Wednesday, April 22, 2015


Boards of Canada
The Campfire Headphase
Warp Records
The Observer Music Monthly, September 17th 2005

by Simon Reynolds

Reach a certain age and you notice a peculiar thing happening: your thoughts frequently get interrupted by nonsequitur memory images, seemingly insignificant but disconcertingly vivid. It’s as if your overstuffed brain is calling up ancient files with a view to deleting for space. Boards of Canada offers a more benign version of this temps perdu recovery process. Somehow the Scottish duo’s signature sounds--those glistening melody-trails and misty-around-the-edges textures--trigger buried memories. I’d almost say that listening to Boards of Canada is a form of therapy, except that the emotions stirred up are too plangent--painful beauty, sweet sorrow--to deserve a term that now has such glib feel-good associations.

BoC have ploughed this “memory-work” terrain on their previous two albums, the home-listening electronica landmark Music Has A Right To Children (1998) and its only-slightly-less-fabulous sequel Geogaddi (2002). The Campfire Headphase pursues the same effect but with slightly different means. For the first time the group have incorporated acoustic and electric instruments, like guitars, alongside their customary array of vintage analog synths and digital samples. So they’re no longer making electronic music but an unclassifiable hybrid. Occasionally the new hues don’t seem as idiosyncratic as their patented faded-Super8-film synth tones, but then again, there’s a thin line between developing your own vocabulary and coining your own set of clich├ęs, and we should probably applaud BoC's attempt to extend their palette. If the gorgeous mind-ripples of “Satellite Anthem” and the dewy-eyed dreamwalk of “’84 Pontiac Dream” represent classic BoC almost to the point of redundancy, “Dayvan Cowboy” steps off the group’s beaten path. The track risks bombast with its stirring strings and crashing cymbal rolls (which dazzle the ear, as if the sticks are splashing into a pool of mercury) but stays just the right side of overblown. 

Blurring the boundaries between rock and techno is a smart move,  because BoC have always made music that deserved to appeal beyond the electronic audience. You can imagine fans of My Bloody Valentine/Cocteau Twins-style dreampop falling head over heels for Headphase, or devotees of the Cure and Radiohead wallowing into its exquisitely textured melancholy. BoC can also be seen as heirs to the psychedelic tradition, grandchildren of Syd Barrett and the Incredible String Band. The connection comes through not just in the duo's obsession with childhood or their frankly goofy song titles, but also in the stereophonic delirium of their production. On the “Oscar See Through Red Eye” and “Slow This Bird,” sounds pan back and forth across the speakers, the drift and swirl making you melt into a voluptuous disorientation. 

Boards Of Canada
Uncut, 2002

by Simon Reynolds

There's long been a strain of electronic music that's not fixated on the future but obsessed with the past--specifically, childhood.  You can hear it in the naive melodic refrains and spangly-tingly music-box/ice-cream van chimes of early Aphex and Mouse On Mars, or, more recently, on  recent albums by Fennesz, Tagaki Masakatsu, and Nobukazu Takemura, with their evocations of endless summer and bucolic bliss. Boards of Canada didn't invent this "idyllictronica" genre but they definitely codified it on their 1998 debut Music Has the Right To Children--from its title and  cover imagery of faded family holiday snaps to its quaint synth-tones (redolent of the perky-yet-wistful electronic interludes heard between mid-morning TV For Schools programmes). Even the group's name is a reference to the Canadian educational films they saw in secondary school.

"In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country"---the title track of the EP  they released in 2000 as a stop-gap stop for their devoted cult until the long-awaited second album--featured children's laughter and a rapturously  vocoderized entreaty to the listener:  "join a religious community and live out in a beautiful place out in the country."  Yet the music made by duo Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison--who actually live in a kind of artist's commune in the  unspoilt wilds of Scotland--isn't actually that idyllic: at least, not in a pure unalloyed way. There's something unnerving, at times downright creepy,  about BOC's ability to unlock the listener's memories.

There's been times when I've had something close to out-of-body experiences while listening to BOC, carried away by an involuntary flood of images that are emotionally neutral yet charged with significance. A sort of mysticism of the mundane and municipal: reveries of concrete walkways and playgrounds with fresh rain on the swings, allotments and spinneys, canal-side recreation areas wreathed with morning fog, housing estates with identical backgardens and young mums pegging wet windflapped sheets on the clothing lines, clouds skidding across a cold blue winter sky. I'm never sure if these my own buried early childhood memories from the late Sixties, or just false memories--either dreamed or absorbed from 1970s episodes of Play For Today.  Sometiems an even more uncanny possibility suggests itself: what I'm seeing on the screen of my mind's eye are actually other people's memories, as if BOC could somehow tune into the memories of complete strangers the way Scanner samples mobile phone conversations.

Arriving almost four years after the debut, Geogaddi is basically more of the same only more so. The artwork offers kaleidoscope images of rosy-cheeked seven year old girls, and the teetering-off-pitch synths sound even more like washed-out Super-8 films. The only really new aspects this time round are the increased intricacy of the production (some of the tracks are so densely infolded they're like mille-feuille pastry) and a more pronounced fondness for the human voice. This can range from clearly decipherable soundbites (like the snippets of nature documentary voice-over on "Dandelion") to drastically treated vocals (on "Gyroscope", the sample's so distorted and compressed it's like the little girl trapped inside the TV in Poltergeist)  to vocoder-like FX (the ecstatic android plainsong on "Music Is Math"). There's even shades of  White Beatles in "a is to B as b is to c"'s collage of  shortwave and backwards-run vocals.

Ironically, the best stuff here--shatteringly poignant tracks like "1969", "The Beach At Redpoint", "Sunshine Recorder"--is  BOC sticking to their exquisite formula: crumbly smudges of textures and miasmic melody-lines  drifting like memory-gas over breakbeat rhythms that are like slowed-down jungle (processed to sound ultra-tactile, but stoically trudging like a elderly shire horse).  Geogaddi's few departures sometimes stray into gnarly Autechre-like abstruseness. Successful steps outside their own norm include  "Julie and Candy" (which  sounds like Loveless if Kevin Shields had tried to achieve the sound in his head armed only with a recorder and a toy piano) and "Alpha and Omega" (which recalls Holger Czukay's "Persian Love' with its Indian flute-motif, tinny ripples of tabla, and shortwave noises). Another unusual track is "The Devil Is In The Details," which sonically embodies the title with its ominous micro-sonic intricacies and hallucinatory texural vividness:  crinkly percussion possibly sampled from spashing water, a vocal noise like a muezzin miaouw, and a foreboding synth-motif I can only describe as "glinky".

Then again, the idea of development and progress may be not just irrelevant to Boards of Canada but somehow dissonant with their very essence. Recalling Proust and Nabokov's doomed project of retrieving "lost time", BOC's seem obsessed with uncovering "the past inside the present" (a sample on "Music Is Math"). As troubling as it is therapeutic, the music of Boards of Canada  seems to reach back into your own prehistory and part the mists of time. Somewhere inside that fog of frayed and faded memory lurks a beautiful and terrible secret.

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