Forest Swords brought his unique experimental sound to London’s Village Underground this week.
You can say that Forest Swords makes ‘electronic music’ but such a vague description is a disservice to the music he makes. Matthew Barnes has made two albums so far under a name that has artfully combined sounds from dub, trip-hop, and post-rock, earning him a reputation for being genre-less and a wealth of critical acclaim. When arriving on stage at Village Underground, Barnes seems genuinely taken aback that so many people have turned up to see him. Forest Swords is a project that doesn’t fit obviously with any trends in alternative music and it has no traditional hits, but Barnes has found great strengths in his idiosyncrasies and his music has become surprisingly sought-after in recent years – incredibly, he even received a shout-out from Ellie Goulding this week. His success is undoubtedly because Forest Swords is one of the few artists who can credibly say that his work is unlike any of his contemporaries.
For his Village Underground show, Barnes’ live set-up matches his sound on record, filled with minimalist drama and strikingly vivid textures. He handles most of the music by himself with a guitar and a set of samplers, accompanied only by a bass player to expand the sound, and the duo compensates for the lack of personal presence with visuals that expand on the images used to promote Compassion, Forest Swords’ latest album. Barnes rarely speaks during the hour long set and it would be very easy for this live experience to feel cold and impersonal, but the set’s visuals provide the vital human component to Forest Swords’ music. Human bodies are present throughout, often with their faces masked or covered in cloth, turning and twisting to the music. It works brilliantly at stopping the mechanical elements of the music from taking over and Barnes does an excellent job at balancing the synthetic and organic sounds in his music.
Throughout the set, the songs from Compassion are notable highlights, particularly on rousing renditions of ‘Panic’ and ‘The Highest Flood’, but earlier tracks are mixed in effectively. In a live setting, Forest Swords’ newer songs feel weightier and more powerful than they do on record, helped along by some stomach-churningly powerful bass. ‘Raw Language’ in particular is extraordinarily performed, providing the night’s most energising performance. At one point, later in the set, the duo’s bass rumbles so strongly that Barnes’ laptop shuts on him, forcing him to restart the song from the beginning. It’s a brief moment of levity in a set that is otherwise seamlessly put together.
However, if there is one fair criticism of Forest Swords, both live and on record, it is that the formula Barnes uses to build up and progress through tracks can be a little repetitive at times. Even this relatively short set, finishing up after just over an hour, felt like it was beginning to exhaust the project’s appeal. On Compassion, Barnes came very close to perfecting his unique style but if he wants to move Forest Swords to bigger stages, the project will need to explore some new dynamics. For an hour, Barnes put on a show that was strikingly original and excellently performed, and I have no doubt that he will find new ways to surprise fans in the future. Forest Swords is a project that is unique enough to exist for many more albums and, based on this performance, it has an exciting future ahead.
Words by Conrad Duncan