Glitch

Forest Swords – Compassion

Forest Swords, aka England’s Matthew Barnes, is an experimental electronic and ambient composer who, on the back of his head-turning 2013 breakthrough Engravings, has entered the sphere of similarly styled and admired artists such as John TalabotDarkside and Jon Hopkins.  His newest album, Compassion, feels like the crumbling of civilizations on the edge of mythical apocalypse; not a bad aesthetic for the current day and age.  The songs feel ominous but filled with energy; not a calm before the storm, but rather a revelry.

Titles like “The Highest Flood” and “Panic” from the album’s opening third are apt descriptions of the sounds within, which are evocative of communal unease and paranoia.  The clipped, non-lyrical chanting vocals and clacking of wooden percussive instruments of the former feel ritualistic, while the tribal drumming and weaving synthetic oboe of the latter are intoxicating.  “Exalter” follows as the actual sacrificial ceremony, the sound of a prehistoric Central American civilization filtered through distorted electronic vocoders and drum machines.

The album takes a respite in its center third, as “Border Margin Barrier” and “Arms Out” move into more lulling, ambient territory.  “Sjurvival” is a brief comedown, taking a chapter from William Basinski’s book by incorporating the sad sounds of muffled, dusty brass instruments floating in reverb, before the huge strings and chants of the penultimate “Raw Language,” end the scene with a bang.  Closer “Knife Edge”, led by glitchy pianos banging out minor arpeggios feels like an epilogue, a credits roll moment following an intense psychological thriller.

Compassion is thematic and well-sequenced.  But while the songs consistently feel appropriately dramatic, the mood they create is fairly static, and few individual tracks standout (“Sjurvival” being a notable exception).  Forest Swords is clearly a talented composer and his soundscapes are dense, but the constant buzz of reverb, use of glitchy editing and intentionally choppy vocal production leave me desiring for some crystal clear, beautifully synthetic moments.  This album sets a mood and sticks to it, and the overall trajectory works, but there’s nothing in it that strikes me as particularly risky, novel or compelling.  I find the darker ambient trance of Talabot more gripping, and the detailed production textures of Visible Cloaks more interesting.  Some ambient and electronic fans will really dig this release, but for me it was at best fine and at worst repetitive.

Score: 6 / 13

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Visible Cloaks – Reassemblage

Visible Cloaks is an electronic / ambient duo based out of Portland.  Their debut full-length, Reassamblage, was released in late February, and I’ve been listening to it on and off ever since.  Like the best ambient music, it’s a subtle record, and I’ve spent close to three months trying to make heads or tales of my opinion on it.

In short, this record is really, really well-crafted.  The word ‘texture’ gets thrown around a lot in music (a friend of mine once cynically stated that people described music as ‘textured’ when they had no real opinions and were trying to sound verbose and intelligent), but it should really be reserved for albums like this one.  You really can feel all the sounds on Reassemblage, and there are a lot of them.  Synth notes, often disguised as marimbas, flutes and traditional Asian string instruments like the koto, trickle like pebbles through your hands and flutter like sticks and reads whipping your legs.  This record sounds incredibly organic.  One image that comes to mind is the surface of a pond, which, as one zooms in closer and closer, reveals itself to be teeming with life in every corner.  Another image is of a time lapse of organic life putting itself together, one step at a time, like in this video.  Both the album’s title and artwork are able descriptors.

Visible Cloaks makes excellent use of panning (placing specific sounds at various spatial locations along the left-right channels) all over the record, creating dense, colorful worlds in which a trickling chime pops up over here while a wet, splashing sound buzzes along over there.  The songs develop as a collection of disparate parts, like a series of different insect or plant species, humming along at their own unique cadence and frequency until the natural symphony reaches a breaking point, at which the songs dissipate into the sounds of shattering crystals.  Occasionally we hear voices, cloaked in chorus effects, hum and ‘oohh’ soothingly in the background.  A singular Japanese spoken word passage is presented within the empty spaces left by the gentle clanging of pipes on “Valve”. The record has a notably Japanese vibe to it, and my fiance twice asked me if I was listening to the sound track to Mushi-shi (a beautiful, calming anime that takes place in rural villages of 18th century Japan).

This is the kind of album that doesn’t lend itself to highlighting specific songs.  The ideas within each track are distinct but also make use of similar discrete pieces, and thus the work should be taken as a whole, but some moments do stand out as examples representative of what the album is doing at its best.  “Mask” lets a marimba melody build as whooshing, windswept synths envelop it further and further until it exits out of nowhere, allowing a few glimmering, glistening notes to drift about as if on a light breeze while heavily processed vocals coo softly behind.  “Bloodstream” is the record at its busiest, as rippling notes shoot in every which direction before huge, warm, earthy bass washes over the entire track.  The effect is gorgeous.  “Terrazzo” dips, bends and curls while buoyed by the mysterious sounds of a chorus of shakuhachi flutes.

Reassemblage is incredibly detailed, cohesive, pleasant and thoroughly interesting.  It represents an adept stroke of ambient song craft, and I anticipate enjoying this record at opportune times for years to come.

Score: 9/13