Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Voices of North American Owls (2006)

13 species of owl. So little time.

owls

Do you ever say and promise things whilst drunk that you know is idiotic at the time and regret immensely later? I sure don’t, so here is the long, long awaited review of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s infamous “Voices of North American Owls”.

I want to set in your mind an image, it’s quite alarming so you might want to brace yourself before continuing on; I want you to imagine looking down at your screen and seeing in your music library a selection flashing up “93 items, 43 minutes”. Ok, that in itself is not something to normally be concerned about; the number of tracks is unusual for the playtime but nothing really untoward about it I suppose. Now imagine 93 tracks of 13 unique species of owl hooting and screeching and you can see the problem I face.

This album is perhaps one of the more famous Field Recordings albums out there; it’s a relatively small genre with a limited number of followers, and newcomers to it tend to focus on rather alarming albums that occur at its fringes, probably the most notable being the distressing “Buyer’s Market”, a selection of police tapes from child murder and rape cases, and another album supposedly of a man performing sexual intercourse with a corpse in a funeral parlour, and on the other hand we have this 90 track behemoth of owls, that’s basically what we’re dealing with here. I’ll be honest, I’d rather take “Buyer’s Market” over this, at least there would be some psychological or socio-political interest, this is literally just owls.

Don’t get me wrong, the “Female Primary Advertising Song” of the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl is fascinating in its own right (groups of between 12 and 21 short, sharp hoots about 4 seconds apart. And yes, I did count them out) not just from an ornithological perspective but also from a zoological one but this isn’t an album for normal people, this is an album for birdwatchers, specifically those in North America with a particular penchant for owls. In all honesty, this album is actually fucking creepy to listen to; each track has a different ambient sound, some of it hideously amplified, including the rustling of leaves and water, the flapping of wings, the calls of other birds in the distance, even the sound of the recording device in a few instances. A number are clearly recorded at night and that sets my teeth on edge even more.

It’d be somewhat tolerable if the damn birds actually sounded like the stereotypical owl calls we’re all used to, those clich├ęd hoots and “twit-twoos” or however you want to pronounce it, but no, the Cornell Laboratory has chosen calls like “Copulation”, “Juvenile Rattlesnake Rasp” and “Alarm Squeals” to make for the most unnerving, unsettling album ever produced. I’d like to say at this point that I’m being serious; I know there is an expectation for this to be a somewhat more lackadaisical review (which is fair enough and not entirely inaccurate) but the fact of the matter is that this is a genuinely creepy album, even if unintentionally. Take the Boreal Owl’s “Male Prolonged Staccato Song”; if I heard that in real life in the daytime I’d be concerned about my house alarm, if I heard it at night I’d imagine some terrifying Slenderman-type creature strobing towards me. And that goes on for 90 seconds. How about the Long-Eared Owl’s “Alarm Call” or worse, the “High Intensity Alarm Call”, which genuinely, 100% sounds like a cat being shot. Those are the most disturbing in actual sound but I could go on.

Arguably the most alarming part of this “review” is that I appear to only have the second volume of this two-part masterpiece, with the first having another enthralling 99 tracks and even more owl species. Can’t wait.

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