Chris Watson - El Tren Fantasma

CD - 10 tracks - 65 minutes + full download

Artwork: Jon Wozencroft
Mastered by Denis Blackham

Track listing:

01: La Anunciante
02: Los Mochis
03: Sierra Tarahumara
04: El Divisadero
05: Crucero La Joya
06: Chihuahua
07: Aguascalientes
08: Mexico D.F.
09: El Tajin; El dia y La noche
10: Veracruz

"Take the ghost train from Los Mochis to Veracruz and travel cross country, coast to coast, Pacific to Atlantic. Ride the rhythm of the rails on board the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México (FNM) and the music of a journey that has now passed into history."

El Tren Fantasma, (The Ghost Train), is Chris Watson's 4th solo album for Touch, and his first since Weather Report in 2003, which was named as one of the albums you should hear before you die in The Guardian. A Radio programme was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 30 Oct, 2010, produced by Sarah Blunt, and described as "a thrilling acoustic journey across the heart of Mexico from Pacific to Atlantic coast using archive recordings to recreate a rail passenger service which no longer exists. It’s now more than a decade since FNM operated its last continuous passenger service across country. Chris Watson spent a month on board the train with some of the last passengers to travel this route. As sound recordist he was part of the film crew working on a programme in the BBC TV series Great Railways Journeys. Now, in this album, the journey of the ‘ghost train’ is recreated, evoking memories of a recent past, capturing the atmosphere, rhythms and sounds of human life, wildlife and the journey itself along the tracks of one of Mexico’s greatest engineering projects.

The radio broadcast received national press coverage in the UK:

The Observer:

It is over a decade since FNM operated its last continuous passenger service across the country but here sound recordist Chris Watson recreates its atmospheric journey with the help of the train recordings he made while working on the BBC television series Great Railway Journeys... through desert and city, but it is the rocking rhythms of the train itself that prove most memorable. [Stephanie Billen]

The Financial Times:

El Tren Fantasma (8pm) is Archive on 4's recollection of a trans-Mexico rail journey by sound recordist Chris Watson. From desert to rainforest, hummingbirds' wings to the boom of heat rising from the Copper Canyon, it recalls a beloved passenger train system abandoned by privatisation. **** [Martin Hoyle]

The Daily Telegraph:

Sometimes, radio can awaken the mind and sharpen the senses like no other medium. This "sound portrait" of a now-abandoned railway line that used to run between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Mexico is a good case in point. Captured by sound recordist Chris Watson more than a decade ago, it jostles with human, animal and mechanical life, filling the room with an atmosphere that is more richly evocative of Central America than any TV travel show I've seen. Diesel engines thrum, cicadas chirrup and passengers chatter, sing and argue. [Pete Naughton]

About the author...

Chris Watson is one of the world's leading recorders of wildlife and natural phenomena, and for Touch he edits his field recordings into a filmic narrative. For example. the unearthly groaning of ice in an Icelandic glacier is a classic example of, in Watson's words, putting a microphone where you can't put your ears. He was born in Sheffield where he attended Rowlinson School and Stannington College (now part of Sheffield College). In 1971 he was a founding member of the influential Sheffield-based experimental music group Cabaret Voltaire. His sound recording career began in 1981 when he joined Tyne Tees Television. Since then he has developed a particular and passionate interest in recording the wildlife sounds of animals, habitats and atmospheres from around the world. As a freelance recordist for film, tv & radio, Chris Watson specialises in natural history and documentary location sound together with track assembly and sound design in post production.


BBCi (UK):

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 breaks, 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. [Spencer Grady]

The Liminal (UK):

The title of the sound recordist Chris Watson’s new CD, borrowed from a Mexican film from the 1920s, translates as “The Ghost Train��?. The name makes reference to the fact that the recordings were made while he was working on the BBC show Great Railway Journeys, where he took a ride on one of the very last passenger trains which ran from Mexico’s Pacific coast to the Gulf on the other side, a journey that since 1999 can no longer be made. However, as you listen to it while studying a map of the route, from Los Mochis in the west, through Chihuahua and Mexico City to Veracruz on the east, you begin to trace a number of branch lines which lead off from the main line. You find yourself making connections, hitching your wagon to a number of different trains, in order to chase down some fascinating – and very resonant – ghosts from Mexico’s history.

The record starts with the gathering roar of a train, approaching at speed from distance. In this instant, Watson has captured the excitement of the early days of steam trains, and I already find myself listening with an almost child-like glee. Construction of Mexico’s train network begin fitfully in the 1830s, but gathered pace in the 1870s as the result of foreign speculation – English, French, Belgian companies all seeking to profit from Mexico’s expansion. Its last great act of construction was the spectacular feat of engineering which is the train line through the country’s Copper Canyon: 390 miles long, with 39 bridges and 86 tunnels, allowing the train to climb from sea level to around 2,500 metres. Watson captures the speedy procession across the plateau in a most musical way, the whine of the train swelling almost orchestrally over its metallic percussion. He then lingers awhile in the canyon’s Sierra Tarahumara to record the sound of heat rising from its floor, hummingbirds being tossed around in its thermals. In these glorious moments of hazy near-silence, Watson is diverting himself from this onward linear rush to find something completely timeless, a Mexico recognisable to early natives like the Aztecs and the Tarahumara indians – a people who still practice their traditional ways in these parts of the country, and who are named, appropriately enough in the circumstances of this album, for their long distance running abilities.

