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. Instead of diverging from the sound of Dagger Paths, Engravings pulls us deeper into Barnes's world.
It's remarkable how Barnes references so much music with such a concise set of sounds. Throughout Engravings, a reverence for roots dub serves as his foundation. Its mournful first single, "The Weight Of Gold," faintly recalls the lonely atmosphere of Augustus Pablo's best work. The stunning "Irby Tremor" sounds like something from a Sublime Frequencies compilation—an aged artifact from some forgotten corner of colonial Asia. Tracks like that one lend a mystique to Engravings; it's hard to tell what's sampled and what's original, or whether the signs of age are real or manufactured. This is further confused by the marvelous "Anneka's Battle," where the Brighton singer's vocals are as distant and manipulated as any of the record's found sounds.
Engravings' unique sense of rhythm might be its most engaging aspect. The record marches drowsily through each bar with hypnotic effect; on opener "Ljoss," the repetition melts into a heatsick swirl of reverb. And while Barnes never strays too close to dance music, there are references here and there, notably with "Onward," whose sharp angles stick out like an arrowhead buried in the soil. It's a rare moment on Engravings that feels like it was made by machine rather than by hand, as a piston slams at irregular intervals while the rest of the song drifts in and out.
The album ends with "Friend, You Will Never Learn," a lengthy piece that rumbles through anguished vocals and plaintive pianos. It's one of the tracks that most resembles Dagger Paths, though somehow it's just more grandiose, more inspired. No one who's heard Dagger Paths will be surprised by Engravings, but that's not the point. What Barnes has done here is give us a full tour of a hidden place he only let us peek at before, a place that's even more breathtaking than Dagger Paths made it out to be.
Buy Forest Swords - Engravings at
Tracklist: Forest Swords - Engravings 01. Ljoss
02. Thor's Stone
03. Irby Tremor
05. The Weight of Gold
06. Anneka's Battle
07. An Hour
09. The Plumes
10. Friend, You Will Never Learn
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