Review Summary: At his most exposed
In March of this year, Matthew Barnes (aka Forest Swords) posted his phone number on his social media pages, asking fans to message him within the following few days in exchange for an unreleased track of his. The idea stemmed from his frustration with the ineffectiveness of current outlets of communication; sharing tracks on Facebook, for example, can be a “complete lottery,” as he puts it. He wanted a way for people to actively engage with his content, and apparently, was able to establish several meaningful connections with people that reached out to him. Fast forward to now, enter the aptly titled Compassion
, Forest Swords’ second full length album – one which seems to be inspired largely by his own fascination with communication and relationships with others. While Barnes’ past works, particularly the beloved Engravings
, contained a sort of mysterious warmth to them, Compassion
is him in what is perhaps his most exposed state; the result is an incredibly dynamic and thrilling record, filled to the brim with an unusual embodiment of Barnes’ emotions and experiences.
It should be no surprise, then, that the ample use of human voices makes for what is perhaps the most evocative feature of Compassion
. This should also sound familiar to fans of his previous work, which employed creatively fractured vocal samples to a great extent; however, their purpose feels entirely renewed here. In 2013’s Engravings
, Barnes’ use of vocals aided in subtly driving a hypnotic pace within its dense instrumentation, but here, they are used almost solely as a focal point from which other elements serve to bolster it up. Whether we can understand the voices or not, there is an undeniable sense of humanity bursting from the seams of the countless words and phrases that Barnes has chopped and spliced into his work. Sometimes, though, they are discernible, which lends itself to establishing some of the most astounding moments of coherence on display in Compassion
. In the ritualistic “Panic,” an urgent voice repeats “I feel something’s wrong / But the panic is on” amidst a cacophony of Eastern influenced instrumentation, elevating the track to levels of paranoia and unease previously untapped by Forest Swords. On the reverse end of the spectrum sits “Arms Out,” where we hear a man warbling the title phrase alongside rhythmic percussion until both fade out; only a simple humming melody remains for a short period, until carefully placed strings join in to form a beautifully uplifting cadence. On these two standout tracks, and really, throughout the duration of Compassion
, Barnes’ delicate layering of repeated vocal samples over string laden compositions is nothing short of breathtaking, especially considering the disparity in tone he manages to achieve.
In some ways, Compassion
uses much of the groundwork laid out by Engravings
, but instead of serving as an imitation, it feels more like its natural foil. Compassion
, like its predecessor, is familiarly anachronistic in its style and production, but many of Barnes’ progressions in pacing and overall aura breathe new life into his sound. Where Engravings
was subdued, Compassion
is often bombastic; take “The Highest Flood,” in which Barnes uses recognizable effects, such as his signature vocal sampling and dubbed out percussion, to drive momentum forward rather than to hold it steady. This feels like its biggest departure, in that Compassion
gives the impression that it is constantly moving forward with drive and purpose, as opposed to Engravings'
slow mesmerism. Regardless of this, more melancholic tracks, such as “Sjurvival” and the beautiful “Border Margin Barrier,” feel essential to the album as a whole, providing moments of quiet reflection among the surrounding clamor. It flows from one piece to the next marvelously, and though it runs the gamut in terms of tone, dynamics and instrumentation, it never feels unfocused or incohesive.
Another of the major influences at play in Compassion
, obscured as it may be, is that of what is real and what is fake in the world we occupy. In the studio, Barnes experimented at length with the fusion of synthetic and organic qualities, due to his own fascination with ‘real world’ sounds and balancing them with the precision of creation through digital means. Barnes has stated himself that when he listens back to parts of the record, he usually can’t remember if certain textures are real or digital. It’s a fascinating conceit, but it’s also quite impressive considering the concealment of this fact within the record’s rich layering of textures from both methods. The final product ends up being what is arguably the most tangible and inspired creation under the Forest Swords moniker thus far. Maybe Barnes is trying to tell us that we can never be sure of our own reality, but one thing is certain: Compassion