The ultimate litmus test for any release is to listen to it on a robust pair of closed-back monitor headphones at home. No accentuated frequencies, no fancy cocktails and canapés driving a wedge between you and the mix as it was intended – for better or for worse. In 2020 the beauty of an unfiltered experience is best exemplified by Ramas (out on Wonderwheel Recordings), the new album by El Búho (born Robin Perkins).
Over the course of an hour and a half, loosely laid out repetitive patterns and harmonies keep fading in and out as distinct musical shapes and elaborate instrumentations, intercut with sounds of seaside and exotic wildlife. While none of that is unpleasant by any means, you can’t ignore the sneaking suspicion that you are missing out on the action because the invitation to the Club Wonderwheel never arrived.
A total of 24 featured artists – several from the label’s own roster – makes it impossible to avoid tracing the stylistic origins of Ramas back to the early-Noughties chillout compilations. Be it Buddha Bar’s swanky DJ-mixes or Café del Mar’s exotica with all the bells and whistles, the basic concept remains unchanged: functional music curated for a specific commercial environment. It marked a point when easy-listening became a tad too easy.
Ramas has the same emotional safety barrier raised between the listener and the material. The closest the album gets to crossing it is during ‘Nevar’, evocative enough to work in an NHS health campaign and closing credits of the latest Channel 4 drama series. The same goes for the scuttering snare drums and sighs of haunting ‘Resiliencia’ with DJ Raff, and sorrowful ‘Pez Dorado’ featuring Chanca Via Circuito – all standout tracks by a hefty margin.
The tension between commercial and artistic values is nothing new, to be sure. If the demand for music that grabs us by the throats and gets in our faces has always been there, the reverse holds true too: inoffensive, unintrusive, escapist sound maintains a steady market share. The obvious conclusion of that is, while genres come and go, consumer needs stay very much the same.