Forest Swords: Dagger Paths
Liverpool, UK producer Matthew Barnes cooks up some brilliantly corrosive gumbo in his one-man project Forest Swords. On paper, the approach seems simple enough—stripped-down drum beats and dubwise bass pulses delivered at crawling tempos and blended with chiming guitar figures and vocal samples—but what Barnes does with such elements proves not only genre-defying but mesmerizing. Traces of dubstep and Burial rise to the surface of Forest Swords' swamp but ultimately Barnes alchemizes the materials into a unique hybrid that's simultaneously futuristic and primitive. There's a plenitude of it available for consumption given that No Pain in Pop here supplements its re-release of Dagger Paths (previously issued as a six-song EP on Olde English Spelling Bee) with two tracks from a recent seven-inch and adds a generously stuffed bonus disc that contains six tracks, four remixes, and a twenty-three “Remixtape” (wherein Barnes reworks These New Puritans, Becoming Real, Burial/Four Tet, and Wild Beasts, as well as assorted Forest Swords cuts).
Dagger Paths works its black voodoo magic from the get-go when the hypnotic opener “Miarches” strafes a skeletal drum lurch and meaty bass line with blistering guitar kerang and female vocal moans. In Forest Paths' viral hallucinations, the guitar playing in particular, all ghostly shudder and psychedelic swoop, sears its way into memory with stabbing force, with the vocal elements not far behind. With its ghostly guitar twang leading the charge, “Glory Gongs” unspools like some viral take on a Sergio Leone soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. “If Your Girl” (a rework of Aaliyah's “If Your Girl Only Knew”?) inches closer to the realm of normalcy on account of its chanted vocal melody without betraying the haunted Forest Paths persona. Armed with gospel-inflected vocal cries, “Rattling Cage” burrows like a tapeworm into one's mind and lodges itself there with with single-minded determination.
The six early originals on the bonus disc suggest that Barnes had the Forest Swords concept pretty much worked out from the start (certainly there's no shortage of raw guitar shudder and molten fuzz stirred up during “Trust Your Blood” and “Riverbed,” respectively), even if a track such as “Down Steps” offers a slightly gentler take on what would grow into something more apocalyptic and corrosive on Dagger Paths. Even so, the bonus material often rises to the same amped-up pitch as the parent album, as the howl generated during “Kaibasa Claps” makes clear. In isolated moments, Forest Swords' roots are visible, such as when the drum programming side gets a more conspicuous workout in “Red Rocks Fogg” and when the drumming in “Bones” is more noticeably dub-based. The four remixes are interesting takes, for sure, even if none is at the level of supplanting the original: the trippy Becoming Real version of “Rattling Cage” twists it into semi-acidy shape, Pariah's “refix” of “Hjurt” recasts it as a semi-ambient setting, and Dro Carey's “Neon Hudrat” mix of “Rattling Cage” turns it into somewhat of a bleepy hip-hop workout. Needless to say, the bonus material, while decent enough on its own terms, truly is secondary to the main course. Having said that, while the release in its fullest form is a lot to digest, it amply rewards the investment of one's time. It'll be fascinating to see where Barnes takes the project next.