Your average Boards of Canada song doesn’t sound like childhood, it feels like childhood. The Scottish duo has been making endlessly unique electronic music for almost 3 decades now, and over the course of a remarkably consistent discography they’ve explored all aspects of early human development. Through inventive sound manipulation and a bottomless font of irresistible keyboard melodies, they’ve captured the wonder, inability to understand, and intense unfiltered emotion of ages 3 to 7.
Music Has the Right to Children (1998)
Incredibly vivid and wonderfully cryptic, the debut album from Boards of Canada is an undisputed masterpiece. It’s a stunning showcase for the group’s gleefully eccentric drum programming and unsettling sample manipulations, and it features the group’s most resilient and timeless melodies. Sesame Street skits, seagull squawks, and all manner of imaginary numbers twist through the album, connecting shorter snatches of melody to hypnotic mantras like “Aquarius” and “Telephasic Workshop” (all of whose drum sounds are reportedly just heavily processed vocal samples).
The immortal “Roygbiv” arrives halfway through to brighten the skies, but otherwise the album is mysterious and, at times, incredibly eerie. “The Color Of The Fire” turns a child’s expression of love into something unworldly, while the clacking drums and sickly synth chords of “Sixtyten” give the “get off of me!” vocal samples a worryingly nervous energy. There are moments of pure beauty (“Open the Light,” “Wildlife Analysis,” “Triangles & Rhombuses”), and there are moments that just plain kick ass (halfway through “An Eagle In Your Mind,” when an errant “I love you!” turns the drum pattern on its head? That’s when you know you’re in for a hell of a ride). Music Has the Right to Children remains a cornerstone of electronic music, and there’s no better introduction to the musical world Boards of Canada have gradually concocted.
Key Songs: “Roygbiv,” “An Eagle In Your Mind,” “Happy Cycling,” “Aquarius,” “Triangles & Rhombuses”
In A Beautiful Place Out in the Country (2000)
The four songs collected on In a Beautiful Place are perhaps the most consistently impressive run of soundcraft Boards of Canada ever released. A conceptual piece based around the Branch Davidian religious sect, the EP is a trove of fascinating melodies and atmosphere that marries a distinctly naturalistic appeal with hints of danger and decay. “Kid for Today” twirls and refracts like a suncatcher in the window, throwing constantly shifting melodies across the room as the wind whistles through the trees. “Amo Bishop Roden” is quieter, built around a droning melody and a quartet of percussive echoes that give the song a distant quality. It’s an enchanting mantra that spurts and flutters like a caged bird as it reaches its dusk-filled conclusion.
The title track is the true standout in an EP of standouts, effectively stretching a religious mantra/advertisement and some laughter into a solitary, haunting nature walk. Even if you don’t read up on the Branch Davidian background story, the song possesses plenty of staying power and visual appeal all on its own. The shimmering “Zoetrope” closes out the relatively slim release, lettings its arpeggios decay slowly and without closure.
Key Songs: “In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country,” “Kid for Today”
Geogaddi is a much more difficult and confrontational listen than Music Has the Right, full of obfuscation and smokescreens that divert attention away from the album’s troubled core. One of the main influences seems to have been numbers station recordings, as whole sequences of indecipherable text march through the songs in a pitch-shifted haze. Field recordings, informational videos, and even snippets of past songs color the repetitive hymns, drawing out themes and ideas that are, even at their loudest,barely ever hinted at. Only a few songs, namely “1969” and “Alpha And Omega,” capture the warm, analog appeal of Music Has the Right (though filtered and refracted through a lens darkly). Others, like “Opening The Mouth” and “The Devil Is In The Details,” feel like a conscious move directly away from those charms. Additionally, that album’s short song sketches have become grotesque riddles, giving the whole experience an overcast mood that feels miles removed from the sun shafts that illuminated earlier works.
There’s the rub, though. Geogaddi may be the least approachable album Boards of Canada have released, but “The Devil Is In The Details” doesn’t lie. It all feels like an immense puzzle waiting to be solved, and hair-raising moments like the boiling “Dawn Chorus” help guide the listener through the darkness. That the album is 66 minutes and 6 seconds long should reveal that there’s a sense of humor at play here, but listeners should go in expecting to devote some time to explore Geogaddi‘s many facets and ideas.
Key Songs: “1969,” “Alpha And Omega,” “Dawn Chorus,” “Gyroscope,” “Dandelion”
The Campfire Headphase (2005)
After Boards of Canada looked straight into the abyss with Geogaddi, they took a major step back from the brink with follow up The Campfire Headphase. A return to the childlike wonderment of Music Has the Right, Headphase breaks stylistically from all of the group’s previous work by situating guitars at the forefront of most of the songs. As such, the title feels earned; these gentle tunes feel like ancient stock footage of woods, canyons, and creeks, full of light leaks and film grain.
The album’s centerpiece “Dayvan Cowboy” has justifiably become a rival to “Roygbiv” in terms of popularity, and the way it builds to a majestic drum-crashing crescendo is unprecedentedly direct (and wonderfully effective). Nothing else comes close to matching that energy, but the low-key charm of tracks like “Satellite Anthem Icarus,” “Tears From the Compound Eye,” and “Hey Saturday Sun” give the album a straightforward charm. Though widely considered a disappointment at release, Headphase is well worth investigating for the ways it expands Music Has the Right‘s worldview. Bonus track “Macquarie Ridge” is absolutely essential.
Key Songs: “Dayvan Cowboy,” “Satellite Anthem Icarus,” “Hey Saturday Sun,” “Macquarie Ridge”
Tomorrow’s Harvest (2013)
After nearly a decade of waiting, fourth album Tomorrow’s Harvest revealed itself to be just as large a stylistic departure as Geogaddi, if not more so. Beginning with a brief bit of production studio fanfare, the album feels like the soundtrack to a post-apocalyptic Earth, years after the bombs finished dropping. Songs feel irradiated and cold, and the sun never seems to move past the horizon. Certainly that lack of warmth takes some getting used to, but songs like “Reach for the Dead” and “Jacquard Causeway” are stunning reinventions of the Boards of Canada sound. The synths retain their character and the drums are still uniquely Boardsian, but the emotions have curdled and the light’s gone out. In the darkness, Tomorrow’s Harvest reveals itself to be perhaps the most beautiful Boards of Canada album yet.
That sentiment is driven home on “Palace Posy,” a mid-album cut that sounds like the last pop song on Earth. Chords go spinning off into the ozone, and the ghosts of an old tune barely remembered drift through the song’s closing moments in a haunting musical eulogy. It’s these echoes that drive the album, inventing an entire fictional past and tasking the listener with trying to remember it. “Nothing is Real,” “Transmisiones Ferox,” and closer “Semena Mertvykh” all sound like the last radio transmissions the Earth will ever know. Not a bad foot to go out on.
Key Songs: “Palace Posy,” “Reach for the Dead,” “Nothing is Real,” “Jacquard Causeway”