I’ll be the first to admit that ambient electronic music can be a rather difficult genre to break into as a fan, much less appreciate. And when you’re raised on the traditional forms of Western pop music, reorienting your ears to process off-kilter time signatures, distorted melodies, and non-linear arrangements can be a few steps too far.
For example, even though she really enjoys danceable electro-pop, my lovely wife barely tolerates it when I play weird outsider electro like Pantha du Prince. And even though my two-year-old daughter loves dancing to Four Tet (what with Kieran Hebden’s penchant for bubbling grooves), she has no patience for anything with heavy syncopation or anything beat-less like Burial.
That being said, I will continue to expand my child’s musical awareness as she ages, despite my wife’s best (indie-pop) wishes. And Compassion by Forest Swords, his second full-length record and first for Ninja Tune, will be one of the guideposts I use in her education.
Everything you might want from postmodern electronic music is present:
- Cinematic aesthetics
- Elegiac ambiance
- Orchestral arrangements
- Powerful atmosphere
The true strength of the production techniques employed by Matthew Barnes across this 10-song record rests in his capacity to create disorienting and disjointed soundscapes that still fill purposeful and intentional. For all these songs might lack in overt bass lines, melodies, and pop-friendly instrumentation, they ripple with power, purpose, and passion. Obvious musical touchstones include Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Claude Debussy, Sun Ra, John Coltrane, and Ennio Morricone, but Barnes pushes his ideas forward with an eye on the horizon and a keen fondness for the mystical and magical.
Then again, for an ambient electronic record, Forest Swords’ Compassion possesses a strong rhythmic core, though it’s not what you’d typically define as a rhythm section.
The abrasive percussion samples clatter around the arrangements, giving the merest hint of the time signature, only to be complemented by various piano and synth phrases that have been rendered and pitch-bent – often into near-oblivion. And depending upon the song, the melody is carried by some combination of eerie string section, tinkling bells, or odd sound effects.
The most potent elements of Compassion are the various ways and means through which Barnes distorts, twists, and warps the vocalizations (some of which could easily be synth patches processed to render as “vocals”). At their peak impact, whole gospel choirs of distended voices reach across the void and into your ears, all while the music swirls around you. And when a single voice arises from the chorus acting like a soloist or gospel preacher whipping the congregation into a frenzy, the result is nigh onto rapturous.
Unlike the common stereotype of ambient electronic music – that it’s all treacly and dreamy – Compassion never truly allows you to get settled or comfortable. Instead, just like any standout preacher should, tunes like “War It,” “The Highest Flood,” “Exalter,” and “Raw Language” keep you perched on the edge of your seat with nervous energy and anticipation for what might happen next.
There are no cheap or boring ideas on display here – Forest Swords has constructed a complete, end-to-end musical thought that is both challenging and fulfilling to the listener.
While I might not suggest it as an introduction to the genre (you’d be better off cutting your teeth on Mount Kimbie or James Blake), this album comes highly recommended for anyone interested in exploring electronic music that’s not rooted in poppy, EDM textures and sentiments.
And while my wife would rather me turn off this album and play the new one from New Pornographers instead, my hope is that, through diligent work and timely exposure, my daughter will someday show an interest in this sort of music. I’d be delighted to fund her efforts to produce electronic music of this nature when she gets older.