How do you turn an entirely instrumental album into a political statement? Ninja Tune's Forest Swords is actually the second experimental electronic artist to attempt to answer that question this year. The first was Fuck Buttons' Blanck Mass with his furious 'World Eater', a one month old record that still won't stop bawling its head off through my speakers. Much like 'Compassion', that album was composed as a direct a response to the political nosedive the world has entered over the last year or so. But, while 'World Eater' somehow managed to make wordless protest music out of nothing more than abrasive electronic textures, ground up vocal samples and a pulsing hatred of Donald Trump, this record takes the exact same tactics and sentiment and then flips to the other side of the coin.
'Compassion', as its name and art scheme (which features various first generation immigrants coming to the United States from Liverpool) might suggest, is a positive exploration of what human beings are capable of doing for, rather than to, one another. Forest Swords has previously demonstrated a knack for building semi-conceptual albums around tangible themes on his contemplative 2010 debut 'Dagger Paths', which was all about deeply buried memories, and his last record, 2013's windswept 'Engravings', which focused on the slow-changing identities of nature's hidden places.
However, neither of those records quite matches 'Compassion' when it comes to sheer thematic ambition. With its repeated use of tribal chants sung in non-specific languages and the way different instruments from around the globe flit in and out almost at random, every part of this record represents a more accommodating version of humanity: a borderless world built on respect and commonality rather than a walled one filled with suspicion and self-interest.
Just because there's a firm overarching concept doesn't mean that 'Compassion' wants for variety. 'Panic' in particular offers an alternative angle to the rest of the album. Its central foghorn squall underlays a more desperate vision of the plight of refugees, one that both tempers and enhances the record's more aspirational hues elsewhere. Music-wise, Forest Swords is one of a very, very shallow pool of artists who could truly be described as genreless, and the atmosphere of his instrumentation morphs completely from one moment to the next.
'Raw Language', besides being a great name for the Joan La Barbara-esque clipped vocal process he uses, is a perfect showcase of these prog sensibilities. Zigzagging between a clapped trap beat, disco strings and a cathedral gospel chorus, this song demonstrates its creator’s ability to pour out the music playing in his head until there's a nutritious soup of different sounds ready for the listener to taste.
Even the musical influences you can hear are themselves masters of genre-hopping. The downtempo rustle of 'Knife Edge' is reminiscent of Jon Hopkins at medium wistfulness while the wild percussion and Eastern strings of 'Exalter' brings to mind the mind-bending work of The Gaslamp Killer. The more ambient tendencies of Aphex Twin are also audible on mid-album tearjerker 'Border Margin Barrier', probably not a track to listen to at an airport after taking a loved one to catch a flight.
But despite the range of sounds and influences present on this album, I just can't listen to this album without thinking about Blanck Mass's aforementioned ‘World Eater’. They almost feel like companion pieces in terms of both sound and subject, and I heartily recommend listening to both records back to back. But where Benjamin Power tends to push ideas as far as they can go, revelling in his ability to push every part of a song up to eleven, Forest Swords is quite the opposite. For every one building crescendo there are a dozen pull aways, moments where he elects to quash the noise and leave a single texture or melody to carry the song along on its own.
Forest Swords was already becoming quickly respected for his deftness of touch when dealing with both musical and emotional tone. 'Compassion' demonstrates he is very capable of weaving them together until they are intrinsically entwined.
Words: Josh Gray
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