Boards Of Canada - The Campfire Headphase
There's always been something of the Stanley Kubricks about Boards of Canada; visionaries, pureness of thought and coolness of execution. The more scurrilous would scratch the surface and draw parallels between the non-prolific, reclusive, publicity-shy natures of both artists, but, like Kubrick, Boards Of Canada's Michael and Marcus Sandison would be rightly unconcerned.
Locked away in the Pentland Hills, near Edinburgh, the Sandison brothers started making their heady, distorted music in the late 80's, purely for family, friends and as a soundtrack to their late-night outdoor bonfire parties in the countryside. However, on securing a record deal with Skam and Warp Records, the impact of the nostalgic, childlike, saturated melodies of debut album, 1998's Music Has The Right To Children was gradual and far-reaching. Rather like a boulder being tossed into a loch, the debut's influence soon spread in ever-increasing circles to touch artists as far reaching as Radiohead, Super Furry Animals and even Madonna, as well dredge up a school of imitators in its spray.
If Music Has The Right To Children was to set high a watermark and prove to be their 2001: A Space Odyssey - all wide-eyed (Star)childlike innocence juxtaposed with disquieting technology - then the latent foreboding and playful malevolence of the follow-up, 2002's Geogaddi, was almost certainly their A Clockwork Orange. Nothing more than intriguing on its first listen, the densely layered Geogaddi took time to reveal its colours. Described by the band itself as having "a kind of confusion, as though you're going through a kind of 'Alice in Wonderland' adventure, but with a damaged mind," Geogaddi's concerns included environmental threats, mathematical phenomena and Branch Davidians set against a backdrop of fiery psychedelia. However, their reticence of publicity and celebrity lit the blue touch paper of press rumour-mongering and Chinese whispers to portray the band as occultist overlords scrambling the minds of listeners with their backwards messages and fiendish ploys. No doubt this raised a chuckle in the Scottish countryside. Yet despite these accusations, Boards of Canada continued to be one of the most critically revered contemporary artists without releasing singles, videos, or even going on tour.
Fatherhood and the relocating of their Hexagon Sun studios took up most of the intervening years, but during the summer of 2005 Warp served notice that Boards Of Canada would release their third long player, The Campfire Headphase, in October. Time would tell whether it would reflect the serene, candle-lit beauty of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, the claustrophic mania of The Shining, or the paranoid mind-games of Eyes Wide Shut.
Typically, the opening track, Into The Rainbow Vein is business as usual; as the title suggests, this is the induction to the experience, mainlining the listener gently into the Boards of Canada world via a brief, misty refrain. Chromakey Dreamcoat welcomes new sounds into the Boards of Canada canon - namely guitars. An acoustic riff delicately unspools, conjuring up images of Mississippi riverbanks before familiar yet unobtrusive beats carry the melody through a swirling pastoral haze. Just when the track seems to have outstayed its welcome the plug is literally pulled on the music before a rousing coda of distorted piano and banjo creates an unexpected climax. The theme of nature continues on the lush and evocative Satellite Anthem Icarus. Here, rolling waves and reflective guitars usher in a variety of flora and fauna bubbling all around a rippling sonic creek.
Two album highlights follow thereafter, beginning with the spiritual euphoria of Peacock Tail. Majestically otherworldly, the feeling is one of choral spirits being aroused and drifting across an imaginary desert landscape before descending upon an Egyptian market town. Dayvan Cowboy is The Campfire Headphase’s standout piece. A discordant My Bloody Valentine guitar strafes away before the sandstorm dies down to unveil a spaghetti western twang through the heat-haze. A cacophony of clattering cymbals and exhilarating strings - like the Greek Gods at war - creates an awe-inspiring sense of drama, but despite the grandiose brushstrokes it never falls into the realms of self-indulgence.
The haunting lament of Slow This Bird Down is a delicate confession that Boards of Canada are anything but sonic technicians. This part alien distress call, part elegiac swansong reveals a greater emotional depth and human resonance than anything the band have previously produced.
Echoes of Boards of Canada’s old sound filter throughout the album. '84 Pontiac Dream - a glistening evening excursion; neon hues soaking into the sidewalk buzz – is reminiscent of their early Twoism EP. Like a modern update of Jan Hammer's Crockett's Theme, if you listen closely the sound you can hear is of the pack of marketing executives fighting for licensing rights for their latest banking ad campaign. The Boards of Canada trademark of fleeting and tantalising melodic vignettes remains; Sherbert Head is a momentary, crumpled underfoot walk through a blizzard fanfare, whilst the off-kilter guitar and keyboard harmony of Constants Are Changing teases us with its beautiful brevity.
Typical of the enigma that is Boards Of Canada, in The Campfire Headphase they have created something of a paradox: immediately satisfying yet leaving you desperately craving more. Always exquisitely compelling, the album distils the essence of their influences - the warped melodies of My Bloody Valentine, the transcendental dreamy spirit of Cocteau Twins and the sensory dementia of the Incredible String Band - maintaining their charm without ever descending into mimicry. The overall effect is of a band setting out to explore pastures new; some of the Boards of Canada signatures remain, but rather than abandoning their audience they're steadily taking us with them. Certainly this seems to be the aim of the band who recently stated, "Our drive with this record is to try and get us out of the dance section (in music stores) and into the main section with all the others bands." Like Stanley Kubrick, Boards of Canada seem to want their music to succeed and reach the widest possible audience, but purely on their terms and without compromise.
In AI: Artificial Intelligence – Kubrick’s final legacy – a futuristic society creates an artificial child, David, who is designed to experience genuine emotion and memories. Like David, The Campfire Headphase is meticulous and machine-based, yet rather than exuding a cold sterility, it overflows with a disorientating charm, radiating a hypnotic, organic warmth throughout. Looks like the real thing. Sounds like the real thing. This is no fake plastic love.