With electronic music on a huge upswing, some artists have started making it sound a bit more natural. El Búho (The Owl) is one of them. Hailing from the UK originally, El Búho settled in Mexico City and found his style and sound in the noises around him. He uses lots of chirping birds, local instruments, and jungle sounds to supplement the traditional bass and synthesizer. His newest album “Camino de Flores” is a solid, if slightly tame continuation of his form and genre.
There are lots of very snooty ways to write about just what that form is, as well as tons of high-brow genre names for it as well, like electronic folk music or intelligent dance music (IDM). At its base, the music is actually fairly simple and often super pleasant.
Most El Búho songs, and songs in this genre, sound a lot less like EDM and a lot more like classic techno. The music isn’t about the drops as much as it’s about the loops. It’s about finding a solid base rhythm using samples, instruments, or whatever works and gradually adding other loops on top of it.
The song structure doesn’t change a lot, which is both the appeal and the drawback. Because of the repetition, this kind of music can feel a bit stale under scrutiny but it can also feel hypnotic and relaxing. When done right, I find the positives outweigh the negatives. El Búho does it mostly right on “Camino de Flores.”
“Camino de Flores” sounds solid in no small part because El Búho does a great job of finding solid samples and sounds to build around. His bass rhythms and synthesizers are often so simple that they fade into the background, but then Latin American inspired strings, the tweaked bird sounds, the drops of rain, the shaking of maracas and so many other little sounds fill up the foreground of his songs. With most tracks, you get something that feels deep because there’s a solid layer of subtle sounds that sit in the background and sharp sounds that sit in the foreground.
El Búho also creates solid contrast throughout “Camino de Flores” by mixing natural sounds with unnatural ones. Usually, it’s a plodding bass rhythm that weaves in underneath the tweets of birds, a smattering of keys, and twangy guitar. He’ll also throw in some vocals, which add a bit more variety to the contrast, making it either more or less mechanical, depending on how big a focus the vocals are in the song.
In “Mis Queridos” the vocals take a backseat and fall in as another looping rhythm. Because they distort and loop, they lean towards the mechanical. While in “Mirando el Fuego,” the vocal segments are longer and more important to the song, as well as less distorted, so they’re a natural force.
El Búho’s sound selection is his big draw, but his compositions are good, too. He has a good ear for finding when the loops have gone on too long by themselves and drops in another interesting sample. He finds appropriate times to simplify as well, removing parts of the beat to bring out the focus on others.
Yet, all this makes El Búho’s music good, not great. The main issue I have with El Búho is that after a point his music feels predictable. It’s enjoyable even when predictable, making a vibe that few artists can create. But “Camino de Flores” did not sound terribly different to me than his first album “Balance” did. Both are super solid expressions of his genre, above a lot of the more average artists in it, but below the great ones.
Predictability keeps El Búho at that good, but not great level. Classic and great ambient albums take a bit more risk and do a bit more with their loops. I’d listen to and enjoy El Búho albums if they kept coming out at current quality, but I’d like to see a bit more experimentation. It feels like most tracks have very similar beats and styles and while the samples and sounds are often different, it’s not enough not to keep the experience from feeling repetitive after a while.
Listening to albums like “Plantasia,” “Prender el Alma,” or “Time Tourist” I find there’s an exploratory spark in them that I don’t hear as much in El Búho albums. I think the spark comes from changing the structure and taking an occasional radical approach to a song. Just that alone often creates new moods within the album and makes it feel fresh even after several listens. While El Búho stays solid and worth a listen, I’d love to catch that spark from an album of his.