Boards Of Canada

While some ambient electronica takes you to exotic, alien or idealised worlds with polished lushness and smooth textures, Boards Of Canada's techno-influenced instrumentals are intentionally imperfect. The duo's unique take on psychedelia is to create a tantalising distance between you and the destination by passing one or more elements through lo-fidelity filters and generally degrading the sound.

artist:
Boards Of Canada

country of origin:
UK

style(s):
Ambient techno, IDM, trip hop, environmental

decades active:
90's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Music Has The Right To Children (1998, Warp)
  • A Beautiful Place Out In The Country e.p. (2000, Warp)
  • Geogaddi (2002, Warp)
  • The Campfire Headphase (2005, Warp)
  • Tomorrow's Harvest (2013, Warp)

Reviewed by Mike G

Scottish duo and real-life brothers Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin are Boards Of Canada, among the most revered and most original-sounding exponents of electronica in the world of ambient dance music.

While some ambient electronica takes you to exotic, alien or idealised worlds with polished lushness and smooth textures, Boards Of Canada's techno-influenced instrumentals are intentionally imperfect. The duo's unique take on psychedelia is to create a tantalising distance between you and the destination by passing one or more elements through lo-fidelity filters and generally degrading the sound. Like winemakers, they create tracks and then spend extended periods aging them. The result is striking to the ears. A bit scratchy, a bit blurred, often with a wobbling pitch that makes their tones sound slightly out of tune. Most importantly its emotionally complex and ambiguous, very much open to your own interpretations.

Of the extraordinary child-like quality of Boards Of Canada's music, music zine Popmatters observed:

"Their music is not an attempt to re-live or revive the golden years of toddler-esque innocence or teenage rebellion. Their project centers more on preservation, continuing to enjoy the wide-eyed wonderment of childhood. The emotional charge...is not so much exhilaration or ecstasy, but a hypnotic calm, the Zen-like trance of a ten-year old as he stares at wispy clouds passing overhead".

Or at foreboding grey skies from a lonely bedroom window, as the case may be.

Early albums

The duo started making music together at a very young age, issuing many obscure cassette releases under other names in the 80's and early 90's, a honeypot for obsessive collectors. Among the earliest Boards Of Canada releases available are the album Twoism (1995) and the e.p. Hi Scores (1997). Both are dissonant, fairly rough and lacking cohesive but clearly the work of two musicians inhabiting their own sonic universe. The strange retro quality which pervades much of their work can be traced to the Canadian Film Board nature documentary soundtracks which so fascinated the pair as kids. That's perfectly accurate, but there is possibly a debt also to early Brian Eno circa Another Green World (1973) and Music For Films (1978).

The early B.O.C. works mentioned above are a logical precursor to the band's first classic: Music Has The Right Children (1998), the band's debut  on pioneering UK ambient techno label Warp Records. The album had a massive impact on the electronic underground at the time, and it still regularly appears in Top Ten lists of new-school ambient. Tune-wise it's less tonal than their later works, but as an album it delivers the kind of cohesion missing from earlier collections. It's a distinctly uneasy listening experience. "An Eagle In Your Mind" has a snaking, disembodied synth progression that's deeply eerie. The crunching percussive loops, varispeed effects and ricocheting vocal fragments of "Telephasic Workshop" and "Sixtyten" literally growl with menace. Sunlight pokes through the darkness only occasionally, like the strange and lovely machine funk of "Aquarius" which is the closest early BOC ever gets to lounge music. The album's impact at the time of its release is undeniable; there was nothing else quite like it, even if now it sounds somewhat less impressive alongside the BOC releases that were to follow.

Unlike Right To Children, the 4-track e.p. A Beautiful Place Out In The Country (2000) is where Boards Of Canada's melodic writing and layering is given at least equal status with the beats and production technique. The result is breathtaking and some of the most profound music in all of ambient techno. "Kid For Today" is their brand of childlike innocence captured to perfection, with a fractured click pattern carrying a shimmering, wind-swept, slightly pulsing synth line. All four tracks are as sadly beautiful, imperfect and nakedly human as any music, electronic or otherwise, all miniature masterpieces of mood, layered textures and bittersweet harmony. If you are yet to experience Boards Of Canada then  this is a wonderful place to begin.

The 2000's and beyond

By the time the long-awaited Geogaddi () appeared, the band's following among a broad cross-section of electronica and indie rock listeners had reached cult status. The obsessiveness of some fans was fed not just by the mystery of music itself but by the vacuum created around a pair of artists so reclusive that very little was known about them, both personally and their creative methods and philosophies (they only revealed their sibling relationship in 2005). Consequently the album met with hysterical reactions from some quarters of the music press. Much of this was positive but some critical, too, as if the band was some kind of myth that deserved debunking.

The benefit of hindsight reveals Geogaddi (2002) for what it is; the duo's most mature full-length album up to that point and in some ways an improvement on Music Has The Right To Children. "Music Is Math" and "Sunshine Recorder" are good examples. The familiar lo-fi surrealism, de-tuned tones and looping beats now benefit from meatier and more detailed arrangements. The album traverses a more varied landscape overall and melodically is far richer than Children, as weird and fractured as those melodies often are. The band's sonic trademarks are still there, of course. The disembodied voices of children are scattered throughout, and the bright layered drones of "Gyroscope Z" are as good example as any of the duo's love for primitive toy-like keyboard sounds.

Not a duo ever known to be in a hurry, three years separates Geogaddi and The Campfire Headphase (2005). Inside what is still a recognizable BOC framework the duo drops in some totally new elements, namely live drums and a myriad of guitar sounds all played and re-sampled by themselves. It's their warmest and happiest sounding release to date and - the protests of guitar-phobes and e-music purists notwithstanding - a great Boards Of Canada album. The lo-fi, soft-focus textures remain and those child-like melodies still don't head quite where you expect them to go, at lest on the first few listens. To simply retread the ground covered on previous albums would have been easy. With The Campfire Headphase the duo stick to their guns by doing what they have always done: following their own muse and hoping an audience will do the same.

Rest and comeback

After an undistinguished e.p. release in 2006, the band fell silent for seven long years. In between time, the influence of their eerie, brittle-edged ambience grew evermore, and they inspired - and were often imitated by - thousands of laptop techno wannabes as the the new century entered its second decade.

When it was finally announced, the anticipation around their next album Tomorrow's Harvest (2013) was enormous, and the reclusive duo once again chose to simply ignore the weight of expectation. The album shows the duo once again going their own, methodical way and producing beautiful things; a compelling mashup of slow cut-up breakbeats, lo-fi samples, detuned analog beauty and haunting chorales. Cuts like "Reach For The Dead", "Jacquard Causeway" and "Cold Earth" are lovely in a harmonic sense but also edgy and strange. The album's ecological concerns and overall sense of foreboding help provide the exquisite tension that's always been a hallmark of BOC's best music. Some wondered whether Boards Of Canada had called it quits after Campfire Headphase. In 2013 they proved to be alive and more than well. Long may they haunt us.

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