Forest Swords' hugely acclaimed debut EP, Dagger Paths, was a minor revelation when it appeared in 2010. The record's dub-influenced hypnagogic pop was an intriguing synthesis of crackling lo-fi production, ghostly R&B tropes, and a distinctly English sense of melancholia. Engravings, his debut LP and the first substantial follow-up to Dagger Paths, therefore arrives with a considerable amount of anticipation, and for the most part lives up to it, exhibiting the same moody, reverb-laden sense of dynamism that made the producer's first EP so inimitable.
Recorded and mixed in the Wirral, a relatively isolated area in the Northwest of England where Forest Swords (a.k.a. Matthew Barnes) has lived his whole life, it's difficult not to see Engravings' 10 tracks as a product of that environment. The album has a remarkably granular, naturalistic sound—especially when one considers that it was pieced together entirely on Barnes' laptop—and its richly layered production and sinewy beats offer a pastoralized, isolationist take on R&B. The title of the album's opening track, "Ljoss," says a lot about Engravings' dominant mood, which is echoed in the track's slow, lurching dub-psychedelia and plaintive, buried vocals. The track also shows off Barnes' shimmering guitar-scapes, which, drenched in reverb, are more than a little suggestive of Ennio Morricone.
The record's dynamic center is found in the interplay between Barnes' hugely unique guitar lines, thunderous drums, and slow, deceptively heavy basslines, which form the surprisingly hook-laden, immersive centers of Engravings' tracks. Some of Forest Swords' beats have been compared to Timbaland's, and while that might be pushing it, there's something to the notion that his music is keenly attuned to the rhythmic dynamics of R&B and hip-hop. "The Weight of Gold" features a delicate, descending guitar line that interlocks with the tune's clacking percussion to create a sense of push and pull that's largely unmatched by any other producers who share Barnes' lo-fi background.
Other album highlights include "Anneka's Battle," which features a largely unobscured female vocal, and suggests—like his recent track with Barbadian rapper Haleek Maul—that Barnes could also have a viable future producing for others. Elsewhere, the eight-minute-long album closer, "Friend, You Will Never Learn," starts off with dreamy guitar-pop drone before the rhythm section slowly gains momentum and clipped, ghostly vocal samples are introduced, providing a haunting close to the record.
If there's any drawback to Engravings, it's that Barnes is perhaps too successful at evoking the style of his first EP, and in an album-length context, this similarity can feel like a bit of a burden. While it's true that no one else really sounds anything like Forest Swords' unique confluence of influences, Engravings in places strays uncomfortably close to simply rehashing his debut. Still, it can't be said that the album doesn't fulfill the promise of Dagger Swords; the LP is merely the byproduct of Barnes steadily refining his intricate and very particular sound.