I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.
…Unless I decide to skip around the alphabet. I’ll periodically review newer releases or records that I’m really into at the time.
(Olde English Spelling Bee, 2010)
You know that creepy campfire story, the urban legend about the hitchhiker along Alligator Alley in Florida? You know the one. You’ve told it a million times on camping trips, flashlight pointed directly beneath your spookily illuminated face. Something about the long, lonely highway on a hot evening, nothing but swamp and forest to either side of the road, kicks in that paranoia and tense wariness. You can’t stop here – this is gator country. And many other manners of country, all of them sinister. So when the headlights hit that outstretched thumb, you know you shouldn’t stop, but the story insists that you do. See, the dude with the knapsack doesn’t really look all that sinister when you get down to it. And you have to wonder, if of course he’s not a dangerous maniac, will he even make it through the night out here? He may or may not be equipped to survive the rigors of what may actually be the American version of a forced Australian walkabout. Alright, hop in buddy. You know the rest of the story, blah blah blah. He does turn out to be a maniac, and you end up getting away, and you notice the knapsack still on your front seat as your engine and heart race in unison. You peak inside, and sure enough … it’s the severed head of your twin sister! Aaaaggh! What does this have to do with Forest Swords? Well, side 2’s opener, “Glory Gongs,” sounds like Ennio Morricone’s take on writing the score to a film version of this campfire story, as guitar lines creep and synthetic keyboard gongs clash against keyboard and vocal samples. Yes, it’s that awesome. In fact, that’s a pretty apt intro to the whole album.
Forest Swords is the one-man project of Matthew Barnes of Liverpool, and Dagger Paths is a hell of an opening salvo – it’s leapt into my top 10 records of 2010 for sure, and it may end up near the top of that list. Barnes specializes in a heady concoction of psychedelia and dark dub, crafting minimal guitarscapes accentuated by keyboard waves and R&B samples that are buried deep in the mix and distorted to incomprehensibility. I wouldn’t call this ambient music though, owing to its secret-ish weapon: rhythm. Despite the meditative qualities of the music, the Swords make great use of drums throughout, such as the intermittent pounding of the toms and bass drum in “Holylake Mist,” as well as the distorted bass guitar that appears periodically in the track. “Visits” almost opens with a techno rhythm that’s teased against reverbed guitar. It’s a trick though, as bass thuds pull back the momentum, and the song lurches tribally through its three and a half minutes. And the delayed and tricked-out expansive hip hop groove buoying “Glory Gongs” is a real highlight.
But if rhythm is the secret weapon, then atmosphere is its not-so-secret one, and Dagger Paths plays like anything but a Liverpudlian summer. The production is heavy and dense, elements wisping from speakers like mist on a muggy Savannah evening. The instruments drip with humidity and smear forest floors with damp leaves and swamp variations. Listening to Forest Swords is like the opposite of beer commercials – instead of chilling to icebox temperatures and seeing your breath, Barnes lights you up in the sticky jungle, and your shirt immediately clings to your sweaty back. Sound uncomfortable? It really isn’t – it’s gorgeous. “Miarches,” the dubby album opener, is pockmarked with guitar stabs and reverbed string pokes, and is cloaked in dread until a wonderfully mournful guitar countermelody reveals the track’s sadness in its plodding. It’s expansive and slowly unfolds over its 6:23 runtime. “If Your Girl” washes by for almost five minutes on billowing keyboards and guitar drone, cloaking a vocal in its haze, until bass and toms erupt to finish off the track in glorious rhythmic euphoria. “The Light” ends the record on more scaled-back hip hop stutters, while an inspired violin run plays tag with gurgling guitar, bass, and organ.
I gotta say, even though the dankness is heavy and oppressive like jungle fog, it’s easy to breathe through Dagger Paths. Let it fill your lungs as well as your ears, and take in the fragrances of the outdoors – in fact, listening to Forest Swords on headphones amidst nature is probably the best way to ingest the album. I first heard it early one weekend morning, staying at my sister-in-law’s in Portland, Maine. I was the first one up. I had no idea why I chose to listen to this as I drank coffee and stared out the living room window at the harbor two blocks away, but it worked. And even though crisp August New England mornings are a far cry from the southern marshes, Dagger Paths is a space you can easily slip into, no matter where you are. Just be prepared for the rising barometer. Oh, and crazed hitchhikers.
RIYL: Liars (Drums Not Dead), Pocahaunted, Burial