There's a certain kind of renaissance artist who can make computer generated music feel both ancient and leading edge; like George Lucas's Star Wars, with it's dirty, worn out visions of a dystopia many generations in our future, Matthew Barnes has in recent years proven adept at giving his compounds a sheen of methodological rust.
Compassion follows his widely acclaimed 2013 release Engravings and is the product of a less than fallow period in which he collaborated with Massive Attack and scored Assassin's Creed: Rogue, projects he completed whilst simultaneously contemplating the long darkening of a world dominated by propaganda so thick the mind spends half it's time in quarrelled disassembly.
Barnes's passion for found sounds and submerging genres often leaves him like a conductor out of time, the rave glimpses of opener War It revealing themselves slowly, the way a natural feature perceived from different angles assumes multiple perspectives. Compassion is subtly grained - there are few others patrolling these boundaries that are anywhere even near the mainstream's event horizon - but here the producer's video game associations give him an auteurist sibilance not unlike that of Tim Hecker.
Unlike Hecker the Merseysider infuses his compositions with ghosts. The taut fiddle of Panic, it's desperate bells and shuffling, nightmare r&b loop turn it into sort of Puritan soul music, the sound of witches had they survived bloody trials and cast spells right now upon a town of recanting sinners in some heretical ghetto. Yesterday lines every interlude; Border Margin Barrier a bridal march in an empty church, the friction of dust motes in shafts of light that stab and blind the eyes in nano.
This synthesis of the real and imaginary enlivens rich tropes, ones that seem well beyond the frame of reference for electronic aesthetica: Raw Language sounds like android chamber music before becoming filled with an exotic, quasi-Eastern intonation, a tenet countered by the tribal Gregorianism of Arms Out, or Exalter's dawn-chill funeral march.
It's not unreasonable to want to seek interpretation of these scenarios, montages, eke messages from them, to understand. Perhaps this is a mistake. Closer Knife Edge plays out in phases, from isolation moving to mournfulness and finally, with cut-up voices hinting, a modicum of salvation that projects some sort of hope. Like much of what precedes it, these conclusions are mired in subjectivity, but given that so much music is a matt blankness of cerebral chewing gum, this quality is as fascinating as it's vital.
Barnes claims, perhaps unsurprisingly, that a human's ability to build empathy in the face of technology's dissociative streak is the quality which could save some or all of us. Compassion validates some of that philosophy, in so much that it exists as testament to man's ability to tame the narrow horizons of our inventions and give them personality, warmth, compassion even. In a world where perception is reality and old is the new new, it proves that pied pipers come in all manner of guises.
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