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Forest Swords Compassion Ninja Tune

When Forest Swords (real name Matthew Barnes) emerged in 2010, it was tempting to see his work as part of the afterglow that burned brightly in the wake of dubstep’s rhythmic revolution – a more paranoid, austere and gothic take on the same raw elements that James Blake’s early offerings tinkered with. But Barnes’ compositions have evolved, and Forest Swords now sounds distinctive rather than part of a wave or trend. This is a blessing and a curse. If you find chopped, ghoulish vocal snippets and reverb-drenched, spectral dub-leanings dispiriting, then there’s no escaping that this is the defining Forest Swords aesthetic. But if you find murky solace in the subterranean melancholy of Barnes’ productions, then Compassion is a rewarding listen.

Opening War It starts from where 2013’s Engravings left off, end-times reverb and unsettling melody rattling along like a skeleton. The cinematic, portentous The Highest Flood is an abstract response to climate change (which Barnes has tackled before in a collaboration with Massive Attack and Young Fathers). Throughout, orchestral samples sit next to snippets of recorded strings and brass, situating the sound somewhere between synthetic and rustic, and on Exalter, slow-motion, barren breakbeats extend a lineage that takes in DJ Shadow’s genre-defining Endtroducing and Zomby’s anxious, fidgety clattering. The gritty Border, Margin, Barrier erupts into a howling crescendo, and the swooping Arms Out is a redemptive saga, a rare soothing moment on an album that stares the current state of the world in the face, and makes no attempt to hide its indignant dismay.