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.