Electronic music and music journalism have an oddly unique relationship. For those who frequently read music magazines, physically or online, it’s easy to notice just how drastically a critic’s style of writing can change when they have found a promo copy of a new electronic record on their desk, as opposed to a pop, rock or hip hop record. With popular music journalism dating back to long before the inception of contemporary electronic music, the conventional means of picking apart albums don’t quite carry over to the more avant-garde and obtuse derivatives of electronic music. Of course, dissecting the work of a group such as, say, Kraftwerk, whose early brand of electronic music adhered to largely orthodox pop and rock song structures and other conventional tropes, is a very different beast compared to critiquing the angular footwork stylings of Jlin or the minimal, arcane techno of Actress. The traditional angle of analysis for popular music cannot quite be applied to the esotericism and eclecticism of the electronic eccentrics of the present day, with their more open and comprehensive attitude towards song structure, style, presentation, aesthetic sensibility and even cultural criticism being arduous to decipher whilst looking through a mainstream music lens. As such, music journalists tend to take far more liberties when writing about experimental electronic music, with their focus often being more centred around capturing and conveying the overall tone of the album or artist in question with some flowery language that puts those English literature degrees to the test. Oftentimes, these are the easiest reviews to write if presented with the right record, as the overarching themes and imagery of the music can quite quickly guide the tone and pacing of the article, and it’s undoubtedly motivating to be given the freedom to write whilst wearing one’s creative cap, as opposed to the methodical and analytical one. Compassion, the newest full-length endeavour from Liverpudlian electronic music producer Matthew Barnes, who has been recording under his Forest Swords alias for the best part of the past decade, is unequivocally an album whose tenor and political ethos could easily kindle a creative spark in any music critic who should find themselves journeying into its austere and tribal depths, but perhaps against one’s better judgement.
Barnes’ debut album under the name Forest Swords, 2013’s Engravings, established the artist’s starkly rustic fusions of electronic, ambient, dub, techno, post-rock, hip hop, R&B, trip hop and a host of other styles that all came together in a strikingly dark and cavernous fashion. Compassion is the second studio record from Forest Swords and its core dichotomy of primitivism and the cold, hard reality of the modern day was more than enough to pique my interest. However, upon venturing into what struck me initially as a bold and morbidly grim reflection on the state of world politics, much of the material across Compassion revealed itself to be structured in a disappointingly tepid manner that doesn’t see Barnes take advantage of the album’s arresting aesthetic. Unfortunately, although compelling on the surface, many of these compositions attempt to play with suspense and release without the required fluency, or evoke emotions that they don’t quite have the power to muster up, largely as a result of the rather restricted nature of Compassion that often comes across more as barren than minimal. To say that Forest Swords’ second record is all style and no substance would surely be unfair, but Barnes certainly doesn’t seem to capture the urgency of the project’s subject matter through his somewhat undercooked compositional chops that leave some of these pieces out in the cold. Although Compassion is undoubtedly appealing superficially speaking, it nonetheless seems to be an album that relies largely on its aesthetic to convey a hefty political statement that requires far more substance beneath the surface to carry such a weight.
With the division between the modern and the primal on Compassion comes a significant separation between the electronic and acoustic elements that comprise these pieces. Whilst Barnes uses this to good effect at times, this concept allows for a much greater breadth of sonic exploration than that which he brings to the table across these compositions, to the point wherein certain pieces come across as being held back by their own allowance of space for experimentation that isn’t sufficiently filled. The opening track, War It, for instance, offers the listener a glimpse of the impact that these juxtaposed themes can offer, but without necessarily expanding on them in a way that sates the listener’s expectations based on what they have been presented. The airy, crackling ambience that acts as the through-line that strings most of this six-minute track together rocks back and forth between two frequencies, whilst various electronic squawks or touches of electric guitar tones are piled on top of it seemingly arbitrarily and somewhat awkwardly. The fact that these additions don’t seem to serve much of a purpose for the pacing of the piece simply results in each component feeling almost compartmentalised from the rest of the mix, leading to a slightly anaemic textural quality to the track’s atmosphere that prevents it from providing the serene backdrop to bookend the track’s mid-section, as it was likely intended to. Admittedly, however, it is during the central stage of War It wherein the core contrasting tenets of Compassion come together in a manner that at least alludes towards a sense of purpose to the album’s thematic arc, even if it is presented in a more facile fashion than intended. The booming drums that fight for dominance against the skittish stabs of coruscating synths most definitely capture a tribal tinge that gives a relatively substantial amount of gravity to the tone of the track when placed against the electronic embellishments. Then again, the reintroduction of some of the electronic honks and clamours begins to move the composition towards the same sense of aimlessness once again, and a lack of direction or clear focus seems to be the salient shortfall in the execution of the admittedly appealing aesthetic of Compassion that hinders its fluency. As an example, the three-minute interlude piece, Border Margin Barrier, which is placed in the middle of the tracklisting, simply sees some rather insipid synth chords and electronic crackles run their course, whilst some random sonic ornamentation gradually begins to clutter the mix with myriad bells and whistles that seemingly attempt to offer a build of tension that reaches a climax, but these additions are loaded onto the cut too erratically to provide a sense of direction. This issue of aimlessness arguably comes to a head on the track Vandalism, which meanders amidst arbitrary ebbs and flows in blaring electronic and acoustic instrumentation with no semblance of a conjoining theme that brings everything together or provides any sense of purpose. Whilst it could be argued that this track is deliberately opaque and abstruse, the fact that practically every surrounding cut on Compassion is relatively conventionally structured — at least by electronic music’s standards, with these pieces typically following a largely linear compositional style that is fairly typical for experimental music that seeks to toy with suspense in a direct manner — leaves Vandalism as an outlier that, once again, hinders the flow of the tracklisting.
