AMN Reviews: Forest Swords – Compassion (2017; Bandcamp)

By Mikey McDonald

Forest Swords is the moniker of Merseyside musician Matthew Barnes who broke onto the scene with the magnificent Engravings back in 2013. The Forest Swords moniker perfectly encapsulates the sounds of the music which combines the ancient with the modern through tribal rhythms and dark, eerie atmospheres. There’s no doubt Forest Swords has his own unique sound which is often described as ambient dub. Compassion marks the second full-length release from this producer who is preparing for a long-awaited follow-up later this year.

Opener ‘War It’ is both glitchy and anthemic and kicks the album off in a big way. Clipped brass samples, clattering drums, and wide synths akin to swirling missiles serve to create tension and straight away get the pulse racing. In contrast to Engravings which is tightly packed and even at times claustrophobic, Compassion yields more space; tracks often break down and disintegrate or meander completely before returning to course. ‘War It’ is an excellent example of this and explores the calm before the storm as synthesisers cascade and plummet like a plane caught in a fatal tailspin, which further heighten the senses.

‘The Highest Flood’ stirs up piercing synth lines, rattling percussion, and signature vocal passages that Barnes has become renowned for. These vocals stem from a choir and are chopped up into unintelligible phrases yet you still might find yourself trying to sing along. Along with the opener, this is a deeply rich, textured piece full of cinematic soundscapes and grainy atmospheres. A saxophone draws curtains to the track which adds a rather unexpected nice touch.

‘Panic’ sounds fresh out of the jungle and is driven by a rumbling cello and chiming bells. This track samples Lou Johnson’s ‘The Panic Is On’ and is the only Forest Swords tune to date with intelligible vocals. Of course, these vocals are distorted and re-pitched, it’s just not Barnes’ style to throw in a sample untouched. Field recordings can be heard all over Compassion with sounds coming from old air conditioners, the outside environment, and even boats clanking against docks which Barnes himself recorded when out and about.

In an interview Barnes explains “There are so many amazing plug-ins now that can mimic real instruments, so not letting listeners in on what’s live and what’s computer generated is quite fun to me” and he’s right, Compassion is enigmatic by design. Some of the strings and brass featured on the album are real whilst some of it is fake but they’re fused together and woven so intricately it’s impossible to tell one apart from the other.

‘Exalter’ means to rise in rank or status and glancing at some of the track titles it’s fair to say war could be one of the themes of Compassion. ‘Exalter’ features bombastic drums, fluttering flutes, and medieval-like vocal chants that play almost like a ritual. Clearly, this was composed very recently but you could be forgiven for thinking you had been transported back in time and were part of a tribe some several hundred thousand years ago.

Centrepiece ‘Arms Out’ is otherworldly and is another ancient grind full of prehistoric chanting. The introduction of this track is very windy before tribal-sounding drums and cymbal rolls enter the mix – seriously, it sounds like a sacrifice is about to take place. Instead, we’re treated to some breathtaking male vocal samples which again are hard to make sense of, and ecstatic horns which could be conducting a march into battle. I don’t know the origin of said vocal samples but if I were to hazard a guess I would say ‘Creed – With Arms Wide Open’. Such is the skill and expertise of Barnes it’s just impossible to tell as he manipulates the vocals in such a way to perfectly complement the instrumental – in that sense, it reminds me of Fever Ray’s stunning debut where the pitch-shifted vocals really dance with the music.

‘Sjurvival’ recalls Pan’s Lullaby and includes recordings from a railway station in both the build up and finish. It is truly melancholic and offers some time to rest before the album reaches its conclusion.

Closer ‘Knife Edge’ is the epitome of sonic decay and is highly cinematic. Fractured pianos, rustling wind chimes and mournful strings are met with distant vocal yelps, like cries from the bottom of the ocean. The razor-sharp glitch at 2:14 is like a muffled call for help and feels essential to the track – Barnes has an incredible ear, it’s like he knows exactly what sound is needed and where it should go. Eastern-inspired twangs come in and out of the mix and somehow manage to convey devastation and utter despair whilst remaining full of hope and optimism – perhaps the battle is lost but not the war. It is the perfect ending to an album that is haunting yet colourful and wholly inspirational.

I could be doing Barnes a disservice but I’m not sure if he plays any single instrument at expert level. What he is on the other hand is a musical genius. A master of processing, layering and sequencing. A master of composition. Barnes is as much a sound artist as he is a musician born to make albums. Engravings blew my mind on first listen and was one of the first albums that made me think about sound design and production. Compassion is no different and took everything that was great about Engravings and sculpted it into something even grander with more space, more complexities, and more emotion. I just can’t wait to hear what he’s got in store for us next…