New Horizons (Part 1) by John Foster

A couple of years ago I wrote a book about music. The first pandemic lockdown was a month old; no one had any idea as to how long it might last, nor how it might end. We all shared similar fears, worries and concerns. But now that I was working from home, I found that I suddenly had some spare time, and I realised that I needed something with which to occupy myself. 

Musical Notes was the result; a catalogue of my physical music collection (i.e. vinyl, cassettes, CDs, and ticket stubs) with some anecdotes, opinions, and reminiscing thrown in. Let’s be honest, it’s not going to win a Pulitzer any time soon but a) that was never my intention, and b) I’m not that good! Evident lack of writing skills aside, I was reasonably happy with the results. It gave me an opportunity to review my music and relive some important (though probably unreliable) memories. We all have a musical soundtrack to our lives, and this was mine.

Or at least, it was at the time. 

See, the thing about music is that there’s a lot of it about. A LOT. And there continues to be more of it created every second. Keeping up with all the new stuff is impossible. However, this shouldn’t prevent us from at least attempting to keep our ears to the ground in the hopes of hearing the faint rumble of distant drums, especially when those drums (and guitars, synths, vocals etc.) strike a chord which resonates within us. No matter how much music I listen to, I still steadfastly believe that my next favourite band is just waiting for me, just around the corner, just over the next horizon. And I’m continuously proved correct in this assertion. 

So, the purpose of this (perhaps strained) introduction is to lead to the obvious question, “What is the new stuff you’ve been listening to?” Well, I’m glad you asked. I’m aware that, for some, this ‘new stuff’ will be old hat. Been there, done that. I get you. But for some of us, it can take a wee bit longer to get the memo. It’s not necessarily our fault. Despite our best intentions, sometimes other stuff just gets in the way. Please don’t think bad of us. We’re trying our best.

However, with that being said, I should start with a pretty huge confession. This particular band amassed a significant cult following which has only increased since their final album release. Despite their musical output being smack bang in the middle of my usual listening demographic, the fact that they never appeared on my radar until relatively recently is strangely concerning. I’m not sure how to account for this discrepancy.

Boards of Canada are everything I would want from an electronic band. Lying more towards the ambient side of the EDM barometer, BoC can be seen as progenitors of the micro-genres arising from the synthwave movement, such as vaporwave, mallsoft, utopian virtual, signalwave, and many more besides. Believe me, there’s a huge cascade of different inter-related sub-categories and it’s a subject well beyond the scope of this article. But if you have the time and the inclination, I recommend a deep dive for those who may be interested (or at least a light toe-dip).

So what makes BoC so special? Well, like all great art, it’s the feelings that their music inspires. The trippy beats, wobbly synths, and buried samples all add up to something which is both otherworldly yet oddly familiar. A key descriptor frequently used for their music is “nostalgic” and, while it’s now become a bit cliched, it remains accurate. There’s often a child-like naïve innocence captured in their tracks, a longing for times past when things were simpler, care-free and sprinkled with sun-kissed, ephemeral magic. Imagine an old, grainy family VHS of a kid’s birthday party captured during the height of summer. Now imagine it being viewed by that same kid but when they’re middle aged. 

Hmmm. Nostalgia isn’t always so welcoming. Remembering how things were and realising that we will never return can be bitter-sweet, especially as one grows older. If left unchecked, that yearning for lost youth can become oppressively intoxicating. You could spend a lifetime pondering missed opportunities and paths untaken. Best to watch our step here. 

And yet, there’s more, elements at once mournful, reverential, profound, spiritual, and austere. And unsettling. Yes, there’s dappled droplets of sunshine, verdant green fields, azure blue skies, and wispy white clouds, but also standing stones, forgotten idols and more than a hint of the esoteric. Go back and rewatch that old VHS. That kid’s party sure looks like fun. But wait… Who’s that loitering in the background? That indistinct, obscure figure. Is he part of the family? A distant uncle perhaps? So, why doesn’t he join in? Is he just…watching? From the bushes? And why does his face appear…blurred? WTF?

Rabbit hole alert, people! The looking glass is cracked, and the reflection is…unnerving. What do we see? It’s our face, alright. It must be. It looks like us. But it isn’t us. Not really. It’s not quite right. Something has changed. Is it in the eyes? Are they too sunken? Too dark? They seem…lifeless. And what of the mouth? Its corners seem misshapen. Is that a grin, or a grimace? No, something is staring back, but it’s distorted, twisted, unnatural…

And herein lies the true genius of Boards of Canada, their innate ability to generate sounds which are gentle and serene, even pastoral, on the surface, but which hide and belie a dark underbelly. Let’s consider the evidence.

Setting aside their earlier and miscellaneous output for now, BoC released four albums through the famous Warp Records label; Music Has the Right to Children (1998), Geogaddi (2002), The Campfire Headphase (2005), and Tomorrow’s Harvest (2013).