Indeed, when it comes to the structuring of the compositions across Compassion, for the most part, they tend to fall into a formula based around the way in which Barnes approaches padding these pieces out with melodies, electronic embellishments and the record’s recurrent, primal rhythms. As a blueprint, this could undoubtedly allow for some dramatic, if rather methodical, piece progressions framed around building and releasing tension and, at the very best of times, the artist does strike some rather triumphant heights that come closer to actualising this vision. However, the full scope of sonic progression that this compositional framework allows is seldom taken advantage of to the fullest extent, rather Barnes employs a somewhat systematic approach to layering these cuts that can feel more stilted and clunky than meditative or intense. The Highest Flood is arguably a prime example of this. Although the track’s jittery, chopped and screwed choral vocals and brass-based backdrop that plays against some tense, clicking percussion hit some relatively epic moments, its methodical approach to texturing, which sees various sonic components come and go with no real sense of expansion or dispensation, comes across as overblown and laboured to the point of not maintaining a continued sense of grandiosity across its five-minute duration. Likewise, the following track, Panic, reaches a similar semblance of suspense at times, largely arising from its striking vocal sample, eerie chimes and the bevy of whirling, Eastern melodies that line its spacious soundscapes, but again, far too many of the elements that comprise the cut come across as being clumsily tacked onto one another, rather than flowing smoothly through a seamless structure that reaches any kind of logical conclusion or climax. With pieces like Exalter and Arms Out being far too dishevelled to break free from the several points of stagnation throughout their somewhat unwieldy developments, Barnes struggles to translate the sense of precision and clarity for which he seems to be aiming on Compassion. Perhaps the piece that comes closest to conveying an appropriate impression of directness is Raw Language, whose propulsive bass lines, dramatic drumming and rousing handclaps drive forward the punchy combo of brass and strings, before the focus shifts to the lush choir and muffled saxophone that offers some respite from the intensity of the track’s sonic peaks. Raw Language, however, is far from being strung together entirely harmoniously, but compared to much of the rest of the record, it’s certainly one of the more clearly goal-orientated compositions in the tracklisting. Indeed, a majority of Compassion seems to be pieced together slightly haphazardly, in a way that hinders the degree to which the pensiveness or vigour for which these tracks strive can be captured and conveyed to the listener.
Compassion is unequivocally a project whose dichotomy of primitivism and post-modernism could move a listener to be enraptured by its dramatic veneer, but beneath the surface, it lacks the substance to fully bear the weight of its tremendous ambition. Perhaps the most glaring pitfall apparent throughout the tracklisting is the overall lack of direction or purpose that drives these pieces towards a conclusion that doesn’t feel logical or entirely earned, which acts in complete contradiction to the record’s political pretence. Likewise, the chasm that Barnes leaves yawning through his adjacent placement of the album’s acoustic and electronic elements feels only partially explored, leaving certain pieces open to a much more detailed a thorough breadth of stylistic experimentation than that which is uncovered by the artist. Although Barnes strikes some impressive points of emotion and energy at times, many of these compositions come across as far too passive to breathe life into his vision of cultural commentary. Compassion may seem rather rich aesthetically speaking, but this is seldom followed through with the same amount of urgency in its actual content to provide a defined direction to its bold themes.
The Vinyl Verdict: 5.5/10