Chris Watson El Tren Fantasma
Reviewed by Andrew Weatherall
If your fifty things to do before you die list includes, ‘Take the Ghost Train from Los Mochis to Veracruz across country, coast to coast, Pacific to Atlantic,’ you can forget it. El Fantasma is no more. However, thanks to Chris Watson’s months spent on board travelling with some of the last passengers to ride the route and his subsequent recordings you can tick it off as ‘achieved’ and turn your attention to ‘driving Route 66’ or ‘Pamplona bull run’. That’s how evocative this piece of work is.
I’ve taken the trip, courtesy of Mr Watson, on a number of occasions but like any rail journey one undertakes regularly, although physically and geographically the same, in terms of evocation, memory and feeling they differ greatly each time. The aural equivalents of Marcel’s biscuit dunking moment change, morph and crystallize into a million thoughts and memories every time you leave the station. That’s how evocative this piece of work is.
Trying to describe Watson’s work would be like sharing last night’s dreams and you don’t want to hear about my suppressed feelings of wistful romantic regret, fear of ageing [that’s the teeth falling out one],fear of the future or be taken on my erotic flights of fancy. I’ll stick to a sonic description and let you dream your own dreams.
As a thundering locomotive is given life by delicate micro-engineered machine parts El Tran Fantasma is given life by delicate micro-engineered machine manipulation. A train’s warning klaxon is, for a split second, shaped into the dieing moment of a symphony’s last chord which in turn becomes a drone underpinned rhythmically by the rattle of rails. Sub-bass looms out of shunting yards and ether. Flies hovering over carrion sprout metallic wings until disturbed by clanging bells. Violent jolts as you enter tunnels and the air sucked out on exit shapes itself into distant church choirs. Jet-streams form delicate chords and harmonies.
At the same time none of this manipulation is heavy-handed or gimmicky and never detracts from the quality of the actual field recordings themselves. Frequencies are gently teased to provide triggers one would otherwise get visually from the actual journey. They talk of hazey daytime heat and damp nighttime cold. Of shimmering plains and lost histories. And that’s just the first stop.
“I’m giving you the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible, your luxury is a never ending supply of Hine cognac; what’s the one record you would take with you if push came to shove?”
“That’s a tricky one Kirsty, but I guess it would have to be Chris Watson’s El Tran Fantasma. A benchmark in field recording not to mention a map of the soul, an insight into the human condition and a key to dreams.