When people borrow Gertrude Stein’s notorious phrase “there is no there there,” their meaning is usually pejorative. But in the case of Forest Swords (a.k.a. Matthew Barnes), it seems instead appropriate as the highest compliment. Engravings, his first full-length, evokes a grayness of place so completely that it is utter, that there is no there there because there is only there there. This seems apt for an album mixed outdoors: cyborgization not as the incorporation of the technological into the self, but the world becoming monistic cyborg as digital Techne extends her limbs outwards.
Others have experimented with the post-colonial place where dub and British folk traditions meet: Ian King, Edward the Second and the Red Hot Polkas, Sinead O’Connor. Engravings both stands in this tradition, but also, like a root system, deepens and extends it, the melancholy of English dub’s triple diaspora via Africa and Jamaica being used rhizomatically to transpose Bristol’s trip-hop from urban to sylvan surrounds. Engravings seems the culmination of the sound that, it’s now apparent, Barnes was only developing on 2010’s Dagger Paths EP, bringing to that darkness a maturity that consists in a paradoxical expansion of space and in the introduction of depth perception through fog-like tendrils of white infecting that flat black panorama (or rather lack thereof).
Barnes uses sound to its full effect, but more accurately, he allows it simply to inhabit or to be its own innate “sinister resonance” (David Toop). For example, the early-industrial millstone clanking of “Onward” appears to cut off too abruptly, before and until the timeless pattern language Barnes finds in his sources (a language that can only exist through the manipulation of time-bound sonic objects) reveals its perfection as the figure repeats. And the onward march is still not done: a sublime, Gavin Bryars-esque orchestral motif squeezes and unfreezes the heart in a manner that has never been achieved by post-rock.
A wild huntology, a meandering psychogeography… Thursday’s child has far to go. Barnes’ home in the Wirral, with its history of Norse violence and genetic traces of more peaceful cohabitation, reverberates through Engravings’ persono-cultural mythology (“Thor’s Stone”). There are echoes here of classic English children’s fantasy in the album’s mood of beauty and desolation, and also in its deep bedrock: particularly, Alan Garner’s Brisingamen trilogy, set in nearby Cheshire, in a brown-grey autumn where the prehistoric Edge rises through the surface of the landscape like a petrified mammoth tusk or a flint arrowhead for a worm. “The sedge has wither’d from the lake,/ And no birds sing.”
These then are Pet Sounds, if your pet was an ominous, mini-monolithic Pet Rock that you found in the cellar. A pet you’ve adopted as beloved child, for whom may be invoked half-remembered ritual-processional lullabies that are, simply, child ballads.