Matthew Barnes started work on his latest album Compassion with the idea of combining the gruff imperfection of organically played instruments with the gloss of electronic, grid-mapped sounds. The two methods are intertwined so tightly that by the time the album was finished he could no longer tell which sounds were artificially produced or not. The album was not intended as a direct comment on the suffocating maelstrom of confusing information that’s led to the “fake news” phenomenon, but it’s an interpretation he embraces. The album is, in many ways, about how one of humanity’s greatest achievements – the invention of sophisticated language – has come back to potentially harm us.
Voices are a big part of the album, but with the exception of a single line in ‘Panic’, not a lot of it will be intelligible (well, to native English speakers at least – I could not find information on where the samples originate). Lilts, yelps, squeals, and coos are chopped up and mangled into patterns that are as emotive as words if not moreso. Barnes has noted an interest in how creative people get when they communicate purely through pictures rather than words (just look at the unstoppable escalation of passive-aggression in the group chat with your house-mates).
At times, notably on ‘Raw Language’, the album is reminiscent of Daft Punk collaborator Todd Edwards’ cut-up technique, where he would similarly rip apart vocal samples into a 2-in-1 rhythm and melody instrument of its own. But where Edwards went for speedy, euphoric to the point of absurdity garage and house, Barnes goes down a darker path, but no less sincere. Compassion is not an ironic title.
Where past Forest Swords material sounded as though its percussion occurred under a wet towel, sharp clattering drums are the defining sound of Compassion. ‘War It’ opens the album with blasts of detuned snares befitting the coming of a great struggle. ‘The Highest Flood’ continues with nervy, 18th-century keyboards and rim-clicks. If the first half of the album, where “I feel something’s wrong, the panic is on” stands as the one discernible statement, it’s when it reaches the home stretch that optimism starts to peek through like the light flecks of colour on the album’s cover art. ‘Arms Out’ is as warm as the title implies, with soaring orchestration and a vocal lift that anchors the song like no other sample on the album. If Barnes were to begin performing with a live band, this would surely be the standout.
However, as great as the highs are on Compassion, it doesn’t go without its stretches of tedium. ‘Vandalism’ does not appear to have a real structure, and nothing in its sonic make-up makes it stand out from any other track that does something similar. To criticise ‘Sjurvival’ for being an interlude would be pointless, but it’s droney, tired atmosphere impedes the momentum of the record’s steadily hopeful second half.
This is for sure Forest Swords’ most ambitious project, and a nice example of adding high-budget sheen working in favour of the artists’ themes. Barnes has already commented on figuring out the direction of his next project, saying that he remains pretty obsessed with the topics of communication he immersed himself in for Compassion. With some tightening, it’s an approach that could prove to be career-defining.