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Chris Watson - Weather Report

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Artist: Chris Watson

Album: Weather Report

Label: Touch

Review date: Jul. 17, 2003

Keeping an Ear to the Ground

One can’t glance at Chris Watson’s discography cursorily – at least not without avoiding a perplexed double take. As the founding member of the late-70s Sheffield trio Cabaret Voltaire, Watson experimented with a very modern, very vanguard, and – by extension – very urban palette of proto-punk/industrial noise. CV’s mix of guitar, electronics, and tape loop splicing was nothing if not rigorously structured and texturally dense. Then, following his stint in Cabaret Voltaire (and later the Hafler Trio), Watson abandoned the music industry entirely to work as a field recordist for wildlife documentaries, creating soundtracks and solo releases from unadulterated recordings that he’d captured at remote locations around the world. Although these projects are, in obvious ways, radically different from his Sheffield experiments, Watson’s close attention to the texture and sonority of sound has never wavered, whether dealing with treated electronics or the flapping of feathered wings. Weather Report, Watson’s third full-length effort on Touch, extends his evolving fascination with environmental sounds by way of three eighteen-minute pieces recorded in Kenya, Scotland, and Iceland.

Inherent in Weather Report’s unique documentation of an exotic “reality” is a key paradox: the majesty of nature is all around – capturing it in a snapshot (or field recording) on the one hand seems deceptively simple, requiring merely the snap of a shutter or the click of a recording device. In truth, however, this type of documentation requires some form of fixed subjectivity, some compression of nature’s scope into a palatable essence, some authorial emphasis on a sound or image we might otherwise miss. The more effortless and self-effacing this subjective presence is made to seem, the more difficult it is to render. Which is why, for example, in Jacques Perrin’s new film “Winged Migration,” an 85-minute documentary about the migration of birds, 250 miles of film had to be shot, using motorized aircraft, gliders, hot air balloons, and helicopter-lifted cameras that were operated by 14 cinematographers in 42 countries over a duration of four years. Or why, in the 1970s, Robert Smithson required numerous cranes, bulldozers, and helicopters to create and document Earth Art pieces like Spiral Jetty (1970) and Amirillo Ramp (1973). This paradox of natural, or “real” art is the paradox of nature itself – its materials are inescapable and at the same time inaccessible, both too large and too small to ever get our eyes, ears, hands, or minds around.

On each of his solo records, Watson combats this paradox in a similar manner as Perrin and Smithson: with technological prowess and human persistence. 1996’s Stepping Into the Dark, for example, cabled tiny, ultrasensitive microphones over great distances to capture the chirps and croaks of insects, frogs, and bats. 1998’s Outside the Circle of Fire used omnidirectional microphones buried deep inside a zebra carcass to capture the otherwise inaccessible sounds of vultures feeding on raw flesh. With Weather Report, Watson has this time opted not to share the intricate and highly technical details of his recording set-up, but the results attest to its complexity. In fact, Weather Report presents new challenges, because with it Watson sets out to capture the essence of his three locations as they shift over time in response to natural changes. Thus in order to communicate the gradual crescendo of animal and insect excitement as a storm rolls across Kenya’s Masai Mara, or the shifting rumble of water in a Scottish highland glen through autumn and into winter, Watson uses his authorial hand more forcefully, editing his material for purposes of dynamics and compression. For this reason the results are less “objective,” but the increased focus on temporal changes makes for what are often even richer compositions.

“Ol-Olool-O” compresses the fourteen-hour drama of a thunderstorm into a tightly packed eighteen minutes. Insects chirp and large mammals bellow in the arid heat as the rumble of wind and promise of rain causes their frantic excitement to grow. As the rain starts to trickle and pour amidst the panting and whining of some large, unknown beast, the clarity of the recording is so fine that, at the storm’s climax, one can discern the luxurious detail of droplets splattering onto the hard clay, and then slowly seeping into the dampening, spongy earth. Throughout, Watson is highly skilled at enabling the mind to move effortlessly between place and abstraction – at any moment one can click into the imagined specifics of an African rainstorm, or out again, to a wholly abstract collage of textured sounds.

“The Lapaich” mingles the cool, rushing sounds of a highland stream with an increasingly hostile wind and the chatter of birds. Unlike “Ol-Olool-O,” Watson seems to move all across the highland glen, so that the changes in composition are more punctuated and less fluid – the rush of water decrescendos into a whisper, a polar wind arises out of silence. The index points left scattered throughout “The Lapaich” are much too abrupt, and while the piece is compelling in small segments, it neglects to offer any kind of consistency that might allow one to get his (imagined) bearings. In this way, it’s the weakest of the selections – too forcibly abstract.

The final track, “Vatnajökull,” is, however, absolutely awe-inspiring. Described as “the 10,000 year climatic journey of ice formed deep within this Icelandic glacier and its lingering flow into the Norwegian Sea,” the deep, bass-rich throbs and creaks of the crumbling ice mass prove breathtaking. I’ve experienced the sounds of glaciers calving in the flesh, and though the effect is undoubtedly magical – a slow, majestic creaking that seems to possess no set source-point until chunks the size of football fields crash into the sea – the breaks are few and far between, muffled somewhat by one’s proximity to the fissure. Watson, on the other hand, seems to record from the very heart of the crevasse, and he captures the singing drone of the wind and the rumbling quake of the ice mass atop a lulling bed of flowing, polar water. “Vatnajökull” possesses a similar delicacy to that which John Luther Adams realized more figuratively in his The Light That Fills the World, only Watson’s document is simultaneously massive – a fragile crumble occurring on a giant scale. Eventually the mournful song of birds rises in prominence, and its high pitch contrasts nicely with the deep, enormous creaking occurring beneath the impatient squawks. Here again the punctuation of the index points is distracting, but the glorious might of the sound renders them little more than pesky and easily overlooked annoyances. That Watson has channeled the essence of 10,000 years of climatic processes and countless square miles of melting ice onto a single shiny disc is impressive enough – that, shorn of any tangible bearings these sounds defy description, is sublime.

By Nathan Hogan

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