Matthew Barnes' music as Forest Swords has always possessed a keen sense of place, imbued with the heft of folklore and the ghosts of the past. His previous releases—2010's Dagger Paths EP and 2013's Engravings—made clear a personal connection to the Wirral, an outcrop of land sandwiched between Liverpool and northernmost tip of Wales. Referencing local history with track titles such as "Thor's Stone", the music itself set clattering, digitised percussion against clipped, treated vocals, striking a balance between pagan ritual and eerie rave marginalia. Locality is less important to Barnes on his latest album Compassion: the artistic gaze has turned inwards.
"I think it's a more open sounding record, a bit more inclusive, and a bit more engaging," Barnes tells me before taking a moment to taper his own conclusions. "But I only really finished it in March—it's still quite fresh to me and I don't think I fully understand a lot of it." Despite his caution to assert premature conclusions, Compassion's wider, at times panoramic sound is reflected in the process of its creation. He began writing the record as soon as he'd wrapped up the Engravings tour in late 2014. Feeling burnt out with those songs, Barnes immediately set about visiting the locations that piqued his interest while on the road. "There were a bunch of places that I'd been to that I really liked but didn't get the chance to hang out in or get a sense of what they were like," he says. "And sometimes I would come away with a full song or sometimes I would come away with a beat or melody or even just a field recording."
Barnes spent time in Brighton and Istanbul before finally mastering the record in Aviemore, a town on the edge of the Scottish highlands. Compassion isn't just a product of greater geographical diversity —it was made in the context of a number of collaborations. The first was a score for the dance performance, Shrine, while the second was a soundtrack for the Liam Young's In The Robot Skies, the first film to be shot entirely using pre-programmed drones. "I started to realise that working with people from different countries and exploring other people's ideas was such a nourishing and beneficial thing." There are moments where these broadened horizons find sonic expression—"Arms Out" erupts in a crescendo of swelling strings and warbling vocals —a passage of grace and euphoria midway through the record.
Compassion's openness stems from the events around which it was created. "I think generally, and especially in the UK, there was this blanket of horror which continued to be unfurled over everything with Brexit and Trump. And that kind of dovetailed with a lot of stuff in my personal life where my friends were struggling with a lot of different things." Brexit, in particular, looms large over the record even if the record isn't explicitly about Britain's divorce from the EU. Barnes describes his home of Merseyside as being particularly fractured, the views of the left and the right seemingly irreconcilable. "There's a real push and pull. And people got a lot angrier about it than I thought they would. There was a tangible sense of aggression, of people standing their ground."
That feeling hit close to home, too, Barnes surprised by the reaction of his parents to the events. "For the first time I felt distant from them because our opinions were so disparate. I was literally saying to them, 'You know this is probably going to affect everything I do and the way I make a living.' And then they were like, 'Well, yeah OK, we respect that,' but then just went ahead and voted to leave."
If anything, these events galvanised Barnes to make a record that is, on occasion, strikingly defiant. "The Highest Flood" rattles with urgency, its synthetic vocals trapped between the past and present, while "War It", the opening track, tumbles with battle-ready drums. "I think it's more of an assertive record compared to previous stuff I've done. I definitely felt like I was trying to punch my way through a wall at times." The goal of the record, though, isn't to batten down the hatches or even to invoke hostility; it's an attempt to formulate both a response to, and a way out of, current crises.
"I was thinking a lot about connections with people, how I want to connect with people moving forwards, either through collaborations or through a one-on-one basis in my personal life—that's partly why I called it Compassion. But I was also interested in using an album title like a seed, or a way to disseminate a word. I think the idea of compassion is gonna be super important over the next couple of years with what's going on."
Part of this approach involved using WhatsApp to send out songs to fans, forging a link with those he might not otherwise have conversed with. "I thought it would just be a really interesting way to try and communicate with people. Because people use it all day long, it felt a lot more direct and personal than posting on someone's Facebook wall or just posting a tweet to them." There's also something potentially subversive about the process, too, of bypassing agreed avenues of distribution like SoundCloud or Spotify. The experiment chimed with a previous project Barnes worked on where he cut music onto an X-ray, a method used by artists attempting to smuggle their music out of Soviet Russia. "There are always those moments in time where people want to escape current structures of distributing music or art and this [WhatsApp] felt like a current way for me to try it."
But while Barnes is looking outwards more than ever before, he's still tied to place, and fiercely proud of Liverpool and its surrounding areas. "Liverpool's always been a fairly poor city but nowadays, especially over the past 18 months, there's this real sense of just getting on with it. We've got all these amazing spaces, cheap rent and people are just well up for it—like, why don't we just try and make good things and fuck everyone else. You can use your identity in a really powerful way and take bits from the past and sculpt them into something interesting and forward facing and inclusive. It's about enabling people to be excited about themselves."
Forest Swords' latest LP, Compassion, is out now on Ninja Tune.
Lewis Gordon is on Twitter .