CHRIS WATSON: El Tren Fantasma (Touch)


Posted on Jan 11th 2012 01:28 am

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Chris Watson: El Tren Fantasma

El Tren Fantasma
Touch 2011
10 Tracks. 59mins38secs

Amazon UK: CD | DLD US: CD | DLD Boomkat: CD | DLD iTunes: DLD Spotify: STRM

Railways have often provided electronic-based musicians with a wealth of rhythmic and mechanical sounds, from Pierre Schaeffer’s early tape experiments to Krafwerk’s hypnotic journeys across Europe. A former member of Cabaret Voltaire and The Hafler Trio, Chris Watson may have at one time been keen to explore similar concepts, but his work as a sound recordist in the last thirty years has taken him on a very different path. Watson works primarily with wildlife, and his work has been featured on many natural history programmes for the BBC, most notably David Attenborough’s series, from The Life Of Birds to Life In Cold Blood, and Bill Oddie’s Springwatch and Autumnwatch series. Beside these, Watson has released three albums of field recordings on Touch and has collaborated with a number of experimental musicians on further recordings and installations. This album is his fourth solo record for Touch.

El Tren Fantasma is a slightly different project, as it documents a cross country train journey on board the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México (FNM), from Los Mochis on the Pacific coast to the west to Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico to the east. The service ceased to operate over ten years ago, but Watson, who was then part of a crew filming a documentary for the BBC, Great Railway Journeys, spent a month on the service shortly before it was withdrawn, recording everything from the lulling clunk of the wheels on the tracks and wildlife sounds collected en route to some of the last passengers traveling on the service and station or on board announcements. These recordings were used again recently as part of a BBC Radio 4 programme, and they are given a further lease of life with this document of a time now gone.

This journey on what Watson suitably calls El Tren Fantasma (The Ghost Train) is extremely hypnotic and evocative. The album opens as trains slow down and come to a stop or painfully pull out, ready for the journey ahead, while announcements, partially buried in noise, can be overheard. This is the beginning of the journey, and one cannot help but feel a tremor of excitement as the sound of a diesel engine temporarily swallows the clunking noise of metal on metal and the strident hisses as wheels grind again rails and breaks against wheels.

Watson doesn’t aim to recreate the journey in any consistent chronology. Instead, he gives a taste of what this journey actually was by using nature and wildlife sounds to hint at the landscapes passed on the way. Equally, the slight changes in tone or rhythm of the train noises also provide elements on the route. This is amplified quite drastically on El Divisadero as the steady rhythm created as the wheels go over the joints resonates and bounces as if it came from the bottom of a narrow valley.

There is very little of the passengers themselves here, which is most probably explained by the fact that Watson concentrated on recording the train sounds and noises as support to the documentary, whilst passengers would have no doubt been interviewed or recorded by a different team. This somehow leaves a noticeable gap throughout, but Watson compensate this by offering a wider and more complete impression of the journey by stepping out and documenting trains on the move from the side of the railway track.

Inspired by Pierre Schaeffer, Chris Watson’s El Tren Fantasma is in essence different to the French composer’s 1948 Etude Aux Chemin De Fer in that the sounds are used to document a particular even whilst Schaeffer worked with his sound sources to create a stand-alone sonic realm, yet it captures similar sounds and textures, and occasionally end up hinting at more than a simple archival process. With this record though, Watson not only brings the journeys he recorded back to life but creates an extremely vivid soundtrack.


Chris Watson | Touch
Amazon UK: CD | DLD US: CD | DLD Boomkat: CD | DLD iTunes: DLD Spotify: STRM

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