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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Boards Of Canada: The Campfire Headphase


1) Into The Rainbow Vein; 2) Chromakey Dreamcoat; 3) Satellite Anthem Icarus; 4) Peacock Tail; 5) Dayvan Cowboy; 6) A Moment Of Clarity; 7) '84 Pontiac Dream; 8) Sherbet Head; 9) Oscar See Through Red Eye; 10) Ataronchronon; 11) Hey Saturday Sun; 12) Constants Are Changing; 13) Slow This Bird Down; 14) Tears From The Compound Eye; 15) Farewell Fire.

By this time you must probably have realized that I am not exactly head over heels in love with Boards Of Canada — and yet this is one of those cases when assessing an artist in strict chrono­logical order turns out to have its benefits, too. After the previous two albums, the «masterpiece» legend of which I cannot agree with at all, their third full official release does sound like a genu­ine masterpiece in comparison. It may be too late for me, of course, to recognize the duo's genius, but it is never too late to tell that you have enjoyed something, and I did enjoy this.

The title of the album contains the word «campfire», which may bring on thoughts of folk music played on acoustic guitars, and the word «headphase», which may bring on thoughts of... well, whatever has a head phase — like a tone generator or something. Incidentally, The Animal Col­lective came out two years earlier with Campfire Songs, one of their brave attempts to fuse avantgarde, acoustic guitars, and DIY digital technology, but these guys are older and more ex­perienced, way past their crude lo-fi stage and maybe, you know, having a better idea of where it is that they may be actually going.

The idea involves becoming a little more «conventional» in their music-making. The old tripar­tite formula («ambient keyboards» + «IDM beats» + «field overdubs») is not going anywhere as such, but the keyboards are made livelier, sometimes moving from «ambient» to «agitated», the beats are downplayed in importance, and the «field overdubs» (all those «ghostly children» of the past) are moved aside to make way for new elements — such as acoustic guitars: processed, of course, and looped and twisted, but still a breath of fresh air when compared to the rigorous reliance on purely digital sonics of the previous records («field overdubs» notwithstanding).

Thus, after a brief mood-setting intro, ʽChromakey Dreamcoatʼ opens with a little acoustic riff in the old style of Donovan's folk ballads and/or ʽDear Prudenceʼ, which soon begins to serve as the center of attraction for various electronic tissues — indeed, «folksy» and «spacey» at the same time. The nagging, repetitive, but not unattractive guitar chords prevent the composition from trickling all over your brain like melted jello, and the layers of overdubs give the guitar melody an extra aura of elevated mystery — not an «amazing» combo, and certainly not a revolutionary one or anything, but it works. Then, for the coda, the rhythm disappears completely, leaving us with just a kaleidoscopic-chromatic flurry of colorful sounds, fussier and livelier than just about anything the duo had recorded up to date.

Even slower and statelier, ʽSatellite Anthem Icarusʼ plays out the same trick — an acoustic guitar basis for an overall «cosmic» soundscape which is anything but minimalistic: in comparison with ʽDreamcoatʼ, it is as if they allowed you to zoom in on the outside surroundings, so you get to examine the wonders of alien life floating past you at slower speeds and in greater details. The acoustic rhythm, amusingly, sounds as if it could have been the accompaniment for some moody singer-songwriter ballad à la Elliot Smith — simple, «deep», «introspective» — yet instead, the singer-songwriter shuts up and just stares in bewilderment at all the giant space amoebas busily wiggling their tails through the continuum. (I'm sure there's a potentially endless discussion on the combinatory and revelatory possibilities of Art lodged in here somewhere, but that's about as far as I'm willing to progress at this particular moment.)

Arguably, the «climactic peak» of the new formula comes with ʽDayvan Cowboyʼ, for which the duo had even prepared a specially atmospheric-oceanic music video (which, in turn, led to the hilarious definition of a «dayvan cowboy» in the web-based Urban Dictionary as «an individual who boldly parachutes from the stratosphere down onto a surfboard in the ocean» — !!!). Here, they switch from acoustic guitar to distorted electric, beginning with a heavy load of feedback and then changing to strummed open chords, Link Wray-style. It also helps, I must say, that the beats to all these songs are shaped more «traditionally», with elements of playful syncopation, expressive fills and rolls, etc., instead of pure mechanical robotism — it all helps to transform the duo's art from «ambient techno» into «picturesque electronic rock music».

As we progress further, we occasionally begin meeting purely electronic tracks once again (ʽ'84 Pontiac Dreamʼ, ʽTears From The Compound Eyeʼ, etc.), but this is not such a big problem now that the first positive impression has been made — and eventually, the record even gains the right to «slow-burn out» on a majorly minimalistic note: the stately church-organ-like phrasing of ʽFarewell Fireʼ is an exercise in the art of fading out, beginning to lose volume after the three-minute mark but evaporating completely only after the eight-minute mark. I guess this is an inno­vative move, technically speaking, but most importantly, it feels like a rather natural conclusion to a Boards Of Canada product — they drive you ever so gently through the main bulk of the album, and then they disorient you as to exactly when and how the album is supposed to end, what could be gentler than that?

Although this is the first BoC record to which I'd give a modest thumbs up, this does not auto­matically mean that I consider it «better» — it is pretty damn hard to talk of music like this in terms of «good» or «bad»; rather, there are just two parameters — does the music trigger some special reaction in your senses? and, does the music allow itself to be visualised in your brain? On both these counts, the music of Right To Children and Geogaddi did not amount to much: the sounds were familiar and not particularly interesting, and the sound combos were mutually disruptive and not very well adaptable to visualisation. Campfire Headphase is markedly pro­gressive on both counts — with a real good balance between «the mundane» and «the astral», colorful, occasionally beautiful, and even if the formula starts getting predictable after the first couple of tracks, it is a good enough formula to keep you going for about an hour.


  1. George, I find it difficult to agree with your thumbs up here: you yourself consider melodies a very important aspect of music and have often been critical of "atmosphere for the sake of atmosphere".

    BoC - on this album - may have broadened their scope, but were also gradually forgetting how to compose decent melodies. The cute little synth lines that practically defined their sound were becoming more and more difficult to find on this album, and it's easy to argue they were heading towards self-parody.

    So while perhaps BoC grew out of their old sound on this album, they lost the will to compose.

    1. Funny - I never thought of BoC in terms of "composing decent melodies", really. Never thought of those little synth lines as "cute", either - just boring, mostly.

    2. I suppose they might be boring depending on one's approach to Boards, but they were a defining feature of their earlier albums. These synth melodies often helped to break up the monotony of some of their tracks, tracks like Aquarius or Happy Cycling take ages to really go anywhere, relying on repetitious loops. But then they (at least "v3" of Aquarius) ended on some nice melodies. These were becoming increasingly hard to find on Campfire Headphase.

      I don't get the love for Dayvan Cowboy, either. It's such a slow, languid piece and the guitar parts are pretty simplistic jangly chords. I appreciate the diversity M & M were displaying here - and a desire to broaden their sound - but not when this is at the expense of what made BoC interesting: Synth melodies. Roygbiv. Everything You Do Is A Baloon. Sigh.

  2. Never thought I'd see Prof. Starostin cite UrbanDictionary. Made my day to read that.

  3. I love Dayvan Cowboy so I guess out of all the Boards of Canada albums that makes this one my favorite because believe it or not I can sorta identify the actual melodies here.