Music Has the Right to Children could be viewed as the band’s prototypical album. Opening track, Wildlife Analysis, sounds like a clip from a documentary soundtrack or a piece of incidental music. Short and sweet, it catches our attention for around a minute or so to set the scene. It’s followed by An Eagle in Your Mind, its gloomy synths, obscure spoken word samples and snappy, scratchy and glitchy (almost mechanical) beats, presenting an interesting medley of different elements; heavy yet subdued undertones framed by lighter motifs. The third track, The Color of the Fire, is another shorter one where beats are omitted in favour of more vocal snippets, this time a child’s voice reiterating the phrase “I love you”, whilst track four, Telephasic Workshop, features pulsing, choppy beats, swirling synths, and fractured vocals samples, everything building as new layers are added throughout the extended mix. 

By now we’ve begun to sense the construction of a framework of sorts, a template, not only for individual tracks, but also for the overall composition of the album itself; longer tracks punctuated by shorter intermissions. And this practice would continue to be used in later releases.

There are plenty of highlights on Music Has the Right to Children, but my own personal favourites are probably Aquarius, and Olson, which run consecutively (being tracks 13 and 14 respectively) and which, to my mind at least, really exemplify the BoC method. If you haven’t heard Boards of Canada before, but are interested to try, I’d start here.

Music Has the Right to Children would also be responsible for laying the real foundations of the band’s mythos and enduring mystique. Yes, they’d acquired a bit of a reputation before this due to their unique back catalogue (cassette mixtapes which were only ever distributed to close family members) and limited releases on their own music70 label (some of which would be re-released elsewhere), but this is the point where Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin (brothers as well as band mates) started to get noticed by a wider public. BoC very rarely gave interviews and only ever played a handful of gigs, so all we have to work with is their musical output, album artwork and titles, track names, sample references, and so on. It’s fair to say this has all been forensically dissected over the years by a fanbase obsessively hunting for clues. There are numerous strong propositions but few verified answers.

Their second album, Geogaddi, really emphasises this point and it remains a hot topic for the BoC community. Just what does this album mean? Does it mean anything? Well, believe it or not there are strong assertions (with compelling anecdotal evidence) that it’s about the devil, or satanism. Yes, seriously! Again, I won’t bore you with the details as there’s masses of speculation on the matter – far beyond the limitations of this current article and the present author. Check out the BoC Reddit boards and YouTube for more detail. I told you there were rabbit holes!!

But what about the music? Is it actually any good? Well, Geogaddi largely follows as a natural extension and successor to Music… and you might consider them as parts 1 and 2 of a unified process or vision. Musically, Geogaddi is darker, harsher and more oppressive in places, but also more refined. The same methodology as before (i.e. long tracks interspersed with short tracks) is employed here but, sonically, we’ve now ventured into more abstract territory. Is Geogaddi less accessible? Perhaps, at least at certain points, but we still have stand out tracks, like Julie and Candy, 1969, The Beach at Redpoint, Alpha and Omega, and the mesmeric, euphoric Dawn Chorus. It’s an album of variations and extremes, of composure and madness, of bombast and reflection. 

Thematically, there is more cohesion. Every track tells its own story and each of these stories is part of a greater narrative. But there’s just so much to unpack. Every obscure backwards sample, every vocal snippet, every track title (even track running lengths!) are measured and calculated for a specific purpose. Even the album cover artwork has been studied for clues. Behind each component part is an intended consequence. It may sound coincidental and happenstance, but there are no accidents. Everything is by design. The final product is exactly how Boards of Canada meant it to be, a riddle, contained within a puzzle, wrapped up in an enigma. It’s mysterious, esoteric, and wholly absorbing. We might all have our theories, but only two people definitively know what it’s all about and they’re not for telling.

The Campfire Headphase is both similar to and different from the previous two albums. Once again, we have a familiar methodology and tracks remain instantly recognisable as BoC fare, but the band have now employed a subtle shift from synths to guitars and other more “organic” tones. Apparently, this was an intentional effort to mix things up precisely because they felt that the classic “Boards of Canada sound” was becoming somewhat predictable as well as being reproduced by imitators. They wanted to push themselves and their fans out of their comfort zone. 

It can be argued that Geogaddi and Music… (the latter perhaps to a lesser degree) are concept albums, but The Campfire Headphase was expressly intended as such. It’s been documented that the central narrative theme concerns someone sitting at a campfire amid a drug-fuelled episode. Given its background, sonic palette, and track structure Headphase is sometimes regarded as a bit of an outlier in the BoC catalogue. It’s generally viewed as being less obscure, more conventional, and therefore more accessible, and opinions differ as to the relative merits of the decisions taken by the band. Regardless, I think it’s a great album, full of carefully crafted tracks and wonderful moments. It’s definitely gentler, more measured and more composed than the previous offerings discussed and, overall, it has an idyllic tranquillity which is rarely interrupted. It even contains moments, such as during the sublime Dayvan Cowboy, where we get hints of stringed orchestration. If you’re looking for a more approachable entry point, then The Campfire Headphase could be for you. It may not have the controversy, but it contains incredible tracks like Chromakey Dreamcoat, Satellite Anthem Icarus, Peacock Tail, 84 Pontiac Dream, Hey Saturday Sun, and Tears from the Compound Eye, to name but a few.

