Four years ago, Liverpool producer Matthew Barnes released ‘Engravings’, his debut album as Forest Swords. The record became his critical breakthrough: it made several album-of-the-year lists and succeeded by injecting a healthy amount of guitar and experimental sampling into a UK dub scene that had seemingly run out of ideas. This May, Forest Swords returned with ‘Compassion’, his second full-length. Critics and fans eagerly waited these four long years to see where Barnes would next push his sound.
If we start from this premise, that Forest Swords is a cutting-edge producer making unprecedented avant-electronic music, ‘Compassion‘ certainly delivers. From the outset and throughout the record, Barnes’ excellently juggles several different genres and sounds at once without ever losing his ear for continuity or unity. For example, the opener “War It” sets the cinematic tone for the rest of the album with rich drones and the gradual introduction of a two-steppy tribal percussion part and bass line—these elements appear in most tracks. He uses crisp vocal samples throughout the record, produced with quick cuts more reminiscent of a film montage than the glitchy music from which such frenetic micro-sampling derives. This is particularly true on the album’s single “The Highest Flood.”
On many tracks he uses diverse instrumentation including strings, bells, and woodwinds both sampled and synthetic. All these moving parts—the drones, the tribal drums, the sampling, etc.—wouldn’t apparently make sense together, but Barnes’ sense of continuity unites these seemingly disparate ideas into one clean amalgamation: not one note on this album sounds out of place unless Barnes wants it to be. The pieces come together best on “Vandalism,” whose beat strikes quickly and relentlessly, and whose instruments build on one another slowly in a discrete call-and-response until eventually coming together in a catastrophic ending.
The record feels most innovative with respect to its drone engineering, instrumentation, and modal experimentation. The drones underpinning every song sound more like something from Stars of the Lid’s and Their Refinement of the Decline than a dance album: the shimmering synthetic horn and string parts in “Exalter” and “Border Margin Barrier” move through the frame slowly, but cut definitively, like a long-shot of an iceberg.
The Arabian melodies of “Panic,” particularly the short string solo three-and-a-half minutes in, set that track apart as something special in current electronic music. Forest Sword’s use of Arabian modes most immediately recalls Shackleton’s work (especially on the Drawbar Organ EPs—you can hear something very close to that sound on “Exalter”). Though reductive, it would not be inaccurate to say that Compassion resembles a very slow Shackleton album—instead of 160bpm drum ‘n’ bass-influenced tribal drums, our fastest beats clock in around 103bpm on “Arms Out.”
The two producers use similar samples and instrumentation, but Forest Swords’ music remains distinctly grounded in two-step and dubstep, both rhythmically and with respect to its bass parts—whereas Shackleton has always been, at heart, a drum ‘n’ bass producer. This percussive distinction may be where Compassion is least innovative and least interesting. On many tracks, Barnes’ recycles the same tired triplet kicks we heard on his first LP and that have been used in the UK garage community for nearly two decades. The specifically tribal quality of the drum production is somewhat unique, but not unheard of. Therefore we are driven to wonder: without that percussion, would the album lose its particular flavor and perhaps become a rather run-of-the-mill choral-Arabian drone (?) album.
Well, the album does feel most “compassionate” on the beatless “Sjurvival”—a hymn lead by a synth most closely resembling the sound of a crying father—and the bucolic closer “Knife Edge”—a touching piano ballad often interrupted by razor-sharp delay glitches. By this point on the album the broken samples sound more like cries of pain than sorrow or cinema. The stand-out, penultimate track “Raw Language” picks up the pace with a proper, martial opening that rethinks the album’s relationship to dance music. Its shuffling, stuttering beats, ridiculous saxophones, and wavering bass line act as a perfect foil to the restrained 4/4 clapping and regal string sample. Whatever one’s opinion on its rhythmic deficiencies, the album shines most when it gets out of the trappings of the contemporary electronic sound and frames itself instead as something unique within the UK scene. Its last three tracks do exactly that—and they transform this album from a merely remarkable one to something worth owning.