Forest Swords - Compassion
Christmas, 1997. My finger clicks on the PlayStation. A small triangular light blinks. The disc spins restlessly. Final Fantasy 7 is about to change my life. After clearing the hours-long opening prologue, as your team of plucky eco-terrorists is forced out of Midgar (AKA Cyber-punk NYC) and into the boundless depths of the World Map, a creeping musical theme emerges. There is something sinister oozing out of this planet, composer Nobuo Uematsu suggests. Throughout the game, natural settings give way to terrible environmental catastrophes, culminating in Godzilla-like kaiju springing forth to deter humanity’s chaotic course. FF7’s “World Map Theme” hints at that horror beneath the glossy gauze, Uematsu all but daring you to look deeper… if you can. FF7 was a massive undertaking for the fledgling PS1, its revolutionary 3-D graphics (which now, by the way, look like horrific outtakes from The Lego Movie) establishing a new standard for the coming millennium, despite reservations from 2-D purists. Nearly two decades later, experimental English composer Forest Swords applies that progressive ethic to the deconstruction of human language, exploding it amongst the beauty and brutality lurking beneath seemingly genteel textures. Forest Swords is the moniker of Liverpool musician Matthew Barnes, and he shares more in common with Brit electronica stalwarts like Four Tet or Aphex Twin than just the ~mysterious~ stage name. With his penchant for ancient imagery across EPs like 2010’s Dagger Paths and 2011’s Fjree Feather, it can sometimes all come across a bit Game of Thrones, or at least Burial in a Jon Snow cloak. Compassion is the first LP from Forest Swords since 2013’s Engravings, and it manages to smooth out many of his ruffled edges, not the least of which is a full-fledged commitment to layered, multi-faceted beats and atomizing hushed, spare vocals across barren, cacophonous musical landscapes.
Beginning an album entitled Compassion with a song called “War It” might seem oxymoronic, but it’s in keeping for an album that is devoted to exploring the shifting topographical scenery around us, and the terrestrial patterns humans create with our own conflict. That searing, bubbling conflict at play for the first two minutes of the song is what initially brought FF7 to mind, particularly in its evocation of a planet crying out to the humans bent on self-destruction. Eventually the track builds into something entirely different, channeling rhythmic drums and a tightly wound synth line into a battle hymn for the end of the world. Meanwhile, “The Highest Flood” uses screeching, disjointed vocals to suggest a pending planetary collapse. Forest Swords has always toyed with human voices, often looping them in unconventional ways as part of the scene, rather than defining it. Here, as voices are squelched out amongst fuzzy distortion, it’s clear that humans are but one part of a larger tapestry, alien even to the established environmental order. Likewise, the strange vocal snatches that close out the vibrant “Panic” and lush “Exalter” add another dimension, introducing elements of dub and hip-hop, then dropping them into the atmosphere like Alka-Seltzer to let them fizz. These exploratory touches, from the North African percussion on “Panic” to the droning vocals on “Arms Out” further Barnes desire to communicate across cultures, a concept bridged neatly by album half-way point “Border Margin Barrier”, which examines the ebbs and tides of discourse, its subtle machinations crashing and lapping up against each other in an endless cycle of chatter. “Vandalism” and “Sjurvival” are similarly slow-burning, embracing a foreboding atmosphere that benefits as much from snippets of found noise as their own opacity. These are tracks that will yield different observations on trains, in streets, by water, and like the disorienting, apocalyptic sci-fi undertones of FF7, refuse to reveal their intentions to clean, simple interpretation. Whether organizing human or natural principles, Barnes has crafted songs that act as pinholes for a planet and people in crisis, the desire to communicate in a time when language fractures by virtue of its omnipresence.
That saxophone you hear on “Raw Language” isn’t real, by the way. And to hear Barnes tell it in his May 4, 2017 interview with Fact, that’s the point. By virtue of his art, whether sampling or using computer generated instruments, he’s faking it too. And in an era where “fake” and “real” have lost distinction entirely, Forest Swords chooses to illuminate, rather than deconstruct or proselytize. Many wondered at the advent of FF7 whether realism, three-dimensional bodies in space, could ever compete with the 2-D storybook detail and precision associated with FF6 and the SNES era. Now, with the announcement of a FF7 re-make for the PS4, those debates rage again. But in capturing the haunting liminal space between how we look and how we move, what we say and what we mean, these works suggest the deeply knotted tension of our present moment. This is an album of terrifying oppositions, epitomized by the razor tension on album closer “Knife Edge”, itself suggesting we are a hair’s breadth from so many things. Compassion seeks where language fails, an array of human voices gnashing, withering, joining, and speaking in search of meaning.