Chris Watson — El Tren Fantasma (2011, Touch Music)
Having visited field recording mastermind Chris Watson’s superlative Weather Report in July, today felt like an excellent day to bring the English recordist back into rotation. While his ability to identify, capture, and edit sounds into new artistic works is largely unparalleled, one point that goes largely overlooked is Watson’s abilities as a storyteller. Using sounds (and occasionally speech) in place of written words, Watson manages to craft a deeply immersive and stimulating narrative that captures the listener’s imagination. 2011’s El Tren Fantasma is haunting mix of archival recordings and sounds captured while Watson traversed Mexico on the now defunct Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México as a sound-recordist for the BBC. The listener becomes a passenger on a thrilling ride across a country of diverse landscapes. Boarding announcements feel as frantic and coarse as if one were on the platform; the anticipation of the journey upon hearing diesel engines come to life is equally tangible and immediate. Insects, birds, wind, and the twitch and spark of steel on steel all contribute to the journey and dually reinforce Watson’s creative prowess and the affectivity of sound. While few tracks match the musicality (in the most reductive sense of the word) of “El Divisadero” with its Cascading strings coupled with the rhythmic thud and clack of a train wheels soaring over lengths of track, the abundantly rich sounds captured by Watson take the listener on a thrilling voyage. As the N de M has since been dismantled and/or privatized, the recordings are something of a sonico-historical document which evokes questions related to memory, space, development and how these factors impact acoustic phenomena. As is the case with most of Watson’s work, a brilliant release.
C-drík — Multiples des uns (2015, Syrphe)
Here at Marginal HQ, we’ve recently tapped into the vein of non-musicality and been spinning releases from Britons Chris Watson and Jez riley French. Add 2015’s Multiples des uns, a self-described “cinema for the ears” by Congolese-German artist C-drík. Consisting of one, hour long track, Multiple features interwoven sonic phenomena from many broad, often disparate sources. Captured by the artist during travels throughout the Asian continent, the listener is treated to footsteps that intermingle with indigenous music(s), the vibrant and mysterious sounds of the jungle melding with austere heavy machinery, the sounds of children playing which overrun passing automobiles, and many other sonically rich, varied noises. C-drík demonstrates not only an ear for fascinating aural objects, but also an acute sense of cinema-like rhythm and adroitness in their editing abilities. While the continent itself possess a multitude of varying experiences, languages, cultures, topographies, histories, etc. this release fascinatingly documents a few of the sounds found throughout a diverse continent and celebrates the fundamental nature of sound itself, ever present, everywhere. One could also argue that for those with the privilege of audition, listening enables the subject to find common ground in their connection to others and to the natural world. Trains screech, insects buzz, people chatter, and children laugh all the same, regardless of whether your in Taipei, Tokyo, Toronto, or Timbuktu. In all, this is a transcendental release guaranteed to lift you out of your seat and take you on a fascinating sonic journey.
Aaron Dilloway — Live at a Museum (2016, Hanson)
Former Wolf Eyes noisenik Aaron Dilloway’s 2016 release, Live at a Museum, is a brilliant half hour of loop experimentation, well worth delving into. Comprised of a series of sets, Dilloway ventures through a universe of myriad sonic possibilities vis-à-vis tape loops, minimalism, and manipulation. “Set 1” is comprised of a hypnotic tape loop sputtering restrained panting, click-clacking, and paranoid resonances. “Set 2” is a faster, slightly more abrasive, certainly much more confrontational loop, which, despite its shorter duration, remains simultaneously soporific and aggressive. It sounds as if digital artifacting passes through the tape (or perhaps this is the sound of the A to D Transfer) before at around the three minute mark, Dilloway starts to fade the loop out. Groggy and blunt thuds intermingle with the soft swish of a hit-hat or other similar percussive sound. The loop morphs into a strange and gritty track that seems entirely apt for the end times. “Set 3” is reminiscent of Chris Watson’s later work, with the loop recalling the sounds of a windy day from inside. In all, Live in Museum demonstrates Aaron Dilloway’s mastery of analog tape delays, his patience, and his celebration of subtlety. These traits allow the artist to tap into several sonic realms at once, making for a collage-like creation of something totally distinct. Sure, Aaron Dilloway isn’t the first (or even the best) to forge a body of work relying heavily on analogue tape; he is, however, one of the few people who is capable of merging Gristle-esque discomfort with Harmonia’s pastoralism, all without committing to the musicality of either.
