to think of Engravings as a kind of otherworldly guitar album, but when the treated horns appear and rumble across the track for a few moments it suddenly becomes a dub record... but then those beats are pure R&B… what the heck is going on?
What also marks Forest Swords out a little more is his use of field recordings; while fairly commonplace in electronic music these days, Barnes - a native of the Wirral - indulges in some psycho-geography by referencing some place names and Norse/Viking history in the song titles. While 'Ljoss' continues his trick of adding a Nordic "j" to words, the aforementioned 'Irby Tremors' is a name check to a local Norse settlement and 'Thor's Stone' is the name given to Thurstaston Common, the location of a rock allegedly used during Viking ceremonies. The music doesn't necessarily betray any Nordic influences but there's definitely a pastoral element that reflects the importance of place in Barnes' work.
He also shares a vision - and something of a sound - with Tom Krell of How To Dress Well; Barnes co-wrote HTDW's 'Cold Nites' and although this might come across as intensely sad music at times, I don't think that's either creator's intention. Aye, it's serious music alright, but the message is hope battling through the fog of loneliness or loss. Barnes, though, is the one who finds a little more brightness through his sonic experimentation - and it also takes a special talent to effortlessly switch from the jittery future-hop of 'Gathering' to the sinister post-rock of 'The Plumes', without either track sounding glaringly out of place.
It's really hard to find fault with any of Engravings; from the shivering 'Ljoss', through to the expansive and sinister closer 'Friend, You Will Never Learn' - which begins with chirped field recordings before organs and rolling, jazzy drums take over leading to a suitably epic finale - the record is never anything but involving.
All across the UK at the moment there's an incredible number of talented solo producers/musicians working to provide us with fantastic music - right now though, there can be few projects better or more ambitious than Forest Swords.