Album Review: Forest Swords – Bolted

[Ninja Tune; 2023]

Forest Swords produces tracks that are doubly cryptic. Yes, there is an inexplicable nature to the source materials Matthew Barnes utilizes in his creations, but they also sound like they were recorded in an actual crypt. The latter quality, which is fairly self-explanatory, is certainly prevalent on his new album, Bolted, the long-awaited follow-up to 2017’s Compassion. 

This masterful knack for creating the cavernous, and particularly the esoteric recording methods he’s employed in doing so, can be traced back to 2013, when he dropped his unrivaled witch house tour-de-force, Engravings. During interviews conducted around the album’s release, Barnes embellished on the vast soundscapes he was able to capture, indicating that the recorded material was entirely mixed down while he sat with his laptop on Thurstaston Hill, situated in the nearby Wirral Peninsula. This mythical site was home to a Viking settlement in the 10th century, and it’s where the legendary Thor’s Stone is located. Barnes’ frequent visits to the area greatly expanded his visual horizons, and being engulfed in this otherworldly vastness was the key to creating this sense of openness in his tracks. 

This space is a key component to Bolted, and Barnes recently detailed the recording techniques and environment for his latest release. This time, he was much more confined, mostly due to a badly broken foot, and he would hole up in his makeshift studio inside an old vehicle and munitions factory for hours on end with his hardware, software, and tape machines. Being stuck there for an entire rainy winter, Barnes stated that his experience began to feel almost psychedelic; like the room had become a portal to somewhere else. “I started finding myself just sitting for hours with certain textures playing quite comforting: distorted synths, oboes and woodwinds and voice; pitched down drums,” he said in the notes around Bolted. “I’d put on 1980s pop, drone metal, dub to listen to during breaks. Over time everything ended up speaking to each other somehow, and slowly fed into the tracks.” Despite this less whimsical approach to that “cryptic” sound, Barnes once again succeeds in creating the sense of boundless space within the stereo field.  

This is established immediately on lead single, “Butterfly Effect”, as Barnes lays down a complex, clanking rhythm that sounds like it’s caroming off the walls of some massive concrete space. Shovels are dragged across the floor and scraped up against an old, unused sample of Neneh Cherry’s vocals, laid comparatively bare with just enough distortion to create a undertone of dread in her pleas; “Did I say too much? Not enough?” A rich and menacing synth tone erupts all around, and when she sings, “It’s the butterfly effect,” the track almost seems to take on a pop structure. But, this proves a red herring, as Forest Swords proceeds to deconstruct Cherry’s voice into syllables that are drawn out and clipped off, evoking the stylish vocal manipulations of Andy Stott’s near-perfect Luxury Problems. But here, Barnes is wisely frugal with his use of the sample, and the music itself commands attention as dramatic swells and frantic strings build up and then yield to a lone oboe melody, both gorgeous and yearning, which ushers the song along to its unruly end. 

Bolted sounds off with “Munition”, a stomper that relies on little more than some sprinkled vocals, pipe organ notes, and sluggish, atom-crushing beat. It begins with an ominous, see-sawing growl that immediately sets the dreadful tone. What sounds like scrapyard metal being violently picked through and thrown aside steadily congeals into a lurching, atom-crushing beat that strangely recalls the aggressive shudders of Björk’s “Five Years” from her almighty Homogenic. The 90s throwback doesn’t end there, either, as Barnes deftly slides in some slick pulsating tones on two occasions, each lasting only a few seconds, and sounding like a lost transmission from Beyond the Underworld. Once the track establishes its momentum, Barnes deploys the weapon that makes his sound so singular and instantly recognizable: the heavily-treated longings of the human voice. There is an inherent dignity to these haunted sighs; the echoes of some ancient ritualistic ceremony, and it’s one of the many ways Forest Swords is able to so expertly marry these sounds and textures, both ancient and futuristic, in thrilling and unexpected ways. 

These treated vocals, much like on Engravings, supply the album with many of its most stunning and memorable moments, like the one that arrives roughly a minute into “Rubble”, when, after building up a flurry of junkyard percussion, he looses a heart-rending wail that sounds like an Eastern morning prayer blasting out of a megaphone, and despite being entirely wordless, it immediately becomes a strange ear worm that hits harder with each listen. Never you mind the actual source material; in Barnes’ capable hands it’s rebirthed as an emphatic and shamanistic tome.  Later on, Barnes introduces a heavily processed steel drum, which plonks out just enough of a melody to create an inexplicable stir of emotions. It also illustrates how his ear-bending treatment of common source materials render them almost unrecognizable. 

“Low” begins with some clanking metallic percussion, which rattles along erratically before settling in alongside a colossal, albeit more organic, trip hop beat. Ethereal female vocals sigh amidst the thundering percussion and buzzy drones that streak across the stereo field. The track then folds in on itself and re-emerges with an eastern-inflected melody, processed with heavily warped steel drums and mallets and a growling, expanding synth tone. This breakdown precedes another round of seductive vocals before fading away. 

“Line Gone Cold” is wonderfully dark and melancholic, with a treated Eastern stringed instrument, surprisingly unadorned violins and oboes, and a smattering of warped vocals soaked in pathos. The track is a  rumination on grief, with an air of mournful nostalgia that concludes with a brief send-off from the late Lee “Scratch” Perry. 

The aforementioned pipe organ tones of “Butterfly Effect” are front and center on “Night Sculpture”, and the weary melody evokes the spooky strangeness of The Cure’s Pornography. The track features sparse wood block percussion and a silky, wordless coo, and it once again finds Barnes taking sounds and textures from past decades and merging them with his own unique aesthetic. 

“Chain Link” comes together like two wrecking balls, with a slow, smashing beat and staticky textures that evoke the industrial surroundings in which it was recorded. More warped pipe organs and streaks of violin add a sense of urgency, and as is the case with most of Barnes’ most effective moments, only peek out from behind the curtain for a moment before receding again. 

Overall, Bolted feels more like Forest Swords’ proper follow-up to the amazing Engravings. That’s not to say that Compassion was a bad release by any means, but it proffered a much brighter experience overall. The tone of this latest release successfully re-captures the raw, dark sonics of Engravings, making for a much moodier alternative to the lightness found on his second full-length. Bolted is also undeniably stronger than Compassion in terms of album cohesiveness, flow, and the overall high quality of each track. Is it quite the piece-de-resistance that Engravings is? Not quite. But is it deserving of your attention? Absolutely. Keep in mind that this writer considers Engravings to be one of the very few 10 out of 10 albums released in the 2010s. This is the return that so many of us have been waiting for, and his ability to come through on nearly all levels establishes Bolted as one of the very best albums of this year, electronic or otherwise.