Boards of Canada - Biography
An oft-used critique in writing about underground or creative music is to cite a group’s unwillingness or inability to evolve or expand its sound. After a group’s second or third album, if the sound hasn’t changed or incorporated new elements, articles and reviews begin to appear claiming lazy laurel resting or lack of vision and skill. In some cases the critical outcry is warranted (Interpol) and in some cases it is not (Prefuse 73). Seminal Scottish electronica duo Boards of Canada would fall into the latter category, except so beloved is their sound that not much critical outcry has manifested. A huge crossover with indie rock audiences since its debut full-length, Boards of Canada (BOC) is that rare group that transcends its genre to gain wide appeal with a large amount of listeners not necessarily into electronic music.
That’s not to say that every moment of BOC’s music is perfectly sublime. It’s not, and it can fall into a slightly formulaic ease at times. But if you like the sound, and it is an extremely likeable sound, then BOC records rarely disappoint. And more often than not, this obsessive adherence to its core sound does work for the group, as evidenced by its popularity and the high anticipation brought on by each of its releases. A large piece of the puzzle as to why is quality control. The band’s records are few and far between, having released only three full lengths and a clutch of EPs since its inception around 1988.
BOC is a duo comprised of brothers Michael Sandison (born June 1, 1970) and Marcus Eoin Sandison (born July 21, 1971). Although the brothers seem to relish their reclusiveness, granting very few interviews and relying little on advertising and press releases, some basic information is known. Evidently the household in which they grew up was a musical one, and the brothers played various instruments from an early age. Experiments with tape machines also happened early and both played in a few bands during their teens. BOC was formed when the younger Marcus was asked to join Michael’s band in 1986, the group being reduced to the familial duo by 1989. There were tape releases during this period but the official BOC website does not catalog these early endeavors, preferring to start in 1995, after the founding of the group’s home studio Hexagon Sun, with the release of Twoism.
Twoism (1995 Music70) was released on BOC’s own Music70 label, self-financed and mostly used as a demo to send to other labels, although some were made available to the public via the IDM mailing list. Twoism is evidence that the BOC sound emerged fully formed, with all the trademarks the band would continue to explore firmly in place; mid-tempo hip-hop influenced beats, achingly beautiful analog synth melodies, ghostly field recordings and an emphasis on faded textural patina.
Twoism caught the attention of Autechre’s Sean Booth at the English label Skam Records. Skam released BOC’s first widely available record, Hi Scores in 1996. Continuing the ideas presented on Twoism, Hi Scores introduced subtle references to 80’s electro on the playful “Nlogax” and post-Aphex Twin IDM on “June 9th” and the title track. Rather than expanding the BOC palette, the influences are assimilated into the overall sound, receiving the treatment that renders all of BOC’s music feeling like it was restored from the warped master tapes of another planet’s nostalgic future past.
Although grounded in head nodding beats and linked to the IDM community, the real unique essence of BOC’s music sits squarely in the particular feel of its sound. The group’s use of analog gear, both synths and drum machines, lends an antiquarian sense of nostalgia to the music. This is furthered by the warbled and warped tape manipulation effects applied to many of the melodic lead lines, as well as processed recordings of voices of children playing and dialog from 70’s nature films (the group takes its name from the educational films of the National Film Board of Canada). These techniques and treatments create a swirling haze of atmosphere, bringing to mind yellowed photographs and dusty forgotten corners. The genius of BOC is that this nostalgia isn’t a simple one, never falling back on obvious twee signifiers or knee-jerk tactics that would render the atmosphere all too saccharin.
