- One day in late March, Matthew Barnes gave out his mobile number on social media and asked people to WhatsApp him. Those who did would receive some new Forest Swords music, free of charge. He expected 50 people at the most to respond. He answered around 600 messages in total. He's still chatting to some of those people. It was an experiment to explore new ways of communicating and connecting. Barnes has become deeply invested in these issues—in particular, the failure of language to keep up with other modes of expression. "We all communicate using images now," he told Dazed recently. "Emojis or gifs have wide, open meanings, and have a lot of wiggle room in what they can convey to someone else. In some ways they're more expressive and creative than using words." In a similar way, Compassion is about the exchange of meaning and emotion without words.
Vocals are all over the album, but only "Panic" has full sentences. Elsewhere, the vocals are clipped samples turned into wordless phrases that, to Barnes, are more emotionally affecting. You can hear this technique on "The Highest Flood," "Exalter," "Arms Out" and "Raw Language." They're the album's singalong tracks—weirdly enough, that's the instinctive response. You might find yourself mouthing along, regardless of whether you understand what's being said. Barnes used the human voice before on Shrine, his breathy contemporary dance score. But where Shrine used primal sounds to evoke ancient humanity, Compassion is more complex and evolved. It's speaking to you in a language that hasn't yet been invented—a language beyond language, perhaps.
Musically, Compassion uses the same hybrid processes as past Forest Sword records. Acoustic and digital sounds rub against each other. Sampled and synthesised content merge. The compositions feel synthetically aged, too, like a counterfeit artefact. The surfaces of tracks like "War It" and "Vandalism" feel weathered, but steel sometimes flashes amid the rust.
Compassion shows how Barnes has progressed since his last album, Engravings. His sound is more grand and daring than before. That's partly because he uses more instruments. A serenading guitar was the main melody maker on Engravings. Here, we have a whole orchestra—some of it real, some of it synthesised—and a host of different voices. Engravings was dank and almost claustrophobic in a way that woodland can feel. It was a lonely record and a response to a single environment: The Wirral, where Barnes lives. It prompted an eyes-down response in kind. Compassion is the opposite. It is the product of travel, written in different cities and with its eyes wide open to the world.
Compassion is very much rooted in the here and now. In that same Dazed interview, Barnes said every album to come out this year will be marked by current affairs. Compassion is no different. It is poignant and ragged with suffering, but it doesn't dwell there. It is also bright, optimistic and euphoric. Compassion doesn't merely reflect the weeping and gnashing of teeth of our time—it does what it can to sooth and heal. The results are both sincere and sublime.
01. War It
02. The Highest Flood
05. Border Margin Barrier
06. Arms Out
09. Raw Language
10. Knife Edge