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The Essential… Boards Of Canada

Written by FACT Team on Sunday, May 20 2012

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Words: Joseph Morpurgo


On first glance, the name ‘Boards Of Canada’ is a wonderful non sequitur, a riddle ripe for the cracking.

Its provenance, however, isn’t difficult to unpick. The phrase is plucked wholesale from The National Filmboard Of Canada, whose po-faced educational films provided a template for the duo’s distinctive aesthetic sensibilities. Boards Of Canada members Marcus Eoin and Mike Sandison, it should be noted, spent a stretch in Canada as children during the Filmboard’s heydey. All in all, then, Boards Of Canada is a perfect band handle: it perplexes, it offers a statement of intent, and it emanates from the murky depths of memory. Which just about sums up what makes the pair’s music quite so special.

Boards Of Canada’s work wallows in the past, but also interrogates it, critiques it.



Boards Of Canada remain one of the best-known and best-loved electronic acts of the last two decades. Out of all of Warp’s banner artists, only Aphex Twin and (perhaps) Squarepusher inspire the same sort of fevered admiration. These two childhood ‘friends’ (more on that later) fused New Age, hip-hop and rave into a strange new gumbo, situated at the interstice between the mystic and the metric. More surprising influences include agit-industrialists Test Dept, Jan Svankmajer and New Scientist, all of which bleed through into the tunes. Crucially, Boards Of Canada’s music is shot through with a powerful sense of wistfulness; in Sandison’s words, “When I was a foetus, I was nostalgic for when I was sperm”. Any Boards Of Canada record is a hodgepodge of eviscerated jingles, wayward radio signals, stentorian documentary voiceovers and consumerist detritus. Their work wallows in the past, but also interrogates it, critiques it.

 

 

The duo’s music has hardly been neglected in the last few years; indeed, their first two LPs take pride of place in the modern electronic canon. Their influence, however, has never been so inescapable as it is now. Keyboard fiends like Oneohtrix Point Never might invoke your Carpenters and your Grosskopfs, but Boards Of Canada are probably a big reason why pale young men with arpeggiators are playing main stages rather than bedrooms. The groggy head-nod(-off) of Main Attrakionz and Lil B owes a lot to the pair’s experimental boom-bap/ambient hybrid. Some of 2012’s most celebrated music – R.I.P highlight ‘N E W’, Lone’s Galaxy Garden, d’Eon’s Music For Keyboards series – bears a very explicit debt to BoC’s distinctive soundworld.

Their influence has never been so inescapable as it is now.



More than anything, Boards Of Canada’s aesthetic posture seems to have come back into vogue. “Nostalgic” appears to have become critical shorthand for a very particular set of sonic criteria: melodic music, often of a postmodern disposition, that has been degraded or obscured to some degree. It’s now de rigeur for producers born in the mid-1990s to reference long-defunct technologies (tape hiss, mildewy timbres) as a means of articulating yearning, as if the vocabulary of wistfulness was fixed during the Age Of The Betamax. I’d argue that Boards Of Canada – as a result of their popularity as well as their talent – did more than anyone else to codify the way in which contemporary listeners understand nostalgia. Their memories have became our memories.

The following ten selections attempt to provide an overview of the various facets of Boards Of Canada’s modest but rewarding discography. Early works, remixes and B-sides nestle up against more familiar pieces. Even Boards Of Canada’s rarest material (not to mention a slew of BoC apocrypha) has long been in circulation in the grubbier quarters of the internet, so their work is well within the dilettante’s grasp. All in all, this guide endeavours to sketch a full picture of Warp’s favourite past-masters – the kings of arrested development.

01: BOARDS OF CANADA
‘SPECTRUM’
(from A FEW OLD TUNES, MUSIC70 CS, c.1995)

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Boards Of Canada’s music often gets described as redemptive, a postlapsarian attempt to recuperate a long-lost childhood. It’s worth remembering, however, that Eoin and Sandison were already making electronic music together long before they hit puberty. As children, the pair would tweak and splice shortwave radio recordings on a battered portable recorder. This same air of wide-eyed curiosity is evident throughout their juvenilia, at once winningly ramshackle and strikingly diverse. Their fabled 1994 Play By Numbers EP (survived only by chugging fragment ‘Wouldn’t You Like To Be Free’) sees them investigating shoegazey indie-rock. The privately circulated sketches that make up the A Few Old Tunes series, meanwhile, show the pair on similarly venturesome form.

