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.