Forest Swords: Engravings

The best tracks on Engravings combine icy ambience with doomy grooves. The more lackluster pieces lack melodic hooks and try to get by on atmosphere alone.

Forest Swords


Label: Tri Angle
US Release Date: 2013-09-17
UK Release Date: 2013-08-26
Artist Website

Matthew Barnes’ first full-length album as Forest Swords (following an acclaimed debut EP in 2009) is a collection of soundscapes that are alternately chilly and evocative. The best of these tracks combine icy ambience with heavier, doomy grooves for an evocative, almost creepy experience. The more lackluster pieces are the ones that seem to lack a musical hook and try to get by on atmosphere alone.

First and foremost, Engravings is mood music. The album works better when listened to at night or on cool, overcast autumn or winter days. A bright sunny day detracts from the ambience of the album, and only the best one or two songs here can overcome the general feel of the day to create a mood of its own. “The Weight of Gold” is one of these, coming in the middle of the album and anchored by a compelling melodic guitar figure. The guitar is accompanied by an irregularly balanced beat played on an array of percussion instruments that gives the song an unusual but interesting feel. With these two elements firmly established early in the piece, Barnes explores variations when dropping the guitar line and later, altering the beat to something simpler.

The album’s penultimate track, “The Plumes”, is essentially a dark and sparse but heavy guitar solo that could easily serve as a quiet change-of-pace song on a doom metal album. There is a portentous weight to the guitar sound that sets the mood of the track so completely that its presence lingers even after the guitar drops out. This leaves the second half of the track driven by piano chords, a bass line, wordless chanting, and a simple beat. Despite the array of instruments that enter, it still feels like that guitar is just waiting to come back in. It’s one of the most effective pieces on the album, and it feels remarkably focused compared to most of the more sketch-like musical figures on the record.

Other tracks on Engravings don’t work quite as well as the aforementioned pair, but a song like “Thor’s Stone” gets by on a simple beat and bassline and a distinctive howling that carries what passes for a melody and sounds like a high-pitched didgeridoo. It’s not necessarily a catchy hook, but it’s sonically interesting enough to carry a four-minute piece. “An Hour” is similar in that a pair of unique sounds hold the track together despite a lack of compelling melody. In this case, it’s an icy marimba-like tone that could’ve come straight out of Björk’s Vespertine era combined with a quavering, not-quite-decipherable vocal.

Even when a song doesn't really succeed (the sampled and chopped vocals-driven “Gathering” comes to mind), Barnes is at least blessed with brevity. Unlike many of his ilk that work in instrumental and ambient music, the tracks on Engravings rarely make it to the six-minute mark. And since each track sounds quite a bit different than the one before, the album is a relatively easy listen that manages to avoid the boredom that trips up so many instrumental records with an ambient bent. While Forest Swords isn’t going to be an easy listen for the average music fan, those that are already predisposed to this type of material will probably get a lot out of it.


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.