Forest Swords: Bolted

In the 2022 supernatural horror movie Skinamarink, the camera’s distorted lens stares into complete darkness for so long that the darkness starts to take on a form all its own, roiling with what’s not there. A similar presence emerges from the holes left open in Matthew Barnes’ work as Forest Swords. His silences have depth and body to rival the figures that clatter inside them. On his new album Bolted, the UK producer details the inner mechanics of loneliness, paranoia, and frailty on the level of the beat, dreaming up a cold world where broken, snarling things have no choice but to huddle together for survival.

Barnes recorded Bolted in a factory in his native Liverpool, joining legions of artists who have drawn grim inspiration from northern England’s post-industrial landscape. Like Throbbing Gristle, the industrial pathbreakers who sprang malformed from Hull nearly 50 years back, Barnes finds plenty to excavate in the physicality of percussion: the way materials slam and grind into each other, the effects the resulting sounds have on the nervous system. (His 2018 DJ-Kicks mix notably included a field recording called “Voice Memo of Piston at Manchester Museum of Science & Industry.”) Rather than sounding as if they’ve been optimized by a digital studio, his beats tend to impart the illusion of different objects crashing to the ground at varying distances. They’re loose, anxious assemblages that leave plenty of space for the ear to play in. On Bolted, they cohere less than they ever have on a Forest Swords record, leaving dance music’s standard rhythmic logic to fray in the wind.

On lead single “Butterfly Effect,” a scraping, asymmetrical beat skitters beneath a vocal from Neneh Cherry. Barnes composed the drum pattern in the wake of a leg injury, and he has described the process of piecing it together as “some kind of attempt to cope with the psychedelic amounts of pain I was in.” The beat’s jittery, deformed locomotion neatly impresses the idea of a body thrown out of equilibrium, shuddering its way through physical suffering. The bold metallic cacophonies of “The Low” and “Rubble” similarly probe at the idea of the body as a lurching machine, and at the chaos that unfurls at the points where it starts to break.

One especially evocative technique in the Forest Swords toolbox is the tight crop on an impassioned vocal sample. Barnes likes to pinpoint the most urgent moment in a singer’s performance, then sever it from its surrounding context: no intake of breath, no resolution, no language, just assonance. On “End,” a displaced voice duets with a dusty woodwind sample; it sounds desperate to be understood, but all the syllables pour out scrambled. This mutilated utterance is lonelier than silence. Someone’s out there, but you can’t understand them; there’s distance between you that can’t be closed.

In the sparse imagery that accompanies Barnes’ music, the symbol of the cage repeats. A 2010 Forest Swords single took the name “Rattling Cage,” while the cover of Bolted depicts a gray humanoid figure trapped inside a rusty cube of wire. On the single “Caged,” which drones in just before Bolted’s halfway mark, a swirling, plaintive vocal sample echoes out into beatless silence—one of those Forest Swords silences that feels planetary in scale. The voice begins to stutter. A single utterance loops, the sharpness of the edit taking on its own percussive quality. And then the actual beat bears down like the hoofbeats of something massive, threatening to pummel the wisps of voice beneath it.

When you look closely at Bolted’s cover, you see that the cage and the body inside it are the same color. You see that inside the metal mesh, something like cobwebs strangles the human form. On the record, voices jolt and quake, their edges hard; the beat clamps down. Maybe this cage is not exactly a cage; maybe it runs all the way down to the bone.

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