Release Date: May 5, 2017
Record label: Ninja Tune
One day in late March, Matthew Barnes gave out his mobile number on social media and asked people to WhatsApp him. Those who did would receive some new Forest Swords music, free of charge. He expected 50 people at the most to respond. He answered around 600 messages in total. He's still chatting to ….
For the first time in four years, UK producer Forest Swords returns with a stellar apocalyptic album. Compassion follows 2013's Engravings and sees Forest Swords (aka Matthew Barnes) make the jump from Tri-Angle to Ninja Tune, becoming label mates with the likes of Actress, Lapalux and Bonobo. Each previous Forest Swords release has been rapturously received, and Compassion is set to be no different as it's a brilliant album - well worth the four year wait.
I think of everything I have done out of spite, of every time I wielded contempt as a cudgel. Worse, perhaps, a retreat to the hardness of my days, a stony construction designed to wall-in all empathy. Not even the keening of widows outside my windows breaks through. I am not an evil person, but I am myself and they are themselves.
During the years between Engravings and Compassion, Forest Swords' Matthew Barnes became an in-demand composer, and his music for Assassin's Creed: Rogue, a sci-fi film shot entirely by drones (In the Robot Skies), and a dance piece inspired by the human body (Shrine), used his mix of ancient and futuristic sounds perfectly. While some musicians who expand into commissioned pieces let those projects influence their other music, Compassion feels distinct from the rest of Forest Swords' work. While the album's scope approaches that of a score, Barnes takes his music in bolder directions.
Forest Swords' 2013 album Engravings was acclaimed as a bold, singular album that wove dub, house, and ambient rock into a triumphant and emotional avant-garde electronic album. This follow-up, Compassion, sees the man behind the Forest Swords moniker, Merseyside-based producer Matthew Barnes, expand on that template and straighten out many of the more jagged edges that characterized Engravings to leave a more outward looking, atmospheric offering which is no less thrilling. Opener "War it" cleverly articulates the foreboding feeling of forthcoming battle.
On the surface, the world is more open than ever. We can travel almost at will across the globe, learn new languages and communicate with people at the other ends of the Earth through social media. And yet, despite this, the 21st Century is also becoming increasingly hostile, from raging wars and acts of terrorism to displays of antagonism shown towards refugees simply looking for a better life.
When Forest Swords' breakthrough EP, Dagger Paths, was released in 2010, the Merseyside, England-based producer born Matthew Barnes was leading a wave of artists fascinated by the darkest and most insular aspects of club music. At the time, Barnes and his contemporaries found an uneasiness lurking beneath pop's slick veneer. His music, which mixed elements of techno, hip-hop, house, and dub, was a daguerreotype of the dance floor; if there was a rave in the Upside Down dimension on "Stranger Things," Forest Swords would have made for the perfect soundtrack.
It's hard to place Compassion, the third album by Liverpool-based producer and artist Matthew Barnes aka Forest Swords - but then that's largely down to Barnes himself. Apparently something of a gateway to a variety of forthcoming multidisciplinary projects centred around it - including contemporary dance, performance art, film and publishing - as a record it feels like the context is yet to play out. Therefore the ten tracks here shouldn't be viewed in stasis.
How do you turn an entirely instrumental album into a political statement? Ninja Tune's Forest Swords is actually the second experimental electronic artist to attempt to answer that question this year. The first was Fuck Buttons' Blanck Mass with his furious 'World Eater', a one month old record that still won't stop bawling its head off through my speakers. Much like 'Compassion', that album was composed as a direct a response to the political nosedive the world has entered over the last year or so.
Abandoned buildings tower as digital tumbleweeds blow across the sonic horizon, Compassion by Forest Swords is a dizzying but sedated sophomore effort. Opening track “War It” risks itself, riding on a razor while nearly random drums swirl. It’s the preparation, before spilling into a multi-part drum and trumpet sprint. It’s succinct but exploratory, the exact idea that sparked people’s affections on Engravings, including mine.