If the emergence of techno and the proliferation of its related genres thrust DJs and producers into the spotlight, it also spawned artists who, like Kraftwerk before them, chose to remain anonymous and distant. The Scottish duo Boards of Canada (Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison) is a case in point, an even more enigmatic presence on the UK’s electronic music landscape than Aphex Twin and Autechre. Eoin and Sandison have consistently minimized their role in the commercial side of music-making and have avoided its attendant lifestyle: They’ve shunned city life for the rural seclusion of their Hexagon Sun studio and its local collective of artists. They claim to record primarily for themselves and their friends. They have reportedly amassed an enormous archive of unreleased music dating back to the early ’80s (numerous apocryphal BoC tracks make the rounds). They seldom give interviews or perform live.
Ironically, while the two allow their machine-driven music to speak for them, none of the clichés of soulless, post-human electronica apply here. Constructed at the digital-analogue/organic-synthetic interface with an eclectic range of influences (hip-hop, the Incredible String Band’s pastoral psychedelia, Devo, DAF, My Bloody Valentine, ’70s ambient experiments by Eno and Cluster), the pair’s deceptively simple fusion of beats and minimal melodic textures has produced some of the most deeply emotive, human sounds in contemporary electronic music. Also ironic (and inevitable) is the amount of speculation that surrounds the duo’s motives. Fans have compensated for the absence of a conventional authorial identity by constructing one, dissecting the records for hidden meanings and messages. BoC openly admit to seeding their work with cryptic and not-so-cryptic allusions and references, but some fans have responded with the sort of rigorous formalist analysis unseen since the dawn of Dylanology, locating evidence that BoC are everything from Satanists to numerological-geometrical obsessives to Wicker Man-style pagan weirdoes to Branch Davidians.
BoC’s roots lie in early-’80s experiments initiated by Sandison, collective projects that generated both music and Super-8 films. Eoin joined as a bassist in 1986; by the mid-’90s, after various personnel changes, BoC was a duo. They had already released a considerable amount of material on their own Music70 label: Catalog 3, Acid Memories, Closes Vol. 1, Hooper Bay and Play by Numbers, all in severely limited editions. The visual component of the duo’s mixed-media orientation, which still features prominently in their infrequent live performances, displays the influence of public information films, ’70s kids’ TV and the nature documentaries (by the National Film Board of Canada, whence the name) they watched as children. Most significant, however, is the key role these media — seemingly unconnected with music itself — have played in shaping their unique sound to forge an intimate connection with listeners. The music often replicates the feel of those wobbly, off-kilter documentary soundtracks — memories of which are lodged somewhere in everyone’s brain — and has a uniquely synaesthetic dimension, translating into sound the impressions of grainy monochromatic imagery or washed-out color. These effects are achieved not so much by direct sampling, although BoC do make use of borrowed voices. Rather, they process the often organic sounds they’ve created, giving them an aged and flawed feel that creates a sense of distance between the listener and the music. The music is strongly nostalgic, a sense intensified by a distinctive use of melody: half-buried, distant lines resonate with feelings of loss and evoke the sadness of irretrievable past time.
Although only 100 copies of the Twoism EP were originally made (as a demo for record labels), it counts as the first proper BoC release by virtue of its 2002 reissue on Warp. (In the interim, it fetched as much as a thousand dollars as a collectors’ item.) On the title track and “Smokes Quantity,” austere melodic threads and slow shuffling beats weave hypnotic patterns. Elsewhere, the mood is more upbeat. A prominent, chunky bassline lends a funky groove to “Seeya Later” and, with its harsher percussive edge, “Basefree” could be mistaken for a contemporaneous Aphex Twin track. After Twoism, Sandison and Eoin released BoC Maxima, much of which cropped up on later records.
In its original demo format, Twoism piqued the interest of Manchester’s Skam label, who put out the subsequent Hi Scores EP. Like Twoism, Hi Scores has two distinct moods: down-tempo numbers with lush textures that gradually envelop the listener and more immediate, rhythm-centered tracks. Like “Seeya Later” (which reappears here) and the squelchy, bass-heavy “June 9th,” the funky “Nlogax” takes a straightforward, upbeat approach, a bouncing collage of hip-hop beats, Kraftwerkesque synth flourishes and spliced vocal samples. “Everything You Do Is a Balloon” stands as a landmark BoC track, embodying the most strikingly original aspects of the duo’s sound: it seems to grow organically as its mellifluous textures breathe and expand incrementally, spreading out over lulling, chilled beats.
