It was back in 2010 that a shadowy figure known as FOREST SWORDS dropped a lengthy EP called Dagger Paths which had critics insisting it was a full-length album seemingly just for the pleasure of slotting it towards the higher echelons of their end-of-year album lists; according to the left-field bible FACT, this wandering EP was the best album of 2010.
It turned out that it was the work of Matthew Barnes, a Wirral resident and graduate of a Liverpool art college, who had been unexpectedly cast as a hero of inventive electronica by everyone from Pitchfork to that perennial stalwart of experimental music, the NME. As I sit down with the inadvertently elusive character in a tiny boozer near where he sought inspiration for his forthcoming debut record on the weather-battered hills of the Wirral’s north-west coast, he wastes no time stressing just how unlikely Forest Sword’s career is, as he insists that “It was completely accidental first time round – having people compliment you on something you just made in your bedroom is completely insane!” But after a cavernous three-year wait that threatened to become a full stop rather than a pause at many points, Barnes is finally ready to let the swampy textures of actual debut album Engravings engulf both Liverpool and the wider world.
Listening to Engravings now, with each trembling guitar line and ghostly sweep of vocals nailed in place by Barnes’ individual vision, it’s hard to believe that this really is a record that was nearly never made at all. During that nervous three-year break there were snatches of rumours that the whole Forest Swords project had been shelved after the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Dagger Paths, and it’s slightly surprising that, face to face, Barnes admits this to be the truth. “It felt weirdly like [it would be a] statement if I did [end it] like that,” he explains, “because it was never planned, it would be kind of punk to say, ‘no, I’m not doing it again’. And also there was a lot of personal stuff.” Yet after this period of doubt there wasn’t a conscious decision to make an album; in fact, it’s probably a testament to how inspired the process of making Engravings was that even after all of the attention that had come from Dagger Paths, Engravings was essentially another body of work made by accident, as Barnes slipped into his music again. “I never really sat down and thought, ‘I’ve got to make a full length record now.’ It just came very naturally, I was just working very, very slowly, and gradually things were starting to take form. I kind of like the idea of just taking it as it comes, and the music should just happen, really. I actually only decided it was going to be an album maybe six or seven tracks in.”
That spark of inspiration came from the striking panoramas of the Wirral, as well as Barnes’ personal life. “I wouldn’t say it was about the Wirral,” he explains. “I see it as personal, but where I live is a natural extension of that. It has definitely influenced my whole aesthetic.” It’s an influence that’s suggested throughout Engravings, which has an earthy, windswept feel to it, and so it’s no surprise that his locality played an integral part in the initial sketching of tracks. He tells me that he let the dramatic landscapes of Thurstaston, the forest skirting The Column in West Kirby, and the beaches of that north end of the Wirral bleed into his sound. “I took field recordings and photos and pasted them up. I wasn’t really looking at it and trying to reflect it in a very specific way, just the loose feel of it, because I’m a designer so it triggers a lot more for me.”
It’s at this point that the divergences from Dagger Paths begin to appear. As Barnes says himself, “With Dagger Paths it was a subconscious thing, but with this one I was much more influenced by consciously being aware of my environment.” As a result, there’s something intensely emotionally resonant about tracks like An Hour, a hypnotic trip through orphaned house piano stabs and disconsolate whispers of vocals. That certainly seems to have been Barnes’ intention: “I think Engravings was more about an emotional pull, for me. I felt sort of like Dagger Paths was quite cold in places, which is fine, but for this one I was really conscious of it being a bit more human.” This approach has sprung not just from being inspired by the Wirral, but by Barnes’ life, too. “There was so much stuff going on in my life that it felt like a release making it. It’s definitely more of a cathartic thing this time.” From the ethereal wash of a voice that hangs over Anneka’s Battle to the strangled slivers of chanting that slip through the cracks of Gathering, it often feels like that human connection is established by the prominence of vocals, which Barnes says was a conscious decision on his part. “It feels like quite a personal record, and I think part of that’s through the vocals, even though the vocals aren’t lyrics, just a lot of sounds, but I think that as a listener you can instantly latch onto that.”
And yet, despite Barnes’ initial indecision over whether to pursue his work as Forest Swords, once he had fallen into the process of making an album, he gave himself up to that process completely. He confesses that “There were so many revisions of this record, but I’m pleased that I put so much work into it, because I feel like it’s a concise body of work now. I was very conscious of it not being as meandering this time.” Ironically, after all of the hesitancy that had marked the start of the project, Barnes found that, three years down the line, he was finding it tough to draw a line under the album that had become such a big part of his life. “You become so involved in it that when you think there’s going to be an end point, it’s almost a little bit terrifying. It’s almost as if you can’t break up with someone, because there’s a weird sort of void after it’s finished. But I suppose it’s actually understanding when an album is done that is just as important as the process of doing it; understanding when it’s a complete thing.”
It was at this point that he turned to Tri Angle, the otherworldly electronic label that would be releasing the record. “I actually only finished it in May… I was speaking to Tri Angle, and they were like, ‘You come to a point where you have to stop working on it.’ I was listening to it and I was like, ‘Shit… I’ve got nothing else to do, now.’” Apart from nudging Barnes towards releasing Engravings, the label also had a bearing on the way that the album ebbs and flows. “I had problems with the sequencing,” admits Barnes, “because when you get so involved in something, you lose all objectivity about what it feels like, so it was the label that sequenced it, actually.” It seems like a wise creative decision, as the album feels like a journey mirroring Barnes’ steps over the past three years. It progresses from those spidery guitars so reminiscent of Forest Swords on opener Ljoss, through the dense, foggy climes of The Weight Of Gold, eventually emerging somewhere that feels completely new for Forest Swords: the sprawling masterpiece that is Friend, You Will Never Learn, built around an insistent R&B groove and eight sublime minutes of sidesteps, screwed vocals, and clawing tension.
It’s the culmination of these sounds that makes Engravings something truly unique, something that feels like its own space, somewhere to get lost in and retreat to, perhaps even something that seems like it could really leave a serious impression. But, as Barnes explains, the title indicates that that permanence was always sort of at the back of his mind. “When I was in art school in Liverpool, the buzzword was always ‘mark making’: making an impact in something, something that’s very permanent and very personal and very direct, and so when I came up with a title it sort of fitted perfectly. For me it feels like a very permanent piece of work.” It sounds like an ambitious aim but, given the innovation that’s cloaked in Engravings’ deeply resonant take on shards of the outside world, it’s not so unrealistic; this is a record that is firmly rooted in its locality, yet carries a universal appeal in its menacing, subterranean tones that rumble and shake their way through your whole being. Even so, Barnes’ initial aim for the record is more modest: “It’s just a relief to have it out finally,” he says. But, from our perspective, it’s just a relief to have it at all.
Engravings is out now Tri Angle Records.