Album Review: El Búho – Natura Sonora

[Shika Shika; 2021]

Depending on where you live in the world, you’ve almost certainly spent a stretch of months in something resembling quarantine, stuck at home with your thoughts, loneliness, and fears. Yet, for all the pains inherent within isolation, there’s no denying it was a time for contemplation. Many of us suddenly found ourselves questioning things we’d long simply accepted: were we on the right path? were we doing anything even nearing what we wanted to be doing?

All this time in our own heads certainly came at a price, but it had its benefits. For those capable of being comfortable alone, the introversion could occasionally allow for something bordering on serenity, however measured.

This is the world Natura Sonora seems to stem from. He may be British by birth, but Robin Perkins – aka El Búho – found his truest home in the wilderness of Latin America. Studying, working, and living in Argentina, he found himself exploring the breadth of the continent, called to its swelling forests and seemingly endless mountain ranges. You only need listen to El Búho’s music for the briefest of moments to feel how deeply and truly he appreciates and reveres the cultures he delves into is (he also works alongside the likes of Argentine producer Barrio Lindo). His music exists as an act of tribute.

While this has been his focus for a number of years, combining the sounds he grew up with – ranging from IDM to dub to ambient textures – with a rich adoration for Latin folk traditions, Natura Sonora finds him taking his work to an entirely new place.

It was a project borne of necessity: finding himself in lockdown in Paris in a small apartment – a world away from the natural environments within which he felt most at home – he found himself browsing the web, nearly as an act of desperation, researching and learning more than he ever had before about the world’s most gorgeous, and often isolated, places. Gathering the very sounds of these places (with nine locations in particular serving as the basis for his work) from various sources, he began to lay them down as the bedrock for each track of Natura Sonora. Underwater sounds, crackling ice, wildlife, rain – they all took on an essential place within the sound and very soul of his work in quarantine.

These layers of nature sound range from delicate to harsh, at times they’re hardly perceptible, at others they’re at the forefront. They serve as that basis – his very entry point – into imagined explorations, providing much-needed mental escape during his time of isolation. Natura Sonora, then, provides the listener with that very same escape, serving as a guide into these near mythical places of natural beauty.

None of this is to say the album exists in an ambient state of quiet. To the contrary, Perkins often built so much upon his original foundation that the songs surge, carrying his natural influences to a newfound state of humanity, overflowing with life from both worlds. The nature sounds can also, at times, contrast with the man-made sounds above them, as if to serve as a reminder of just how little true control we have over our damaged world.

It’s the tracks that boast guests that perhaps come the most alive, benefiting from the Latin voices that grace them. “Island of Socotra”, for example, finds guest SHIRAN providing both lyrics and vocals, adding a gorgeous layer of Latin folk to an already ornate soundscape, resulting in a track that’s both mysterious and immediate. Sutari, meanwhile, makes the absolute most of the transcendent “Białowieża”, her voice blending with echoing backing vocals, Perkins’ layered sounds, and the chirping wildlife ever in the background.

Nonetheless, the bulk of the tracks here emanate entirely from Perkins’ imagination. They’re awash in feelings of contemplation and awe, rushing away as quickly as the waters from which he drew inspiration. Closer “Great Bear Rainforest”, free of any voice, offers some of the purest serenity to be found here, the strings blending with the electronic elements to form a gorgeous pool of emotion. Rarely has electronic tinkering felt so passionately, supremely organic.

In an era within which genuine diversions are both in short supply and more desperately needed than ever, Natura Sonora stands ready to take to the corners of our world least plagued by our very own presences. It holds a mirror to nature as much as it does to the self. What you see within it is entirely dependent on your own perception. In that respect, the potential here is nearly as limitless as the very earth it emulates.