Picking an exemplary cut from A Few Old Tunes is a fool’s errand. Variety is the order of the day: acid house experiments (‘David Came To Mahana’im’), twee miniatures (‘Jimbo Rehearsing’) and impish cut-ups (‘Blockbusters’) all compete for attention. ‘Spectrum’, however, points towards the band BoC would become. The track aligns the unsettling and the sweet, and keeps half an eye on the dancefloor in the process. For all its rudeness, there’s a real grandeur to ‘Spectrum’- the sound of mist clearing, of light being thrown. From the happy-slap breakbeat through to the phased synth riffs, it’s as irrepressible as anything that was to follow.

02: BOARDS OF CANADA
‘OIRECTINE’
(from TWOISM EP, MUSIC70 LP, 1995)

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Biographically, Twoism is an important record for BoC. The pair, then unknown, sent the tape to Autechre’s Sean Booth, who subsequently pointed them in the direction of Skam Records [Skam released the 1996 EP Hi Scores]. Spiritually, it’s also a landmark release. Twoism has become something of a mystical artefact, the Lost Ark of all the BoC ephemera.

Part of this is due to its physical rarity. With only 100 or so copies originally pressed, the EP was fiendishly difficult to track down until its full reissue on Warp in 2002. Some of the cachet is also down to the irregularity of its production: Boards Of Canada c. Twoism was actually a three-piece, augmented by Christopher ‘Christ.’ Horne. Released on the their own Music70 label, it emerges from a time when Boards Of Canada was a nodule on the Hexagon Sun art collective, a group of friends primarily “interested in the psychological capabilities of sounds and images than their aesthetics”.

But, more than anything else, there’s also a sense that Twoism is Boards Of Canada’s enabling record, that nothing which followed could have existed without it. ‘Oirectine’ is the boldest example of the ambiguity that the pair would later perfect. Where the chorus is pretty, the verse is paranoid; the organ lead is warm, but the contrapuntal synth washes are decidedly chilly. The Nightmares On Wax grooviness might not have dated brilliantly, but it’s still a great example of the pair’s weirdo charm.

03: BOARDS OF CANADA
‘RED MOSS’
(from BOC MAXIMA, MUSIC70 CD, 1996)

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One of the criticisms chucked at Boards Of Canada with moderate regularity is that their music is painfully narrow in scope. What acolytes might call ‘vision’ and ‘consistency’ can be fairly easily painted as ‘saminess’. To these ears, however, the charge doesn’t really wash. A limited sonic palette needn’t be problematic: plenty of acts (Burial, The Ramones) plough a single furrow, and excavate all manner of jewels in the process. More pertinently, it’s worth nothing that the BoC discography veers all over the shop stylistically. If Boards Of Canada are sometimes prone to pleasantness, ‘Red Moss’ is a reminder that the duo can snarl as well and soothe.

Eoin and Sandison are open about the importance of violence and brutality in their work. In one interview, they celebrate the way in which sonic materials are “destroyed by the sampling process”; elsewhere, they describe how they bounced tones between tape channels “until the sound started disappearing into hell”. An old Crafter interview even suggests there are things in their live show ‘”that could damage you”. There’s certainly a degree of nihilism in their use of distortion, a sense of bludgeoning their source material into submission.

‘Red Moss’ is plucked from Boc Maxima, their longest (and best) odds’n’sods collection. Although many of the other tracks on the album would graduate onto Music Has The Right To Children, few quite manage ‘Red Moss”s punch. The warped VHS timbre is brought into dialogue with more contemporary musics: those skipping snares are pure rave, and there’s a forceful quality that brings hard-edged techno to mind. Brutal and blasted, it’s a dust-kicking scorcher.

04: BOARDS OF CANADA
‘CHINOOK’
(from ‘AQUARIUS’, SKAM 7″, 1998)

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Like ‘Red Moss’, ‘Chinook’ is a fine example of Boards Of Canada at their fastest and hardest. Although the track originally appeared on BoC Maxima, it’s the lengthier version on the ‘Aquarius’ 7″ that packs the bigger wallop. There’s not a whiff of wooze: this is precise, pneumatic stuff.

It’s also an interesting transmission from a crucial liminal period for the Boards. 1996’s Hi Scores EP had raised the group’s profile, and the imminent Music Has The Right To Children was to see them break through in earnest.

‘Chinook’ also makes the cut because, considered alongside flip ‘Aquarius’, it offers some insight into the mathematical tendencies so crucial to BoC’s identity. Eoin studied Artificial Intelligence, and Sandison has a well-documented interest in numerology. Numbers crop up in titles (‘Music Is Math’, ‘The Smallest Weird Number’), artwork (that fractal-like Geogaddi cover) and behind the scenes (Music70). The centrality of numbers in their work is a vital part of the pair’s delicious ambivalence: their music is extremely emotive, but also well aware of its status as a stream of 0’s and 1’s.

