It’s difficult to pin down exactly what makes the Boards of Canada’s sound so satisfying. Their albums barely carry a tune let alone a song and the beats are neither cutting edge nor dancey. Instead they invoke a gentle nostalgia of 1970’s childhoods, nature documentaries and sitting out under the stars.
Based in the west of Scotland, the duo (Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison) began their career on the Skam label. EP’s Twoism, Hi Scores and a number of remixes brought them to wider attention before their debut album Music has the Right for Children was released on Warp Records in 1998. It was instantly proclaimed a classic by both the aging dance intelligencia and critics alike. Chill out was the sound of the day with Air, Kruder and Dorfmeister et al bridging the underground and the mainstream to soundtrack coffee shops from Shoreditch to Shetland. Boards of Canada sat uneasily with these acts, sharing a stoned ambient melancholy and yet very different. Whereas these acts took soulful vocals and filled late night mixes, Music was almost entirely instrumental and reflected a rural, folksy vibe which would pre-empt the likes of Kieron Hebden, Joanna Newsom and the rest of the so called ‘Folktronica’ movement some five years later.
The influences on the album were difficult to pin down; Aphex Twin’s more esoteric moments were there as was hip hop but so was dialogue from TV nature programmes and spooky children’s voices – the effect was slightly unsettling. At a time in history where everyone cherishes the new and where uptempo music is the flavour of the day this analogue recorded downbeat record was a strange thing indeed. The duo’s reluctance for both interviews and live dates added to the sense of intrigue and little else (save for a John Peel session and a four track EP) was heard until 2002’s Geogaddi.
One again, this felt like a record out of time. By now, the charts were awash with new wave style guitar acts and most electronic innovation could be found in American R&B producers such as Timberland and the Neptunes rather than the dance movement where stadium rock style DJs were delivering consistently below par albums. Geogaddi ‘s song titles included Dawn Chorus, Dandelion and The Beach at Redpoint and once again, the grooves reflected more of a rural folk tradition than what one might term urban music. Yet it certainly wasn’t folk music either with off kilter beats and synthesizers recalling both other Warp acts and the progressive skyscapes of Tangerine Dream. Clever use of samples ensured a clear identity for each part of the record and preventing things becoming too repetitive (it is fair to say that Boards of Canada’s music isn’t particularly varied). It was arguably darker than the debut with Dawn Chorus in particular creating a sense of nauseous detachment and alienation with its slowed down synthesizer waves.
2005’s Campfire Headphase saw perhaps their most rounded sound to date with acoustic guitars being added on some tracks to give their strongest melodies to date. Dayvan Cowboy in particular sounded like a proper single and it later featured heavily on a six track EP (their latest release to date) Trans Canada Highway.
Boards of Canada will never sell a lot of records nor will they release a groundbreaking album of classic songs. What they will continue to do however is provide us with soundtracks that inspire, create a yearning for lost childhood, home and feelings of warmth inside and for that we should be grateful for rarely does electronic music create such an emotional pull.