Compassion balances out its preoccupation with various political concerns with musical styles culled from various places.
Matthew Barnes’ breakout releases as Forest Swords, the Dagger Paths EP and full-length Engravings, perfectly encapsulated the sound suggested by his chosen sobriquet. Spiked with metallic cries of overdriven guitar but rendered spacious in dubby soundscapes, the music gave the impression of steel covered in moss in some tucked-away glade still sharp and waiting to be wielded, but partially reclaimed by nature. Mystical and occasionally harsh, these records were insular in nature, the score for a walk through woods well-explored.
That insularity gives way to an expansive new vision in Compassion, Barnes’ response to various ongoing global crises and a pervasive sense of uncertainty. The casual but focused wandering of Engravings becomes full-on peripatetic drift as Barnes attempts to capture the sense of dislocation that could link to topics great and small, as large as Brexit and the refugee crisis or as cerebral as the ongoing impact of increasingly detached communication. Opener “War It” has the most in-common with the guitar-led compositions of recent Forest Swords work, though instead of taking charge, here the guitar chords clang in the deep background akin to Burial’s mournful industrial clangs. In the foreground, tight-wound snares clang ominously as various forms of static and hiss overlay before abruptly collapsing into a haunting, minimal synth pattern. Each of these elements gradually crescendos and interacts with the others in ever-more elaborate permutations, and the effect is one of violence, a cataclysmic rupture as witnessed from an overlooking hill not quite far away enough to be out of earshot.
From this initial burst of noise comes Barnes’ most varied record to date, each track embodying some notion of fallout. “Border Margin Barrier,” awash in white noise interspersed with faint, moaning hums, is the sound of being totally lost at sea. That sense recurs in “Sjurvival,” which similarly wields static, albeit with aqueous dips below a shimmering surface. If the former track depicted those taking to the seas in search of a new home, the latter could be a tribute to the poor souls who never made it back to land. Far less severe is the almost bouncy “Raw Language,” which chops and screws orchestral horns and bassoons into something club friendly once matched to clapping percussion. Over this, wordless vocals moan and croon in both solo and choir voices, trading the specificity of language for overriding mood.
“Raw Language” could easily have been the album’s alternate title, as Barnes employs similar vocals in many other tracks. “The Highest Flood” reduces its voices to strangled cries amid a clanging composition, while “Exalter” does the same with more idyllic gusts of synths and instruments that completely change the context of the voices. “Vandalism” calls Burial to mind in how heavily it warps vocals until they become instruments themselves, completely distended moans that snake through the rolling percussion. Of all the tracks on the album, only “Panic” has coherent speech, an androgynously warped, dubbed-out voice that gently croons “The panic is on/ I fear something’s wrong” in summation of the entire album’s mood.
Inspired in part by Barnes’ travels, Compassion balances out its preoccupation with various political concerns with musical styles culled from various places. “Panic” rides the undulating dissonance of Middle Eastern strings, while “Exalter” incorporates Asian percussion and instrumentation. Here, then, is a nomadic record that attempts to reconcile the privilege of being able to scour the globe with the necessity of having to do so. By using voices almost entirely divorced from words, Barnes deftly avoids sliding into either didacticism or well-meaning appropriation. Instead, he produces an album equally hopeful and despairing, one in which people speak in a universal, emotional tongue but perhaps one where the only ones speaking are ghosts. Radical electronic and club music has long used the general absence of vocals in dance music as a commentary on erasure, most often by queer producers. Barnes does something similar, though
he trades specificity for a broader call to empathy.