Mathew Barnes, aka Forest Swords, returns with a more daring approach to his distinctive occult beats on Compassion, his second full length LP that marks a definitive shift from ‘bedroom producer’ to established musician. Cementing his name through recent collaborations with Massive Attack and a soundtrack to the recent Assassins Creed Rogue video game, Barnes still maintains the terrestrial and earthy textures that defined him on 2013’s Engravings.
Described as portraying “the outline of a sunlit mountain range in the distance occluded by a spring storm” by Boomkat, an online music store, this imagery is a perfect symbol for Compassion as it is impossible not to cast your mind to natural scenery when engaging with the music of Forest Swords. The album boasts an array of organic sounds from the clash of steel to an orchestral string section. 2013’s Engravings, released on Tri-Angle, records was inspired by the artist’s native landscape of Wirral in Merseyside, and the album included Barnes’ own field recordings that evoked a terrestrial feel to every track. Yannis Philippakis, the lead singer of the band Foals, described Engravings as an album that was “breathing and living”, and that “none of if it sounds as if it were made in a box”. Compassion embraces this approach on a larger scale; the album reaches cinematic heights but also diminishes itself to a serene calmness underlining Barnes’ immaculate attention to detail. The album is riddled with distant distortion that conveys a sea-spray washing over certain tracks. On “Border Margin Barrier”, the spray ablates a haunting chopped up vocal and a twinkling guitar riff before halting at an abrupt finish. On “Exalter”, the distortion is prevalent throughout, particularly in the percussion that clatters amidst war-like chants. Where guitar was a key motif throughout Engravings, orchestral strings and various pagan sounding instruments take over on Compassion, indicating Barnes’ attempt to push his unique sound even further.
Forest Swords also retains his clear inspiration from dub music, but manages to manipulate its emphasis on both the drums and bass in a unique way. In an interview with Spin magazine, Barnes stated he wanted to “put that kind of spacious bass sound into what (he’s) doing”. Space has always been a vital component to the sound of Forest Swords, and it is no less so on Compassion. “Panic” involves a classic 2-step dub rhythm with heavy bass and some of the album’s only recognisable lyrics: “I feel something’s wrong/ The panic is on”. It combines these elements with metallic clinks and distorted strings; evocative of a pagan ritual. Imagine King Tubby in a scene from The Wicker Man.
Despite the album’s title, there is almost a martial element to the sound and it is supposedly a “response to the political nosedive the world has entered”. One could argue that this is Barnes’ subtle call to arms. “Arms Out” could quite easily compliment an army of medieval soldiers marching to battle in a scene of Game of Thrones. The same goes for album highlight, “The Highest Flood”, and “Vandalism” which toys with militaristic drums that boom over a distorted vocal sample before being reduced to a murky wail. Jon Snow marches off into a wintry landscape, “Vandalism” fades out in the distance; the two are inextricable. This image is only aided by the album’s brooding opener titled “War It”, which in way, is a microcosm of the album’s trajectory. Beginning by brewing aching string sounds that swirl and drone, a calm before the storm, it is not long before the growling bassline and martial drum patterns begin and the track draws to a majestic close.
Upon first hearing the music of Forest Swords a few years ago, it was instantly a sound that was unique. Both dub heavy and organic, Compassion has a cinematic trajectory and it will take the listener to the peak of a mountain top before toppling them off the cliff face. Like a mountainous trek, Compassion is a climactic album that must be endured.
Compassion is out now on Ninja Tune records.