The band’s first officially released album, Music Has the Right to Children, was also its most fully realized to date, a mesmerizing soundtrack brimming with children’s voices, pastoral ambience and wistful melodies. The title is a statement of intent: they are interested in music’s power to influence, induce feelings and elicit reactions. Listeners who take this as a cue to comb their BoC records for hidden messages forget that pop music’s inherent function has always been to affect — to make us dance, sing out loud, experience a particular emotion. Nevertheless, the pair’s admissions that they layer their work with symbols and references and use backward masking (along with conjecture that their music conceals complex mathematical patterns) have only encouraged the conspiracy-minded. And there’s plenty to keep them awake at night: “Aquarius” contains not one but two mentions of the occult-coded number 23; Masonic symbols masquerade as track titles (“Triangles and Rhombuses”); and, most disturbing of all, the backward-masked voice of the obviously evil Jeff Lynne talks about backward masking on “Happy Cycling” (which originally appeared only on the US version of the album). Those seeking proof of a sinister design in this music risk allowing their endless pursuit of possible connections and meanings to come between them and a simple emotional engagement with the music. BoC’s music isn’t about meaning or language — it works on the emotions and offers listeners a connection with a pre-linguistic consciousness, a universal time. The title of “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” can be picked apart in myriad ways: it may allude to the scientifically proven “natural” color of the universe; it references the duo’s mysterious rural collective; the symbol of the hexagon recurs throughout their work; and so forth. But this has nothing to do with the music. Listeners who can get past the clutter of bogus interpretation will discover a sublimely beautiful track; its drifting oceanic melodies, music-box tunes and muffled children’s voices take you to a place where these things simply don’t matter.
While extended trance-inducing grooves provide some of the most memorable tracks on Music Has the Right to Children, such economical, beatless interludes as “Olson,” “Bocuma” and “Wildlife Analysis” are no less compelling. These ambient snapshots underscore the timelessness of BoC’s best material — timeless in that it suggests a universal sense of melancholy and nostalgia and in that it’s sometimes difficult to hang a precise date on it. Indeed, while some electronic music that relies heavily on the latest technology quickly begins to sound clichéd and kitschy, BoC’s shorter ambient numbers avoid that pitfall, maintaining a healthy balance of old and newer technology and achieving a sound that isn’t tied to one specific moment or period.
Recorded in summer 1998 and released in January 1999, the Peel Session EP made “Happy Cycling” available to UK fans and also included versions of a couple of numbers from the first album — “Olson” and “Aquarius” (the latter being noteworthy to some because the number 23 is mentioned six times). Slightly disappointing is the omission of the session’s strongest track, “XYZ,” which shares the hypnotic droning tendencies of Neu!’s “Hallogallo” and Faust’s “Krautrock.”
After a gap of nearly two years, Sandison and Eoin returned with In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country, an EP comprising diverse new material. Simultaneously idyllic and ominous, the title track is a BoC classic in the same vein as “Everything You Do Is a Balloon.” Lush melodic swathes ebb and flow, children laugh innocently and a voice processed through a vocoder-style effect bids, “Come out and live with us in a religious community in a beautiful place out in the country” (a Branch Davidian slogan inviting people to the Mt. Carmel compound in Waco). Vaguely unsettling with its more urgent, skittering beats and insistent high synth line is “Amo Bishop Roden” (named after the wife of a former Branch Davidian leader). The EP does afford listeners some simple tranquility, however: the sedate “Zoetrope” is a circular minimalist exercise in repeating keyboard arpeggios that recalls the work of Michael Nyman and Philip Glass.
Geogaddi came four years after Music Has the Right to Children. Although there’s no radical change in direction, Sandison and Eoin pursue some of the unsettling nuances of their sound. A familiarly dreamlike aura is still pervasive and ethereal melodies continue to trigger melancholy, but there’s also a feeling of disquiet underlying much of this material, a nagging sense of undefined menace. Whereas Music Has the Right to Children‘s pastoral atmospherics were airy and open, Geogaddi is faintly claustrophobic and tense. Rather than music for reverie on a bright day, this is a soundtrack to the dark night of the soul. The omnipresent sampled voices here don’t conjure up images of awestruck and innocent children or blissed-out adults. The title of the woozy “Dawn Chorus” suggests some rustic idyll, but the track’s pained cries are distressing. Children are no longer lost in wonderment, but speak in cold, detached Midwich Cuckoo-like tones. The sampled kid’s voice on the stuttering, jarring “Gyroscope,” for instance, has a tension to it and children speak of a “beautiful place” on “Sunshine Recorder” but they don’t sound particularly thrilled to be there. Occasionally, the album’s threatening presence takes over: the epic “Alpha to Omega” starts as a light, Eastern-sounding groove, but the mood changes in the closing minutes as the track is consumed by a mechanical drone and trails out in static. As on Music Has the Right to Children, a series of brief beatless pieces shadows the longer numbers, providing ambient punctuation throughout the album. Miniature soundscapes running from 27 seconds to little more than a minute, such as “I Saw Drones,” “Beware the Friendly Stranger” and “The Smallest Weird Number,” have a surprisingly expansive character, unfolding in a way that belies their short duration. Sandison and Eoin also achieve a timeless feel on some of their longer tracks, even when they’re using tools that threaten anachronism; much like “In a Beautiful Place out in the Country,” “Music Is Math” uses a vocoder effect yet doesn’t for one instant stray into cheesy retro-futurist territory. Ultimately, despite its dark, brooding tendencies and foreboding nuances, Geogaddi does conclude on a marginally brighter note; although austere, “Corsair” hints at a new dawn and a sense of renewal.