Chris Watson – Weather Report (2003, Touch)
Nope, this isn’t an album called Chris Watson by jazz fusion icons Weather Report, nor is it a jazz fusion album courtesy of this former Cabaret Voltaire member. Instead, Weather Report is an assembly of sounds recorded by a true master of nature and field recordings (and as alluded to, one time Cab Voltaire member), Chris Watson. Consisting of three 18 minute tracks, Watson boasts not only a plethora of heterogeneous source material, but a keen ear for mixing and splicing this material into rich sonic collages. Animal and human, flora and fauna, weather and oceans flow continuously into one another to create a listening experience that is simultaneously terrestrial and ethereal. No, it isn’t the high art of the old world (Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky, et al.) nor does it have the commercial viability demanded by late-capitalism in its attempts to legitimize (or at least justify) artistic endeavor. Instead, Weather Report taps into something much deeper than commerciality or artistic prestige. It taps in to something which Bruce Russell (Dead C) managed to articulate succinctly and pithily: sound is fundamental, songs are not. Whilst recorded and manipulating for human consumption, Watson achieves a rare feat: he produces a cultural object which both reproduces fundamental sound(s), decentering the anthropocentric conceit that every cultural object must ultimately be “about” or at least reflective of human social imaginaries or aesthetic schemata (even implicitly), while also crafting something that can be enjoyed by human listeners. Undoubtedly, Watson’s selection of material and his decision to capture sounds in the first place raises questions about whether or not this release truly challenges the primacy of the human experience (a legitimate concern which cannot be fully addressed due to space restrictions of this medium); regardless, this release celebrates a great number of aural pluralisms and possesses the ability to remind the listener both how mysterious the planet we inhabit is and how wonderful it is to be alive. At a critical juncture in human history, one cannot help but think, it would be manifestly appropriate to send this album into space in the faint hopes that some distant alien civilization may one day discover what earth sounded like, long after the ship has been negligently run aground.
Jeph Jerman and Time Barnes — Karst (2017, Astral Spirits)
Akin to Chris Watson’s superlative work on Touch, Karst is a study in one the most complicated modern confluences: (where) urban(ism) meets natural(ism). Even the image of grass on the album cover reinforces the theme. Is Karst a study in contradiction? Or anything at all for that matter? Hard to say for certain, but Jeph Jerman and Tim Barnes team up again to prompt some serious questions and deliver some most excellent sonic musings. “Scumbling” features the sound of distant cars, water (or weather) and sounds like the field mic has been placed in a concrete drainage tube under a roadway somewhere. As an avid sound listener and lover, one latches onto the subtlety and even mystery of what sounds are being reproduced. Where Versatile Ambience possessed a degree of engagement and aural intensity, Karst feels considerably more passive—but this is by no means, pejorative. The titular second track, is by far the most relaxed. A proverbial slow walk through empty streets which is features found objects dropped and shuffled about, distant birds, and restrained ambience. There sounds to be some modulation or delay treatments applied at parts. “Occluded” dares to venture into territory explored on Versatile Ambience. Tape hiss and layers of humming sine waves (or maybe glass vibrations) underpin crescendoing metallic rattling. Think field recordings meet This Heat’s “Graphic/Varispeed.” Maybe the perceived passivity reflects the sense of resignation one gets one trying to mentally reconcile artistic, personal, philosophical, and even sonic contradictions. Regardless, Barnes and Jerman are a winning duo and Karst ranks among their most interesting works together yet.