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Chris Watson - Locations, Processed Music Album Reviews

The veteran field-recording artist turns his microphones on New York City in the attempt to capture something essential lurking within the ephemeral.

The ache of memory throbs at the core of Chris Watson’s immaculate field recordings. The former Cabaret Voltaire member has become one of the world’s most revered audio documentarians. He has taken listeners into the depths of an Icelandic glacier, up close with the cavernous purr of a leopard in the wild, and across Mexico on a now-defunct railroad. Technically exacting though it may be, Watson’s work is never merely about capturing a sound for posterity’s sake. Watson tries to draw out something more ephemeral: “Events could haunt spaces,” he said in an interview last year. “I became convinced that some of the places I was going to embodied a spirit from another time. I was interested to know if you could soak up, absorb, that sonic environment through sound recordings.”

This is no simple task, and Watson’s approach is, for the most part, to get out of the way and let the spaces do the talking. On Locations, Processed, his new LP for Moog Recordings Library, he set up shop in New York City. The results were reassembled at Moog Sound Lab UK, the modular studio built around the 2014 reissue of the synthesizer manufacturer’s legendary behemoth, the System 55. For a generation or three, the Moog name will instantly conjure up proggy squiggles and Switched on Bach, but there’s not a single synth tone to be found here. The short LP is instead an immersive journey through reverberant halls and clanging streets, punctuated by snatches of quotidian conversation and startling intrusions.

Watson hasn’t always been shy about tweaking and layering his source recordings to dramatic effect, but Locations, Processed feels comparatively raw. It’s a record that requires a new kind of listening; you can’t take this material head on. Face the sounds directly and they can appear blunt, even boring. But sit back and relax your ears, and they assume an eerie, subliminal quality. “Room 343” compresses air into a molasses-thick ooze topped with a haunting whistle. The sound of passing traffic merges with ambient white noise to simulate deep breathing, while voices and an errant car horn slip into the mix with an elegance that feels planned. “Grand Central Terminal” could be recorded from inside a conch shell, so intense is its roar.

The entire A-side drifts through similarly heavy, hissing spaces, closing on the ominous “Central Park.” In its second half, Locations, Processed goes outside. “Times Square” breaks the ice with a brief conversation about apartment hunting before becoming engulfed by atomized bits of dialogue, laughter, and industrial sounds. Undulating low tones, perhaps from air traffic overhead, give the piece an unsettled mood. When sub-bass from a passing car and piercing sirens arrives, two and a half minutes in, the moment has all the power of a dance-music drop. “Broad Channel” clangs and stutters as the sounds of slamming doors and departing trains thud with combative ferocity. It’s barely a minute long and acts like an invigorating shot of espresso during a long, dreamy Tarkovsky film.

There are antecedents to Watson’s work. Brian Eno used frog and insect samples on Ambient 4: On Land, an exploration of England’s haunting landscapes that prefigured Watson’s mystical interrogations. Irv Teibel’s Environments series presented carefully edited recreations of natural phenomena. But Watson seems to exist in his own lane. His pieces hover in a tantalizing region between composition and chance. He cannot control who walks by his microphone, but he is interested in drawing our attention to something that goes beyond mere happenstance. New York is often described in kinetic or grandiose terms: bustling, overwhelming, larger than life. Watson hears something else, something deafening yet distant, filled with people yet weirdly vacant. Locations, Processed manages the impossible: Amid a deluge of energy, Watson records the empty space that surrounds the people who fill it.

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