For those entertained by such details, Geogaddi‘s “1969” contains a reference to Amo Bishop Roden: “Although not a follower of David Koresh, she’s a devoted Branch Davidian,” a voice says; the words “David Koresh” are backward masked (of course). Reverse “You Could Feel the Sky,” and you hear a voice clearly saying “A god with horns” at around the three-minute mark. The album has, oh yes, 23 tracks — although the last one is completely silent — and its running time is 66 minutes and six seconds (give or take a second). But it’s not all sinister. If you play “A Is to B As B Is to C” backwards, “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” emerges after about 30 seconds. Trainspotters will also need to own the Japanese edition of Geogaddi, which adds a bonus track, “From One Source All Things Depend,” in which children recite prayers and speculate about God (“I guess he’s kind of big and fat”).
Before the release of The Campfire Headphase, the reticent duo made a surprising admission: they were actually brothers but had never publicized the fact (apparently in order to avoid comparisons with Orbital). Just as that biographical revelation demystifies the pair a little and detracts slightly from the aura of mystique that’s grown around them, the music on their third album has a similar effect. Largely due to the unprecedented level of recognizable organic instrumentation amid the broader abstract electronic sound, there’s often a more defined, more direct feel that contrasts with some of the nebulous gauzy atmospherics of previous recordings. Their work has always displayed a strong emotive dimension and there’s always been a human presence amongst the machines, but a more markedly physical, hands-on sense of authorship emerges here — right down to the noise of fingers on guitar strings.
The most impressive numbers seamlessly fuse the real and the synthetic in expansive, dynamic arrangements. The initially understated “Peacock Tail” gradually attains critical mass as it weaves together sparse acoustic guitar, hazy keyboards, slo-mo hip-hop beats, glockenspiel and disembodied Eastern nuances; “Dayvan Cowboy” assembles textures of processed guitar and sweeping strings before some uncharacteristically rousing bursts of percussion and more chiming glockenspiel see the track crystallize into a majestic post-rock anthem. However, The Campfire Headphase is somewhat schizophrenic. Several tracks give the impression that Sandison and Eoin are working with two disparate aesthetics that they can’t quite bring together in a satisfying manner. At times the marriage of organic and electronic elements is less than compelling and suggests not so much a cross-pollination as a vaguely awkward juxtaposition. “Chromakey Dreamcoat,” “Hey Saturday Sun” and “Satellite Anthem Icarus,” for instance, plod laboriously and outstay their welcome with repetitive, Muzaky arrangements that offer limited variation on the theme of beats plus synth swathes plus simple guitar patterns. The problem isn’t repetitiveness — BoC’s music has always had a pronounced looping groove — it’s the tendency of the sonic components to remain rigid and mechanical, continuing linear and distinct from each other instead of coming together in any engaging or revelatory way. Above all, the less successful tracks seem monochromatic and depthless, lacking the tension, the mystery and the dark kaleidoscopic beauty of previous material. The tendency toward an obvious, often very clean and defined sound sacrifices much of the evocative, abstract quality that has made BoC’s work so unique and memorable. It’s as if Sandison and Eoin have traded their poetic sensibility for a more literal one, leaving less room for the listener’s imagination and sense of wonder.
Nevertheless, in marked contrast with some of the rather prosaic tracks, several numbers do recapture BoC’s more evocative side: it’s impossible to listen to the wistful “’84 Pontiac Dream” or “Oscar See Through Red Eye” and not feel surges of nostalgia; no less suggestive is the dark, eerie “Slow This Bird Down,” which could be the score for a gothic sci-fi movie, complete with a skeletal bluegrass-picking outro. Indeed, the devil is very much in the details here as brief soundsketches such as “Ataronchronon” and shorter numbers like the layered, droning “Sherbet Head” offer minor revelations. Some of these moments come in otherwise disappointing tracks: “Satellite Anthem Icarus,” for instance, has a twist in the tail as the fleeting outro provides a noir, uneasy interlude that’s unlike and more intriguing than anything preceding it.
Ultimately, The Campfire Headphase shows continuity with the duo’s previous recordings but fails to replicate the sheer beauty and awe-inspiring quality of past material, sounding at times like the work of very good Boards of Canada copyists. And where it does pursue new avenues, the album is mostly undistinguished.
Along with four new numbers, the Trans Canada Highway EP offers the sublime “Dayvan Cowboy.” “Heard From Telegraph Lines” and “Under the Coke Sign” are interesting minute-or-so fragments, but the better developed and dynamic material here is more satisfying: the sleepy, bass-hefty “Left Side Drive” and “Skyliner,” which raises the tempo with a propulsive, funky shuffle (although far from the smooth, gliding journey suggested by the EP’s Kraftwerkian title). Ironically, the most absorbing track is an Odd Nosdam (cLOUDDEAD) remix that deconstructs “Dayvan Cowboy” to reconfigure it over nine minutes as a fragmented canvas that drifts in and out of ambient abstraction.