Working simply as The London Sound Survey, Ian Rawes has been documenting the changing state of England’s capital city through sound for over a decade. The eight pieces on his debut collection for the newly-minted Persistence of Sound label are taken from over 2000 such recordings Rawes has made exclusively along the River Thames, from marshes to machine rooms. His best known works, astonishing dispatches from the clanking innards of Tower Bridge, bookend the LP and pop up midway through, meaning the rest face a hell of a task to keep pace. But, as hard as it initially is to connect with something so jarring as the transition between, say, “Tower Bridge: North Bascule Chamber” and “Allhallows Marshes: Day,” which are as far apart sonically as they are geographically, given time they form part of a narrative that develops so subtly as to practically subliminal.
So what Thames lacks in flow it makes up for in the quality of the pieces it presents. Aside from the Tower Bridge recordings – more of which later – the clarity of the marsh tracks, and the contrast between the landscape night and day, is beautiful and evocative, and the wail of the siren at Coryton Refinery is haunting in a similar manner to the excellent fog horn recordings released earlier this year by Felix Blume.
One of Rawes’ primary concerns seems to be preservation: the refinery has now been demolished and the marshes are subject to a conservation plan to keep them thriving in the shadows of boats and bridges. It is interesting he views the ominous mass of oil-darkened metal at Coryton as being as integral a part of the Thames basin as its natural habitats, and he is not the only one who has paid homage to its particular impact on its neighbours; Wilko Johnson, formerly of Dr. Feelgood, is a lifelong resident of the Canvey Island area and has often looked to the refinery for inspiration. In a 2012 interview with the Guardian, Johnson said, “when you are trying to put [this] landscape into music [Coryton] is what you are thinking of.” Rawes positions his mic brilliantly, picking up as much of the region’s avian chirruping as he does the clamour of nearby traffic. Unifying the two is the call of the refinery, mechanically issued but distinctly birdlike in its timbre, like some strange foreign fowl desperately trying to stake a place in a landscape whose residents have been there for centuries.
Most mysterious of all is “The Albert Basin,” a recording taken in London’s “abandoned and overlooked” Docklands where a primary sound is that of lonely flagpoles being battered in the wind by their own halyards. The hollow clicking this makes sounds oddly defiant; it has a coiled rattlesnake quality to it, like a warning from the area’s storied history issued to the gleaming apartment blocks being erected nearby. Strange rhythms present themselves sometimes, part Ikeda, part shamanic ritual, but they are swept aside like cobwebs by the wind. One imagines easily the tattered flags hanging limp as mummies’ bandages.
And so to the three recordings from within Tower Bridge, all of which stand out for their variety. Perhaps best-known of all is “Tower Bridge: North Bascule Chamber,” which sounds for all the world like an orchestra tuning-up. It is, in fact, the sound of the bridge lifting to allow a boat to pass underneath, and it’s incredible in its musicality. The same process heard from the South Bascule Chamber is sodden by rain or the river itself; you can hear the bridge straining to lift as you could before, but at a greater distance and overwhelmed by pouring water. The ship itself can be heard from here, parping out a “thank you” as it goes, and a muffled voice echoes instructions from the structure’s recesses. “Tower Bridge: Engine Room” completes the trilogy, closing the album with a humid ambience that could just as well be custom-made. The only pieces here recorded inside, in a place most people will never get to experience, they make you ever more grateful for Rawes’ dedication to preserving the places we have free access to but neglect to acknowledge. As mind-boggling as the Tower Bridge recordings truly are, their efficacy in calling to mind the grease, grind, and grim claustrophobia of our spread along the Thames will send you stumbling back outside searching for the fresh air of the marshes.