Alex Koenig sets if off with his own rhyme.
It spelled trouble when Matthew Barnes, the U.K. producer known as Forest Swords, began losing the most crucial one of his five senses. Not long after the release of his debut 2010 EP Dagger Paths, Barnes started suffering from tinnitus, a hearing disorder that caused his work to sound different with each listen. Suddenly, Barnes became pressured to not only satisfy his audience, but his own fickle ears. He considered abandoning a follow-up album entirely and settling for “being part of that history, being one of those artists that people might rediscover in 20 years accidentally in a thrift store.”
Barnes hasn’t revealed what led to his renewed ability to color in his sonic sketches and ultimately finish Engravings, but a plethora of hints can be found in his compositions. Witness the ride-or-die mentality as soon as “Ljoss” opens the floodgates, its cymbal crashes and warped synthesizer are like waves sloshing on a dock during a hurricane. The title “Onward” suggests a topic of forward progression, the song itself representing that theme with steady, gnawing scratches. Suddenly, Barnes’ motive for finishing the album becomes apparent: if his strongest creative asset was slowly withering away due to an ailment, he was going to make this one count.
With Engravings, dub is used as a starting point, rather than destination. Its key elements —disembodied vocals, sharp polyrhythms, the bass line as the conductor – provide the foundation for Barnes’ expansive melodic palette. Its collage of disparate emotional elements make it the closest thing we have to an Endtroducing… in 2013. There’s the espionage shuffle of “Irby Tremor,” a song you may see a slow-motion Daniel Craig dodging bullets and ducking corners to in a James Bond flick. Beneath the slithery guitar twang and swollen percussion of “The Weight of Gold” are vocals that are nearly swallowed into the mix, echoing like a poltergeist pleading for a second chance at human life.
It’s easy to cull individual highlights from Engravings, but the gem is that none of them feel like they’re competing for your attention. Often, songs morph and mold into different creatures within a brief span, but the adventurous transitions feel fluid and natural. On paper, “The Plumes” seems like a jarring progression– by the two-minute mark it devolves from a sleek guitar riff to an Eastern tribal chant. Yet in practice, it feels right at home. Not since David Bowie’s Low has relationship between pop and world music felt so interpersonally connected.
In his review of Dagger Paths, Son Raw compared the album to Neil Young’s score for the Dead Man soundtrack, noting how the LP “manages to convey the same sense of vastness and loneliness, the kind of isolation one might find in the middle of a vast prairie field with no sign of human life for days.” Like its predecessor, Engravings sounds like one man’s psychedelic sabbatical into dense wilderness. However, the isolation portrayed here is one not of loneliness, but the thrill of self-discovery. Barnes recognizes that only we can crack our own codes, which is why he completed the album because of his hearing problems, rather than in spite of them.
The album’s closer, “Friend, You Will Never Learn” ends the record on an optimistic note. Listening to it doesn’t feel like finality so much as a segue into Barnes’ next journey. There is no cure for tinnitus and no guarantee that one’s hearing will last forever, but as M. Scott Peck once said, “We must be willing to fail and to appreciate the truth that often life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.” Engravings is the wordless document of one man overcoming his ailment and attesting to that truth.