‘Aquarius’ features a string of digits read over a louche funk bassline, but ‘Chinook’ does a better job of expressing the maths at work in the music. In an interview with French e-zine Virgin Megaweb, the pair described their approach to rhythm as “binary”, their percussion providing “dark, obsessive backdrops to go with our melodies”. ‘Chinook”s clattering rhythms, cyclical and delicately calibrated, exemplify this curious compositional approach.

05: BOARDS OF CANADA
‘ROYGBIV’
(from MUSIC HAS THE RIGHT TO CHILDREN, WARP/SKAM LP, 1998)

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For all their wilful obscurity, Boards Of Canada have always comported themselves like a pop group. Bands name-checked as influences by the pair include The Beach Boys and fellow Scots The Incredible String Band. The building blocks of pop – melody, immediacy, replayability – are absolutely central to their sound; in Sandison’s words, “the important thing is that you can whistle our tunes”. Nothing in the Boards Of Canada songbook is quite as whistleable as ‘Roygbiv’.

‘Roygbiv’ is another BoC Maxima hangover, given a second airing on Music Has The Right To Children. Their debut Warp LP remains their most celebrated achievement, a complete introduction to their distinctive soundworld. ‘Rue The Whirl’ and ‘Turquoise Hexagon Sun’ ooze a blunted charm, while miniatures like ‘Kaini Industries’ or ‘The Color Of The Fire’ emphasised the idiosyncrasy of the pair’s musical project. Unlike those featureless faces on the cover, Music Has The Right To Children is well-defined and overflowing with character.

‘Roygbiv’ is one of their most texturally varied pieces. A buzzsaw bassline plays off against a honky-tonk piano. Analogue synths ebb and throb. “Great”, utters a child, perhaps dazzled by the fireworks exploding around him. The interplay between bassline and hook resembles a campfire round, and the melody is as catchy as they come. And after 2:15 – it’s gone.

06: BOARDS OF CANADA
‘OLSON (VERSION 3)’
(from PEEL SESSION TX 21/07/1998, WARP LP, 1999)

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In their earliest documented interviews, it’s clear that Eoin and Sandison once conceived of Boards Of Canada as a live audiovisual proposition. They talked about their interest in manipulating audiences with “embedding and subliminals”, and described their 8mm film accompaniments as central to their art. Perhaps it’s surprising, then, that Boards Of Canada have become renowned as some of contemporary electronica’s most reluctant performers. You can, quite literally, count the pair’s live performances on the fingers of two hands.

Numerous live documents exist of the group. Both their 1999 show in honour of Warp’s tenth anniversary and their 2001 appearance at the Tortoise-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties have been preserved in bootleg form. Their 1998 Peel Session (released the following year by Warp) offers some insight into their live modus operandi, and it’s clear that BoC aren’t ones to switch things up on stage. Rare track ‘XYZ’ got a lot of the attention, probably due to novelty rather than much intrinsic merit. ‘Aquarius (Version 3)’, it has to be said, is barely distinguishable from the original.

It’s only the fuzzed-out take on Music Has The Right To Children miniature ‘Olson’ that really comes to life in a live setting. Over a rattling digital counterpoint, Eoin and Sandison lay down one of their sweetest pastoral melodies. The lead-line is more syrupy than on the Music Has The Right To Children version, and the final minute sounds as if the acetate is being melted down in real-time. It’s a reinterpretation that, without much fuss or flourish, amps up the pathos of the original.

07: HELL INTERFACE
‘THE MIDAS TOUCH’
(from MASK500, SKAM LP, 1999)

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Waft aside all the occult fug, and there’s plenty of humour in BoC’s work. From the skin-flick samples on A Few Old Tapes through to the Leslie Nielsen cameo on Geogaddi, Eoin and Sandison know their way around a nudge and a wink. Their archness is never more overt than on their work under the Hell Interface moniker.

The alias offered Eoin and Sandison an outlet for their wackiest impulses. 1997’s schlocky ‘Soylent Night’, for example, features a robot reading The Lord’s Prayer over a proto-Belbury Poly instrumental. More strident is ‘The Midas Touch’, originally released on Skam’s MASK500 covers compilation. Eoin and Sandison pilfer the vocal line from Midnight Star’s 1986 original, and lay it flat over a slab of twitchy electro. The results are wonderfully fraught, and stay just on the right side of silly. If you’re looking for the progenitor to those ironic R&B mash-ups by Hud Mo et al, hunt no further. In recent years, things have gone full circle: R&B hipsterette Solange Knowles sampled The Campfire Headphase’s ‘Slow This Bird Down’ in 2008.

