As a dedicated fan of science fiction, I’m a keen believer in the concept of the multiverse. One of the lesser alternate timelines I imagine for myself involves dropping my political science degree to study music theory and composition instead. I envision falling in love with jazz and postmodern classical music, pursuing an advanced degree or two, and finding experimental electronic music earlier that I did in this timeline. Eventually, I would have landed a gig teaching at either a mid-sized high school or decent community college, and made my own music on the side. And when my students ask me about the sort of art I both create and appreciate, I think it might exist in the same sphere of music as the work of Forest Swords.
The nom de plume of Matthew Barnes, Forest Swords has spent over a decade releasing music at the vanguard of contemporary electronic production. His prior two full lengths, Compassion in 2017 and Engravings in 2013, showcased an artist fully aware of the moment but who knows how to reconstitute contemporary sounds into his own unique creation. On Bolted, released via Ninja Tune, he crafts eleven songs bursting at the seams with scathing dub psychedelia that alternately broods and seethes with intensity.
The project feels like a complete coherent thought instead of a collection of individual songs. Like the work of best sort of postmodern composer, each track stands on its own, but they also contain artful references to each other. Even more, when you treat the music as a two-act structure bound by a single intermission track in the middle, the pacing comes alive. That passion for creating connective tissue gives Bolted its energy, as the attentive listener can pick out various melodic snippets and production techniques tying everything together.
The arrangements are rooted in tremulous minor key melodies performed on keyboards, and they give the music a melancholy mood, which is thankfully never angry or needy. The drum production draws directly from industrial and gothic influences, right down to the heavily gated snare textures. When combined with vintage dubstep syncopation in the hi-hats and kick, the overall clatter creates disturbing off-kilter sensations in the gut and ears.
From there, oozing basslines with a syrupy tone deepen the eerie energy while various pipe and woodwind effects provide a spooky if clangorous counterpoint. And that’s before Barnes unleashes banks upon banks of synth patches filled with keening, spectral voices and scrying noises. Those ghostly voices float above the entire mix—sometimes they intone snippets of actual words and phrases, while other times they wail and moan to enhance the creepiness.
However, this album is more than a mere amalgam of expertly curated beats and noises designed to set you on edge. Forest Swords is much more interested in delivering a cogent listening experience that explores the far edges of what electronic music can achieve. The synths provide a strong melodic core that borders on pop. The vocals offer presence and depth, even if they’re nearly processed into oblivion. Furthermore, by structuring the arrangements around consistent, if occasionally blurry, moods and ideas, he provides a clear focal point and direction for his art.
Ultimately, the strength of Bolted lies in how Barnes encourages the album to grow, build, and flex as it progresses. Standout songs such as “Munitions,” “Butterfly Effect,” “Chain Link,” and “Line Gone Cold” seek a sense of resolution and completion, even if they sometimes never reach their goal. To that end, you could almost imagine it as the soundtrack to a RPG video game—each tune could be the backing music for a given level, chapter, or scene that brings the hero(es) ever closer to their goal. Or at least that’s how I would describe such music to my students while subtly wishing my own work was half as good as this.
Label: Ninja Tune
Buy this album:
When you buy something through our affiliate links, Treble receives a commission. All albums we cover are chosen by our editors and contributors.