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 Talabot, Darkside 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