Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
Listening back to ‘Dagger Paths’, the debut release from northern producer Forest Swords, if anything it’s getting easier to identify why it garnered such loving praise. Aura-like and expansive, it carried a punk edge through its meandering guitars that clanged like sheets of corrugated metal and its alien, almost uneasy proximity to dub. It was that relatively rare of things: an inaugural release that came built around elements that appeared genuinely fresh in their assembly. But for a work so highly praised, while the stark appreciation and application of space can be felt in recent work from Tri Angle artists such as The Haxan Cloak (where Forest Swords is now also settled), it’s debatable how significant its influence has been over the UK underground since. This is mostly testament to how much Forest Swords is an artist who exists entirely within his own boundaries, not much interested in looking too far out, but it’s the fortification of the very building blocks of this singular sound that makes 'Engravings' such a bewitching follow-up to Barnes's debut.
From the smooth mandolin vibrato of Ljoss onwards, this fortification is present right from the start. The guitar caresses and the dampened voices (often Barnes’ own) of 'Dagger Paths' are again present, but the often entangled, amorphous styling has given over to something more concrete. Here, and for the most part throughout, there’s a greater emphasis on connecting the disparate moods and textures around more pronounced rhythm and beat. The train-track rattle of Onward stays woven around thick bass pulsations, with the guitar picks here pearlier and less on the attack, while An Hour’s dub backdrop stays gelled around rolls of drum syncopation.
All this comes together most clearly for the closer and potential stand-out Friend, You Will Never Learn, which blossoms out of what appears to be a backward-looped intake of breath and forms into a meditative and stirring eight minutes, and undoubtedly one of Barnes’s more accessible compositions to date. Admittedly for some these may be reasons they find themselves turned off by the comparative tidiness of 'Engravings', but this is hardly a work without its own eccentricities. The opening carousel rounds of Irby Tremor sound out like some demented cousin of Darq E Freaker’s Cherryade, while throughout the use of voice – sometimes his own, sometimes sourced from pop songs or what appear like old field recordings, and the frequent combining of these – still make for a consistently murky and muddied listen.
As with ‘Dagger Paths’, this is again a work intimately tied to Barnes’ home on the Wirral – a north western peninsula lying between the river Mersey and the city of Liverpool, the Irish Sea to the north and Wales to the west. The result is an area that geographically and physically can feel like something of an in-between space, but possesses its own mystic aesthetic of open sandy beaches and windswept terrain. This comes out explicitly on Thor’s Stone, which lifts its name from a legend in the area of Thursaston; Irby Tremor’s use of the village of Irby suggests some ancient force lurking beneath, and you suspect tracks like the clear and developed journey of The Plumes may have more allusive ties to Barnes’s surroundings. These elements become so pronounced you begin to wonder whether Forest Swords would or could ever exist outside of The Wirral’s surroundings, and help to make sense of Barnes's assertion of his lack of interest in moving to a cultural mecca like London or Berlin and joining the producer treadmill.
In a recent FACT interview Barnes opened up on the making of ‘Engravings’. After recording entirely through his laptop in his room, he then spent this year’s bleak spring months mixing the record out in the open. Outside, he was tied to the task of trying to complete the mixing process within three hours – as long as the battery life on his laptop would allow – presenting a fascinating combining of the earthy and the electronic, with a connection to the land but still within technological boundaries. It’s a combination that makes complete sense when listening to ‘Engravings’. More of a dusting off than a sanding down – as heard in the textures of ‘Dagger Paths’ – Forest Swords’ debut sees Barnes step into clearer territory with a sound still with unique ties to space and place.
Tri Angle released 'Engravings' on the 26th August 2013.