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 As the N de M has since been dismantled and/or privatized, the recordings are something of a sonico-historical document which evokes questions related to memory, space, development and how these factors impact acoustic phenomena.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.
Oren Ambarchi — Hubris (2016, Editions Mego)
I was on the train to Glasgow to see the solo wonder from down under, Oren Ambarchi, when I received an e-mail: Air France had lost his gear and his show was cancelled. Perhaps the brilliance of his latest release makes up for it. Oren Ambarchi’s newest LP from Editions Mego is worlds away from the serene Grapes from the Estate or his work on Touch Music. Continuing along the sonic lines of 2014’s Quixotism, Hubris sees Ambarchi bring a host of notable collaborators into the fold (Arto Lindsay, Jim O’Rourke, et al.). “Hubris, Pt. 1” is Autobahn for a new generation. In our age of cultural over-saturation and bastardization, Ambarchi’s work will not have the same degree of impact; a shame, because the opener is no kosmiche pastiche — it’s all its own and demonstrates a rich palette of music making by the Australian and his chosen ensemble. It magisterially combines many of the traits of Kraftwerk’s 1 and 2 with the aforementioned Autobahn and is soothingly repetitive and highly soporific in its 22 minutes of glory. “Hubris, Pt. 2” is the pop tune of the album. Light-hearted, delayed guitar mixes with chopped up fragments of a conversation, just barely audible. Musically, one could easily envision this track as an OK Computer outtake. Fortunately, Ambarchi realizes there’s nothing doing in extending this tune unnecessarily and ends it in under two minutes. The track’s brevity keeps it interesting and places it into stark relief against the album’s two longer movements. If “Pt. 1” is a merger of early/later Kraftwerk, “Hubris, Pt. 3” is the sound of those records being physically melted together. The song’s initial, innocuous musings morph into an electrified cyclone of neo-psychedelia. Ambarchi shows his competence as an arranger on top of an ensemble whose chemistry is nothing short of remarkable. While his back catalogue is superb, the direction Oren Ambarchi has set off in makes for some equally stellar listening.
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.