Search This Blog

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Boards Of Canada: Music Has The Right To Children


1) Wildlife Analysis; 2) An Eagle In Your Mind; 3) The Color Of The Fire; 4) Telephasic Workshop; 5) Triangles & Rhombuses; 6) Sixtyten; 7) Turquoise Hexagon Sun; 8) Kaini Industries; 9) Bocuma; 10) Roygbiv; 11) Rue The Whirl; 12) Aquarius; 13) Olson; 14) Pete Standing Alone; 15) Smokes Quantity; 16) Open The Light; 17) One Very Important Thought.

The title of Boards Of Canada's first full-length LP, finally released on a major label and soon made famous around the world, is not just a clever twist of phrase, as is the case with so many «experimental» releases — indeed, this is an electronic concept album, revolving around the idea of child­hood and even actual children, plenty of whom are captured here in field recordings and exploited for sinister Scottish purposes. Ambient synthesizers + soft dance grooves + kid vocal samples = Major Breakthrough in Modern Art, or something of that sort, as most fans and critics will be happy to tell you.

Unfortunately, not everyone is able to share the exuberant joy (of which there is much — I have seen plenty of reactions from people who declare Music... or its follow-up to be the best electro­nic album ever recorded, or, at least, their absolute personal favorite). The problems that were already evident with Twoism remain here exactly the way they were — spicing the grooves up with field samples does little in the way of making them more meaningful or aurally impressive. The landscape is still dominated by soft, inobtrusive, repetitive loops, sometimes reasonably short but often going on for 5-6 minutes without much in the way of development — and they aren't even «beautiful» loops, they seem more like «trance-inducing» loops, but most of the time they just put me to sleep (if I try to concentrate on them) or flush by unnoticed (if I do not).

In terms of musical innovation, I have not been able to spot anything that would make the re­cord seem «progressive» compared to Aphex Twin or Autechre or late-period Eno — sure, the bro­thers make their own loops and mix in their own samples, and sometimes they are pretty, but other than this vaguely original idea of making «static, paysage-ly ambient music that you can dance to» (and not all ideas of this kind are necessarily supposed to work — just look at Vanessa Mae putting technobeats on Vivaldi), the «theoretical» achievements of Boards of Canada are nothing much to write home about.

In terms of the «who cares for innovation when the music's so great?» line of thought, I just do not find the music so great. It is uniformly pleasant and almost never irritating (already a big plus for an experimental electronic release), but Michael and Marcus are not minimalist geniuses like Eno, and even when they declare open season on «beauty», with tracks like ʽOpen The Lightʼ whose several keyboard layers strive to create an «angelic» atmosphere, it still sounds more like a brain-manipulator gadget than a thing of sheer sensual purity.

On the other hand, we must also admit the possibility that it is that very quality — the fact that the band rejects «excesses», «build-ups», «prominent hooks», «cathartic moments» — which gives Music... its own advantage. If their aim was to construct a maximally relastic soundscape, they may well have fulfilled it to the max. Let's face it, if you find yourself walking through a snowy forest at night, or crossing some cooled-off desert sands, or floating on an iceberg through the Arctic ocean, most of the time (when you are not pursued by hailstorms, getting bitten by un­expectedly awakened rattlesnakes, or drowning in a storm) things are going to be fairly calm, uneventful, boring, and not particularly cathartic or epiphanic, despite all of nature's beauty. Same stuff here — ʽAn Eagle In Your Mindʼ simply moves from one icy synth tone to another, as the beats snort and scuffle around like a pack of busy rodents. As one reviewer wrote about the track's basic emotion, it's "somewhere on the border between anxiety, happiness, control, and evil" — even if I were to agree, it is precisely this border thing that makes it a little bit of every­thing, but not enough of anything. If this is a conscious artistic stance, I can understand it, but I cannot understand how it can make for great art. Not this way, at least.

I do like some of their sampling ideas — probably the most memorable track on the entire album for me was ʽThe Color Of The Fireʼ, where they take what seems to be a sample of a little kid diligently trying to spell out the phrase "I love you" and distort it in psychedelic fashion, while a set of chiming overdubs further enhances the «magic» aura of the proceedings. For some reason, this turns out to be quite charming and endearing: some have found the experience disturbing and frightening (because the treated voices sound like ghosts?), but I think it takes an intellectual leap to come to that conclusion — no matter how much you distort an originally natural vocal, it won't really sound frightening unless its intent was to frighten you in the first place. In any case, it is a pity that only a very small portion of the record is given over to that sort of experimentation, although, of course, much more of that would turn it into a pure performance act rather than a musical offering.

I have most likely missed out on some of the intended meanings behind these tracks — it's always easy to catch up on these by reading interviews with the brothers — but it is unlikely that any «explanation» will influence anybody's amount of love for the record. Likewise, it is easy to recognize the sheer amount of work that went into its construction (for instance, the tricky rhythms of ʽTelephasic Workshopʼ, combined from all sorts of natural sounds, including finger-poppin' and voice bits), but if the work does not translate into an instinctive marvel-for-the-senses effect, that work is simply wasted, period. My final judgement is that it's all okay, but the «special» status that this record is endowed with among so many fans remains incomprehensible; give me some Massive Attack over this stuff any time of day.


  1. I think, George, you'll find more value in the earlier BoC records once you get to Campfire Headphase and Snormorrow's Harvest. Their melodic capabilities either disappeared, or they became lazy, or they focussed too much on production. Whatever the reason, MHTRTC does at least feature many tracks with some really pleasant, sometimes resonant, melodies. Roygbiv being the obvious example.

  2. a truly psychedelic masterpiece...gets inside my head like few other albums

  3. I have a feeling that Tomorrow's Harvest will be George's favorite.

  4. good to listen to while studying. that's about it for me