28 Apr 2017

Forest Swords makes dub music for modern woes

From RNZ Music, 2:00 pm on 28 April 2017
Matthew Barnes AKA Forest Swords

Matthew Barnes AKA Forest Swords Photo: supplied

The first Forest Swords EP, Dagger Paths, was released in 2010 to great acclaim, ending up in Pitchfork's top 50 albums of the year, and garnering the top spot in Fact Magazine's best 40.

It was music created by a white Englishman, deeply indebted to the dub music that came out of Jamaica in the 1970s, without spilling over into mimicry. Instead, producer Matthew Barnes used dub's wobbling bass, sinewy guitar lines and washes of noise to create something futuristic.

A full-length album, Engravings, followed in 2013, again to great critical response.

Barnes sampled and chopped his own singing to lend texture and melody to his songs, alongside huge poly-rhythmic percussion. It’s a sound that's distinctly his.


Talking to Music 101, Barnes elaborates: “I’ll take an existing sample and chop it up, and then lay my voice alongside it, so I guess i become one with the sample on some level. I really like playing with that midpoint between people knowing what’s real and what’s not”

The result is haunting, a collection of disembodied voices where gender, age and the number of people involved becomes blurred. And usually there are no lyrics.

“Generally it’s using voice as a textural tool and a melodic tool rather than anything else. When you use lyrics you’re prescribing something, or you’re projecting images in people’s minds. Whereas if it’s non-language it’s a lot more inclusive I think.”


Dagger Paths and Engravings featured Barnes playing guitar and bass. For his next album Compassion however, he’s leaving behind “real” instruments for the most part.

“There’s no guitar on this new record. There’s something really nice about the ambiguity of having instruments that aren’t instruments, sometimes. I’m consistently blown away by what you can do with a computer.

“There’s a lot of weight put on ‘real’ instruments still. It just seems so reductive and ancient now, to have those kind of views. If I can get a sound out of a plugin that does the job, that’s just as valid, I think.”


Barnes left his old label Tri Angle Records in favour of signing with Ninja Tune to release Compassion. He says the move reflects a new side of his music.

When pressed on the name of the new album, he says “I’d been noticing the way the media would create words to disseminate into the world. We noticed this in the UK particularly with Brexit”.  A sneer is audible in his voice on that last word.

“So I thought, how about I use the idea of 'compassion', the word, as a seed. We’re told all the time to be annoyed with other people, and get angry about stuff. But actually, compassion, moving forward, is going to be really important”.