Although BOC’s sound is not a totally original one — precedents are obvious in Eno’s Ambient series, Aphex Twin, The Orb and early Autechre — the group’s debut full-length resonated so widely across genres and fans that it continues to define the building blocks of IDM. Like other artists of this genre, BOC’s basic elements are beats and simple electronically generated melodies and ambient chords. What BOC did on its debut full-length, Music Has The Right to Children (1998 Warp), was to combine these elements in a new way, and with such original treatments and atmosphere, as to make something unique. The stuttering distorted beats, gorgeously naïve melodies and low-key ambience of tracks like “An Eagle in Your Mind” and the standout “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” perfectly define BOC’s songwriting template. As well as the main proper tracks, the album is full of short interludes. The band has claimed that these shorter atmospheric tracks often become favorites. Interludes like “Roygbiv” and “Olson” make it easy to see why, vying for space as some of the record’s most beautiful melodies.
Two years later brought the deceptively pastoral EP In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country (2000 Warp). All five tracks are unrelentingly beautiful and slightly mournful, coming across as a breezy and effortless update of the sound on Music Has The Right To Children. “Amo Bishop Roden” is one of the best songs BOC has written, all shimmering pads, rolling bass and percussive detail. Here’s where the band’s approach clicks in full. This track sounds as if the projected Kraftwerk-ian future was not helmed by slick urban robots or man-machines, but by farmers on some idealistic commune having turned their tractors into sound generating gear. It’s breathtaking in its simple sad and ragged beauty. Allegedly the track titles and artwork make reference to the tragedy that happened in Waco, Texas in 1993, where FBI agents raided David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound. This reference certainly adds an extra dimension of sadness and loss to the record.
It would be another two years before BOC released its second full-length, Geogaddi (2002 Warp). Again, it’s the standard BOC sound on evidence here, no real surprises. If there is a shift it’s a slight one in mood. Geogaddi is darker than previous records. Of course the group have always tinted their nostalgia with undertones of uncertainty, but on Geogaddi there is a strong current of queasy dread. The music still shimmers with playful memories and that patented doe-eyed longing to be sure, but the sense of something wicked just around the corner is pushed to the front seat. “Gyroscope” might be the best example with its nauseous drone, off kilter peg-legged beat and a sample of what sounds like a child’s tentative voice as he is forced to count to ten. It’s completely ominous and disorienting like, well, a bad memory. Most of the bad vibes can be attributed to the claustrophobic production approach. Where Music Has The Right To Children and In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country both incorporated airy openness to create the feeling of soaring through big spaces, Geogaddi revels in cramped-room atmospherics through the use of constant drones and more complex beat programming.
The Campfire Headphase (2005 Warp) returns to the unabashedly gossamer wistfulness of Music Has The Right To Children in a big way. Again, sticking very firmly to the tried and true BOC template, the only obvious new development is the use of prominent guitar sounds. These samples are treated with the same tape wow and flutter that the synth parts are, as in “Chromakey Dreamcoat” and “Dayvan Cowboy.” The latter is one of the best tracks on the record, and it’s slow simple groove and whooshing synths ride along on a chugging guitar loop to create a track that ranks as one of BOC’s best. These guitar sounds quickly become another textural tool in the BOC arsenal rather than something that stands out, and although the record is up to the high standards of BOC, its main fault is just that. Not too much stands out. The beats here are less interesting, both texturally and structurally, than on previous records and although the synth programming is excellent there’s something lacking. It’s all a little too nice. With none of the textural dread of Geogaddi or the variations in drum programming of the past, the record feels like a slight step backward. But maybe that’s just it with BOC. Are there steps backward or forward while staying obsessively true to a singular sound? Especially when the sound is this effective.
The last release from the group was the Trans Canada Highway EP (2006 Warp) in 2006. Basically the single from The Campfire Headphase, the EP features “Dayvan Cowboy” from that record as well as four new tracks and US indie hip-hop producer Odd Nosdam’s remix of “Dayvan Cowboy.”
Birthing a fully formed and unique sound from the start, BOC have stayed stubbornly focused on exploring every aspect of that sound for its entire career. While introducing subtle shifts in tone and new instrumentation over the course of three full lengths and several EPs, BOC have managed to capture success while mostly avoiding critical judgment of the choice to remain sonically unchanging. This acceptance and in fact demand for material speaks to the group’s vision and high sense of quality control. BOC has remained true to itself and defined a genre by sticking to its original intent.