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Forest Swords
Compassion Bob Cluness , July 5th, 2017 17:28

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a man on lying his back holds a huge rock above him The music of Matt Barnes (aka Forest Swords) has become increasingly panoramic and elegiac since his 2013 debut Engravings. Despite having allusions to internet aesthetics, the real power to Barnes’ work always came from the organic and unheimlich links to his native Wirral, a place where offshore windfarm sentinels guard a peninsula, where urban decay and industrial estates squash against rural pastures and long meandering coastal paths to nowhere.

For Barnes’ second album, Compassion, there is a continuing refinement of the Forest Swords sound. With a mix of dub pressure, spidery guitars, loping beats, and abstract and atomised vocal samples that range from old school soul singers to church choirs, there is a crackling, mossy layer and a foggy pallor of melancholia over the music. It's an updated retelling based on scraps of ancient and forbidding hymnic rituals.

But Compassion sees Barnes aiming higher as he goes full-on symphonic, using a full orchestra as a weapon in his sampladelic arsenal. The simpler guitar arrangements from previous releases are mostly replaced by bright string sections and the dusky drones and burrs of organs and brass. This deeper sound palate is chopped and screwed by Barnes to create a grander, sweeping dynamism as the remnants and ghostly tides of orchestral sound rise and fall against clattering beats. Tracks such as opener 'War It' and 'Border Margin Barrier' recall the melancholy of Johann Jóhansson’s elegy to the mining communities of northeast England in The Miners' Hymns. The highly symphonic nature of a track such as 'Vandalism', with its processed electronics, delicate chimes, and swelling strings and brass are more in line with the wealth of 'neo-classical' soundtrack work that wouldn’t be far out of place on a high-end TV crime drama based in the frozen north.

In laying out a mood that’s constantly sombre and confined, there seems to be an overwhelming emotional pressure throughout Compassion, whether it be the symbolic album art of a man attempting to hold up a stone above his body, the liberal amounts of low frequency in the mix, or the idea mentioned by Barnes in the press notes that during the making of this album he “struggled to see any kind of light at the end of the tunnel”. This point is hammered home In 'Panic' with a sample of a singer belting out “I feel something’s wrong/The panic is on”. Compassion ruminates on a generalised and deepening malaise in our everyday lives, where the sources for our unhappiness and stress tend to be multiple and varied. We can feel the pressure but we can’t pinpoint a single cause.

Despite this, Barnes does seek some form of intrinsic beauty in the hopelessness and entrenched cynicism. 'Arms Out' attempts to bring a sense of lightness and joy, with shards of light brass cutting through the fug. Then you have a track such as 'Raw Language' where Barnes adds martial rhythms and melodic grime tuffness to choral vocal samples, organs and distorted sax lines.

Compassion is slightly less impenetrable and esoteric than Barnes' other albums, its emotions slightly more telegraphed. But it loses none of his power to enthral, disturb and enthuse. With a series of accompanying multidisciplinary projects linked to his Dense Truth label, such as soundtracks to the dance piece Shrine, the video game Assassin’s Creed and a film shot entirely with drones, Compassion has Barnes taking his musical vision outside of his own head and out into the world around him.