Chris Watson - El Tren Fantasma [Touch - 2012]Chris Watson is a familiar name in field recordings, if not the most familiar name. Despite crossing paths with his work on several occasions, this is the first full album I’ve actually heard - and it doesn’t disappoint. Its packaged in a smart digi-pack, with vintage photographs of its subject matter: trains and their journeys from Los Mochis to Veracruz, in Mexico. The ten tracks within “document” this journey, using sounds recorded on that journey.
As would be expected, train sounds dominate the recording: trains screeching, rattling, braking and clattering along. But there are also plenty of sounds from the surrounding elements of the environment: birds, insects, people, radios, ambient sounds; it is a somewhat limited palette, but this does give the album a real focus and identity. These sounds are layered and collaged by Watson, to evoke a sense of the trains journey from west coast to east coast. He sets his stall out in the very first track: following a series of announcements in Spanish, a voice suddenly declares in English, “Last call for the ghost train” - making it clear that the tracks that follow will not be ultra-realist documentations of the journey, but rather creations and constructions that reflect impressions, memories and perceptions of it.
Many of the tracks are simple (but effective) collages, layering sounds sympathetically and creating a distillation of an environment. So you have a track like “El Tajin; El dia y La noche”, which uses nocturnal sounds to evoke the still of a Mexican night; eerie drones, crickets chirruping, and the odd, haunting, mournful cries of a bird (?). Quite a lot of “El Tren Fantasma” has this eerie, tense quality. “Mexico D.F.” is dominated by dark, unsettling drones; punctuated by rushes of train clatter and rhythmic passages that sound like heartbeats. At the end of the track, these train-sourced heartbeats take on a pounding, industrial flavour; accompanied by low-end drones and squealing, scraping train sounds. This similarity to industrial/noise constructions is also to be found on “Chihuahua”, which begins with thunderous sounds and then develops into something akin to a really restrained, eerie junk-noise track; as well as the end section of “Los Mochis”, which sees brake squeals layered into a shrieking drone reminiscent of Penderecki’s “Threnody To The Victims Of Hiroshima”. Elsewhere, in maybe the most memorable track - “El Divisadero” - Watson conjures up nothing less than the spirit of Kraftwerk. Using a rhythm loop from the sound of a train over tracks, he adds dense layers of drones - also train-sourced - to create a truly motorik piece. A somewhat perfect realisation of Kraftwerk’s ideas and sound, given the source material. As the track develops, Watson follows the evolution of Krautrock by processing the rhythms and drones into Techno proper: the train “beats” phasing across a dark, night-time landscape - though its unclear if the bass drum triplet is a processed field recording, or an actual electronic drum beat. “El Divisadero” actually begins with blaring train horns, which filter into a bass drone - almost like morphing air-horns at a rave… I like to think this was a knowing act on Watson’s part. Following on from this, he also creates sections which sound like glitching electronica; using train noises in passages of “Los Mochis”, and bird and insect sounds at the end of “El Tajin; El dia y La noche”, to this effect. Elsewhere, on “Crucero La Joya”, insect sounds are knowingly glitched and stretched; flickering and stuttering across a sedate soundscape. This almost serene tone of landscape is found in “Sierra Tarahumara” too; in fact, despite the noisiness of some of the tracks, there are few jolts or shocks. The only real use of extreme dynamics is in “Aguascaliente”, which shows a quiet, barren landscape invaded for a few seconds by the noisy passing of a train; before returning to a windswept wilderness.
This is undeniably a great piece of work. Whilst it does contain “obvious” field recording elements, like birdsong and insect sounds, which are much easier to make “musical”; the concentration on train sounds shows a much more industrious, developed and crafted approach. Watson’s excellent ear and skills mean that the listener never tires, despite the previously mentioned limited palette; and his forays into noisier and rhythmic territories pay dividends: the more I listen to “El Divisadero”, the better it gets. “El Tren Fantasma” is indeed a ghostly train journey.Martin P