08: BOARDS OF CANADA
‘IN A BEAUTIFUL PLACE OUT IN THE COUNTRY’
(from IN A BEAUTIFUL PLACE OUT IN THE COUNTRY, WARP 12″, 2000)

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Perhaps Boards of Canada’s most winning quality is their gracefulness. Their most compelling work has an elegance, a quasi-devotional poise, that eludes other practitioners. There’s no shortage of jaw-meet-floor gorgeousness in their canon (‘Everything You Do Is A Balloon’, ‘Over The Horizon Radar’), but ‘In A Beautiful Place Out In The County’ takes the wafer.

According to Eoin, “sometimes the whole point of the track is about what the voice is saying”. ‘In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country’ developed from a vocal snippet recorded by one of the pair’s friends and fed through a vocoder. The mantra – “Come out and live with a religious community in a beautiful place out in the country” –  wards off harm and leans towards hope. Children giggle, and the drums are firm without ever becoming intrusive. Yes, the lyrics bring sinister Koresh cults to mind, something the duo would go on to explore in more detail on Geogaddi. Yet ‘In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country’, wreathed in analgesia, never loses its pie-eyed sense of innocence. They haven’t sounded this sublime since.

09: BOARDS OF CANADA
‘GYROSCOPE’
(from GEOGADDI, WARP LP, 2002)

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When Geogaddi arrived in 2002, it was already one of the most anticipated electronic albums of the decade. Casual consensus painted the record as a darker twin to Music Has The Right To Children, but any sort of attentive listen suggests that Geogaddi is a different sort of proposition entirely. Music Has The Right To Children was a primer, cobbled together from tracks familiar and new. Geogaddi, by contrast, is a capital-A album, conceived as a self-sufficient piece.

The pair described the record as an “Alice In Wonderland adventure” or a “strange musical”, Whether it be the regular oscillation between tracks and skits, or the clammy sense of dread that lingers from start to finish, there’s a real sense that Geogaddi is constructing a mangled fairytale narrative. If Boards Of Canada set out to unsettle – their stated aim was “to let the more adult, disturbed, atrocious sides of our imaginations slip into view through the pretty tunes” – they pass with flying colours. ‘The Devil Is In The Details’ condenses the plot of Eraserhead into four disconcerting minutes, and ‘1969’ plays like a torch song gone horribly wrong. ‘Gyroscope’ – a cyclic blur of botched vocals and tribal percussion  – does the best job of summarising Geogaddi’s oddball delights.

10: WHY?
‘GOOD FRIDAY’ (BOARDS OF CANADA REMIX)
(from THE HOLLOWS, TOMLAB 12”, 2007)

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So to 2007. It might be deemed hideously contrary to gloss over half a decade’s worth of recorded output, particularly when the pair’s official discography is so slim. But, then again, it’s hard not to feel that 2002-7 saw Boards Of Canada shuffling towards less interesting territories.

The lead-up to 2005’s The Campfire Headphase LP saw Eoin and Sandison undergo a process of demystification. In a Pitchfork interview that reads more like a therapy transcript, Eoin and Sandison revealed that they had been brothers all along, keen to avoid comparisons to Orbital in the fledgling stages of their career. Then came a comprehensive interview with The Wire, a piece that brought the reclusive artists out of the shade and in front of a camera.

When it arrived, The Campfire Headphase was cleaner and much more straightforward than anything Boards Of Canada had done previously. Eerie samples were subbed for acoustic guitars, breakbeats traded for bossa. At its best, The Campfire Headphase might be called a rootsier In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country. But, for all its charms, it often sounds remarkably like a Zero 7 record.

Boards Of Canada’s remix of Why?’s ‘Good Friday’ is one of the last things we heard from the pair before the radio silence kicked in c.2009, but it’s undoubtedly one of their smartest moments. The pair have repped the anticon collective for some time, turning out remixes for cLOUDDEAD and Boom Bip. Yoni Wolf’s endlessly quotable brainbombs (“sending sexy SMSs to my ex’s new man / ‘Cos I can”) sound borderline heroic over BoC’s sweeping instrumental. Horns peal from mountaintops, and an ‘Aquarius’-style bassline plumbs the depths. You even get a 90 second djembe solo before things come to a close – and who expected that?

 

Joseph Morpurgo

 

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