Chris Watson El Tren Fantasma Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

Field recordist supreme’s first solo album since Weather Report.

Spencer Grady 2011

In his book Civilizations, historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto focuses on man’s overriding impulse to impose its will on the world, "a relationship to the natural environment, recrafted, by the civilising impulse, to meet human demands". This process lies at the very heart of El Tren Fantasma, a composite document of a train ride across Mexico, describing a passage "from Los Mochis to Veracruz, [from] coast to coast, Pacific to Atlantic".

While Chris Watson’s previous sets – such as 2003’s critically acclaimed Weather Report – have generally concerned themselves with this planet’s myriad beasts and habitats, this narrative inevitably bears an anthropological mark. Indeed, the first voice we hear doesn’t belong to a cuckoo or coyote, but station announcer Ana Gonzalez Bello putting out one "last call for the ghost train". It’s an unusually contrived opening gambit, from which point the listener is jettisoned into a collision of screeching brakes, rolling stock rattle and hot hydraulic huff. Over half of El Tren Fantasma’s tracks (pun definitely intended) are given over to locomotive sound – gears shifting, hoots, bells and whistles – climaxing with El Divisadero, where Watson manipulates the monolithic machinations into a surging, phantasmal bellow, like a choir of angels struggling to be heard over the rumbling thrum of running gear. Imagine if Phill Niblock had scored Different Trains instead of Steve Reich and you’d be somewhere close.

But it’s during the points of human absence that El Tren Fantasma works best. Here Watson’s ability to create whole worlds, entire lifetimes in the listener’s imagination, beyond the moment of recording, comes to the fore. Brushwood and tall grass sway beneath the breeze crossing canyon slopes, while constant cicada chatter is punctuated by the distinctive calls of woodpecker and crow. Pieces such as Sierra Tarahumara and Crucero La Joya exhibit an uneasy, natural repose; pregnant with calm, yet forever teetering on the brink of an automated avalanche. Indeed, it might be with heavy heart that you hear the train’s clanging signal bell presaging its oncoming passage. In this particular man versus nature fight for survival, it’s the latter that wins by a knockout.

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