As the train progresses further along those tracks, Watson records it passing into one of those many tunnels, and everything becomes noticeably darker and more intense. The decline of the Mexican railway system began, it seems, after the Mexican revolution, the railways being taken into state ownership in the 1930s. The costs of maintaining the railway system became increasingly out of proportion to the revenues they were generating, what with competition from road and sea, and they slowly started to decay. When Watson reached the journey’s midpoint, the city of Chihuahua, he chose not to record the noise of the train itself, but instead to take his microphones inside a huge, echoing train shed, cleaving the record in two with some suitably serrated metallic scrape and grind, the sound of industrial distortion and collapse on a monstrous scale. The tone of the record is far more subdued thereafter: even as it passes through Mexico City, one of the most frantically bustling cities in the world, it feels strangely lifeless, and I feel quite alone as I listen to the steady, muffled rumble of wheels on track.

The endpoint of this journey came after the Mexican economic crisis of 1994, and the sudden devaluation of the peso, when the state abdicated ownership of the railway system, handing the loss-making enterprise back to the private sector. The private sector, as you might expect, instantly closed huge swathes of the network down, leaving a handful of unconnected stubs of freight and tourist lines (that incredible section through the Copper Canyon still exists, thankfully). Watson’s train finally limps towards its destination on the shore, wheezing and rattling and spluttering and clanking, sounding in every way like a train on its very last journey. El Tren Fantasma may be no more, but by reappropriating its tracks Watson has engineered his own route, one which traces a fascinating track into Mexico’s industrial history – and beyond.

VITAL WEEKLY (Netherlands):

We know Chris Watson mostly from his works dealing with sounds from nature, animal wild life and stormy weather. A decade ago he worked as a sound recordist for the BBC who were doing a documentary on the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de Mexico, a train company with a trail from Los Mochis to Veracruz, coast to coast, through cities and wild life. All of that sound material is now used in 'El tren Fantasma', the ghost train (since it no longer exists). Now this is a truly fascinating CD. I liked pretty much everything I heard from Watson so far, but the mechanical sounds of the train, reminding of course of the very first composition of concrete sounds, 'Etude Aux Chemin de Fer' by Pierre Schaeffer, cut with sounds from the surrounding, makes this a highly narrative piece of music. Its perhaps I love traveling on the train (more than cars and planes), since you easily dream of watching the passing landscape, read a book, listen to music, and while not immediate train ride ahead, I'd be curious to hear this work by Watson on a train anytime soon. Shifting from rusty mechanical train sounds and chirping birds and whispering insects, Watson paints a great sonic picture of the train ride. Very richly detailed sounds: one need only to close their eyes and the trip by train becomes a real trip. This is easily by far one of the best Chris Watson releases I heard so far. Not easy in the man's catalogue of already great works, but this one surely is a masterpiece. Not just a collection of small great pieces, but also the overall narrative aspect of it. [FdW]

Sound of Music (Sweden):

��?Inspired by Pierre Schaeffer��? står det i den vackert formgivna digipacken som ramar in Chris Watsons fjärde album för brittiska Touch. En ganska given passning från dagens främsta field-recordings-artist till sin banbrytande föregångare. Det handlar naturligtvis om Pierre Schaeffers järnvägsinspelning ��?Étude aux chemins de fer��? som ingick i ��?Cinq études de bruits��? (ungefär ��?fem studier i oljud��?).

Men även om Chris Watson inspirerats av Schaeffer skiljer sig hans material radikalt från oljudsstudierna. I Chris Watsons hand är järnvägen inte något som för oväsen och gnisslar. Snarare handlar det om poetiska metallklanger som vävs samman med fågelkvitter, insekters surrande och andra djurläten längs järnvägssträckan. Då och då letar sig röster och radiomeddelanden in. Det låter verkligen inte vasst och metalliskt. Snarare varmt och drömskt.

Möjligen beror det på att Chris Watson återskapar en järnvägssträcka som inte längre existerar. Spöktåget går genom Mexiko, från kust till kust: det startar i Los Mochis vid Stilla Havet och anländer Veracruz vid Mexikanska Golfen. Denna sträcka lades ner för över tio år sedan. Men med Chris Watsons säkra arrangemang känns det faktiskt som att järnvägen och dess omgivningar får liv igen. Som vanligt låter han en hel ljudvärld strömma in genom sina mikrofoner och precis som vanligt är det obönhörligt fascinerande lyssning. [Mats Almegård]

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Chris Watson - El Tren Fantasma

MP3 sample

Track 10:  Veracruz

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