If you’re a hawkeyed, dangerously obsessive Stereogum reader, you might have noticed that I didn’t start posting until late on Friday morning. That’s because I was in the parking lot of my neighborhood Trader Joe’s, loitering and trying not to look creepy while I waited for the tow truck that would take my non-starting car to the closest mechanic. While I was at the mechanic, smelling that rubber smell and ignoring the courtroom reality show on the waiting-room TV, the skies opened up. I walked home through that rain. This isn’t a woe-is-me story; my car is fine now, and it wasn’t even that expensive to fix. It is, however, a story about how, when I drippily trudged into my home office late on Friday morning, I was not exactly feeling great about the world or anything in it. That’s when I threw on Engravings, the new Forest Swords album, and let myself disappear into it. Every once in a while, we hear a piece of music that absolutely, perfectly matches up with our surroundings and our inner landscapes, and those moments stick with us. And I cannot imagine a more perfect soundtrack for that grey, soggy, money-stressed morning than Engravings. If you haven’t listened to Engravings while feeling generally bleak and awful, then you haven’t really listened to it.
Forest Swords is Matthew Barnes, a British producer whose work exists at some mostly-unexplored Venn-diagram intersection between moody, emotive post-dubstep and straight-up ominous drone. Three years ago, he released a short album called Dagger Paths, and it earned a bunch of acclaim but never quite clicked with me, possibly because I never had a walking-home-in-the-rain moment with it. (Given the climate of England’s Northwest, where Barnes lives, it seems safe to assume that he’s had a few rainy walks home from the mechanic himself.) Barnes took a long time to follow that one up, partly because of hearing problems that almost ended his recording career. Engravings is a quieter album, and the influence of John Carpenter drone-blare warehouse music isn’t as pronounced this time, so maybe that’s evidence of Barnes’s hearing problems at work. But the new album could also be a product of Barnes just retreating from the world for a while and listening to dark and lonesome music: Portishead, Mobb Deep, Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack, really old Aphex Twin, Burial. Engravings doesn’t really sound like any of those artists, but its sound has that same physical pull to it, that same windswept desolation of the soul.
Actually, the album doesn’t really sound like anyone else, but I’ll throw another name out there: Clams Casino, whose rise coincided neatly with the time that Barnes spent away. When Clams was making heavy, evocative beats for Lil B and Soulja Boy and Main Attrakionz, they always came weighted with the sense that these tracks could be just as powerful, if not more so, if they had no vocals. And then he dropped his Instrumentals mixtape and just proved the idea true. Forest Swords, for his part, has only just dipped his toe into the murky waters of rap production with the Haleek Maul collab “Lobo,” and I’d love to hear him do more of that. Any of the tracks on Engravings would work perfectly well as a rap beat, if paired with the right rapper — Roc Marciano, say, or Bizzy Bone, or Chief Keef. That scraped-out emptiness works beautifully on its own, but it might sound even better with a human voice riding over it.
But Engravings isn’t an instrumental rap album, like Endtroducing… or whatever. It’s a wandering spirit, tied to no genre. Barnes is a guitarist as much as a beatmaker, and his tingly axework adds different dimensions to every song. Ghosts of skeletal reggae dance through “The Weight Of Water.” “The Plumes” is, more or less, doom metal — except that when the hammer drops, it takes the form of a disembodied Bollywood vocal sample, not a crushing guitar riff. “Onward” is Godspeed You! Black Emperor playing a live score for a flickering campfire. “Anneka’s Battle” has an actual vocalist — the Brighton singer Anneka — but her voice is nothing more than one more muffled effect on a track full of them. But even as the tracks move between genres and ideas, they all blur together into one dank, uncanny whole, to the point where I don’t even notice when one track slides into the next. It’s one of the album that, when you hear it on headphones, transforms everything happening around you into an epic saga of struggle — and when you’re feeling bummed out about petty and small shit, as I was on Friday, you might need that.
Engravings is out now on Tri Angle.
Other albums of note out this week:
• King Krule’s smoky, jazz-inflected, genre-agnostic 6 Feet Beneath The Moon.
• Franz Ferdinand’s sleek and streamlined comeback effort Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action.
• Juicy J’s rock-hard party-rap rage-out Still Trippy.
• Goodie Mob’s itchy, scattered reunion effort Age Against The Machine.
• The Janet Weiss/Matt Cameron/Zach Hill triple-drummer monsoon Drumgasm.
• The Dodos’ reliably spirited Carrier.
• Flaamingos’ self-titled bleak postpunk debut.
• Porches.’ ruminative DIY-folk debut Slow Dance In The Cosmos.
• Dent May’s tellingly titled Warm Blanket.
• Big Sean’s eager-to-please, generally unfortunate Hall Of Fame.
• Helado Negro’s moody shadow-release Island Universe Story Two.
• Belle And Sebastian’s rarities compilation The Third Eye Centre.
• Bob Dylan’s archival release Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol. 10.