Abandoned buildings tower as digital tumbleweeds blow across the sonic horizon, Compassion by Forest Swords is a dizzying but sedated sophomore effort. Opening track “War It” risks itself, riding on a razor while nearly random drums swirl. It’s the preparation, before spilling into a multi-part drum and trumpet sprint. It’s succinct but exploratory, the exact idea that sparked people’s affections on Engravings, including mine. What follows is a mixed bag of duds, sketches, and other world bangers held back by their lack of ambition.
“The Highest Flood” is a microcosm of everything to love about this record. Stilted drums and keen synths hold you in place while a chopped and reverbed choir elaborates. The main issue with Compassion surfaces when the remainder of the tracks utilizes those same pieces to diminishing returns as repetition gives birth to boredom. “Panic” opens with a synthesizer reminder that bad tone is easier than good and that making a keyboard sound like a ship’s dinner buzzer and/or a turtle being stepped on is as easy as an accident or not reading a manual.
“Exalter” is as confused about its identity as a perpetually adolescent thirty-year-old. There are too many ingredients for the track to be delicious, like one push at every lever on the Coke machine at Burger King. By the third or fourth chopped and reverbed choir, the effect has been lost. “Border Margin Barrier” begins with the same horn that began Plastic Beach and its tempting not to switch records.
The vocal hook on “Arms Out” is drenched in reverb and can hardly muster the presence it thinks it can, with such a utopian phrase, it collapses under its own optimism. “Vandalism” opens with ninety seconds of dumpster dub tones, but when the beat comes it, Barnes can’t decide between digital or analog, the resulting beat is a mix of large drum tones and muted synth notes. With so many stops and starts, it never states a purpose, unless the purpose is aimlessness, in which case it's easily achieved. The glass tinkering at the end has clever movement, but with the loud cross-panned vocal over top, it feels like a giant question mark written on my hand in sharpie, and I just can’t wash it off.
Compassion on paper would have many of the same adjectives as a Burial record or EP. But every time Burial turns toward mystery, Barnes turns toward ambiguity. It’s not even that the tracks are weak, they’re unfinished or at least they sound like it, and which of those is worse?
“Sjurvival” proves an excellent palette cleanser. Its vocal tone so filtered and muted that it haunts as it moves back and forth for a brief two minutes — a full record of this could have been a more sinister Brian Eno, but it breaks into “Raw Language” with its trumpets and its limited array of ideas. The synth waves aren’t quick enough to surf on or slow enough to rest on, they just kind of… are there, like waves hitting your canoe that keeps waking you from your nap of boredom. What is he going for? It’s stable, it’s dusty, it’s sequenced, it’s interesting, but for all its achievements it isn’t compelling.
Perhaps this is effectively a film score? Barnes’ previous work “Shrine” was an accompaniment to a dance piece with mortal samples like a Matmos record. Compassion would work much better with film overlaid. Without a compelling scene, why is “Knife Edge” six minutes long? It’s out of good ideas after two.
Forest Swords' second record is simplistic on purpose, but that doesn’t make it feel less empty. Maybe the man on the cover holding the rock is the perfect image of this record. Vaguely interesting, but mostly begs the question: when will this be over? C MINUS