Hope, warmth and empathy aren’t qualities that listeners ordinarily seek out in dark ambient, dub or industrial music. This kind of electronic music is the domain of the ominous and the portentous—places where beauty can be found in spite of the harshness, or at least beneath a gauze of menace. But dark music is made by human beings, and human beings are complex creatures. The aesthetics of darkness they create can sometimes be a proxy for social commentary, a reflection on the outside world, or simply an expression of something that’s not easily put into words. In just the first few months of 2017, a number of electronic producers have reflected the chaos and darkness of a growing global tension by counteracting it with something that acts as their own artistic cry for sanity. Blanck Mass’ World Eater infused characteristically epic and noisy compositions with human voices, lending a pulse and a human face to otherwise abstract representations of hate and violence. And Pharmakon’s Contact moved away from the personal torment of her previous work toward a blood-curdling scream of desperation and need for understanding amid the awfulness of which humanity is capable.
UK artist Matthew Barnes, better known as Forest Swords, is in a similar headspace with Compassion. The title itself speaks volumes; where past recordings by Barnes have evoked an eerie abstraction (Dagger Paths, Engravings), here he outlines the very thing that consumes his new collection of music. Barnes has outlined male vulnerability, nationalism and autocratic rallies as some of the themes that went into the creation of his new set of music, and in a press release, he’s gone so far as to paint a bleak picture of the state of the world: “I’ve struggled to see any kind of light at the end of the tunnel,” he says, “so I realized there’s some sort of power in trying to create our own instead.”
Finding that light on Compassion requires some working knowledge of Forest Swords’ music. A first-time listen to any of these tracks likely won’t land as hopeful or open-hearted. And perhaps that’s not the best way to describe them. They’re chilly and stark landscapes of feedback, industrial-dub beats and tortured voices that resemble faces in expressionist paintings. But held against those on Engravings, for instance, they feel strangely warmer, more human, more empathetic. There’s an emotionally haunted quality to “Vandalism”; it feels sad, but not altogether bleak. Amid the dark textures and hues that Barnes manipulates, there’s a beating heart at the center of his distorted mechanism.
Voices have played an important role in Forest Swords’ music before, but here those voices feel more crucial if not necessarily as real. The choral samples in “The Highest Flood” feel distant and ethereal, more like brief flashes of memory than an actual personal presence. Meanwhile, the repeated phrases, “I feel something’s wrong/The panic is on” in “Panic” reflect a hopelessness and malaise that’s become a global affliction of late, though ironically this defeatedness is what makes it all the more relatable. And while the vocals that crop up in “Arms Out” aren’t as easy to decipher linguistically, they feel the most soulful and comforting. On music like Forest Swords’, that’s a quality that tends to stand out.
Compassion is a departure from past Forest Swords works only by a matter of degrees, but a little bit can go a long way. At no point does Barnes lose the sense of mystery or eeriness that’s defined his work up to this point, it’s simply become more vulnerable and approachable. The layers of strings in “Arms Out” and “Raw Language” give it a sense of elegant grandeur, while the nuanced arrangement of closing track “Knife Edge” offers a moment of sober reflection. This is by no means music for celebration or hedonistic revelry. It is, however, music that’s meant to be engaged with. It’s an album that gives back only as much as you’re willing to put into it.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.