Before television and before the internet, National Geographic made a lot of money by taking the trouble to photograph remote and exotic locales and bring those images right into people's homes. Most Americans would never have a chance to see such amazing sights in person, and so it was a real thrill to catch a glimpse of what the rest of the world looked like.
Now, that same experience can be had with such ease that it has lost much of its allure. With a click of a button, we can see pictures of any place in the whole world, but vision is only one of the senses, and people have a way of forgetting about the evocative power of sound.
That is why I love field recordings so much. Sure we know what most of the world looks like, but what does it sound like? Chris Watson, a founding member of the tremendously influential industrial group Cabaret Voltaire, wants to answer that question for us. With microphone in hand, he captures a staggaring array of ambient sounds from all variety of environments and packages them neatly for our enjoyment.
This particular release draws from recordings made of a now abandoned railway line in Mexico originally made for use in a documentary. Watson presents them here as the voyage of a "ghost train," a spooky remembrance of a trip that will never be taken again.
When it comes to editing field recordings, it can be tricky to strike the proper balance; too much and it loses its authenticity, too little and it risks being boring. Watson does a superb job of concealing his handiwork, and only on one track does he give into the temptation to craft a little rhythmic loop that actually sounds like music.
The rest of the recordings are both unified in spirit and diverse enough to hold the listener's interest. There is the repeated leitmotif of the train's rhythmic chugging along the tracks, a sound that would not be out of place on an early industrial record. There are quiet parts of serene atmospherics, and there are loud parts comprised of buzzing insects or other wildlife.
In short, Watson does everything right when it comes to taking real recordings of a real place and presenting them in a way that is coherent and digestible, not to mention entertaining. I look forward to hearing more of his work in the future.