There was an eight-year gap between the issue of The Campfire Headphase and what appears to be the band’s final studio album, Tomorrow’s Harvest. I should note that the launch of this work was extremely cryptic and enigmatic, relying on a series of clues hidden all over the world. It was viral marketing before such a thing really existed and, again, only served to imbue the project, and the band, with further mystery (as if more were needed). 

If the previous offerings can be thought of as concept albums, then Tomorrow’s Harvest feels like a soundtrack to a film that was never released. Just listen to the first seconds of opening track Gemini, those initial synth-brass chords which sound very much like they should be accompanied by a corporate logo, followed by the introduction of a simple string arrangement a la Alan Silvestri. We then hear a rasping, chafing synth drone, a Jarre-esque arpeggio, filtered sweeping tones, and, in the background, the faint sounds of radio static, as if we’d stumbled across a lost transmission. Was this message a distress call or a warning? In any case, Gemini sets the scene for what is to come.

As does the album artwork. I’ve mentioned before that the accompanying artwork to BoC’s output is part of the overall package, providing more crucial hints as to the music’s meaning, and the band’s intentions. With Tomorrow’s Harvest the images can best be described as “stark”. The front cover shows a distant cityscape, its faint flat outline bleached by the sun as if overexposed. But it also gives the appearance of a mirage, something recognisable but ultimately illusory. The reverse cover shows the sun dipped behind a ridge of hills. It could be sunrise, but somehow, we feel, we know, that it’s actually sunset. In the foreground, we get the impression of some structures, a radio or electrical tower, and a squat building like a monitoring station. It’s interesting to note that the band’s other albums all contain identifiable human figures on their covers, even if those forms are distorted in some way. Even their older releases, the Skam Records issued Hi Scores, and the Warp re-released Twoism, follows this trend. Here, however, we have only the evidence, or the remnants of human habitation. I have the CD version of the album and it contains an inlay booklet, its images are grainy and unfocused, partial snapshots of terrain and miscellaneous items, such as fencing, signage, and towered structures, they give the impression of having been collected during a road trip to an industrial or military installation. Admittedly, there are a few images of what could be considered human figures, but their stiff, stilted poses appear more as scarecrows or mannequins rather than people. Humanity is only tenuously, fleetingly suggested in these forms. If Tomorrow’s Harvest is a pseudo-soundtrack then we can infer that the film was some particularly bleak sci-fi from the 70s, perhaps involving some sort of post-apocalyptic collapse. Certainly, the liberal use of FX samples could be used as evidence of this.

As if to undernote this observation, the next track is called Reach for the Dead, its tones sombre and subdued, punctuated with abrasive percussive hits and a steely arpeggio which grows until the main beat kicks in, and we derive a sudden sense of urgency. It’s also one of the few BoC tracks to have an official video, the contents of which further evoke feelings of decay and despondency, a film of discarded buildings in a desert wasteland seeming to document those places where we used to live.

Other tracks have titles such as Cold Earth, Sick Times, Collapse, Nothing is Real, Sundown, and Come to Dust. Yeah, a really cheery album! And yet, there is a lot to enjoy here with many classic BoC motifs on full display. The beats have a vitality and ingenuity, their glitchy electro rhythms infectious and invigorating. The synths are deliciously wobbly, and there is a space-rock feel in places, but also bold, brassy and anthemic, almost revelatory, such as on Sick Times, New Seeds, and Come to Dust. Pads are large and airy, sweeping across wide sonic vistas like a bird in flight such as on Split Your Infinities, or the incredible Nothing is Real. There are also abstract moments in which the band create more prosaic soundscapes, such as Uritual (which sounds like a morose desert hum at night) and Sundown (which sounds exactly as the title implies). By the time we arrive at the final track Semena Mertvykh, which calls to mind the album’s opening, we realise that while we may not have completely understood the journey, nevertheless we know that a journey has been had. 

So what to make of the Boards of Canada? I’ll leave it for the individual listener to arrive at their own conclusion. Music, like all art, is subjective. For my own part, I instantly became a huge fan and voraciously devoured everything I could find about the band and their music. I acquired their back catalogue on eBay and I’ve been listening to them ever since. I don’t think it’s too much a stretch to claim that they’re now regarded as pioneers in their field and have been massively influential in EDM circles. 

That we may never hear any new music from them, nor get answers to the numerous questions posed by their work, remains something of a quandary for fans. Would we really want to know more? The magical illusion is lost once we understand the trick and Boards of Canada have beguiled us fantastically with their sonic sleight of hand. They have already given us so much and owe us nothing. Whatever happens in the future, their music will stand as testament to their vision and craft and I, for one, salute them for that.

About the Author

John Foster works in the public sector and writes in his spare time. For anyone interested, his book Musical Notes is available on Amazon.

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