Boards of Canada

By Geoffrey Stueven

Was that a banjo at the end of “Chromakey Dreamcoat”? No matter. If Boards of Canada’s music was designed to shock, then the inclusion of guitars and other such “natural” instruments on their new album The Campfire Headphase (Warp) would be shocking indeed. But it just comes across as another element to help the duo mine the ambient depths of nostalgia, which they’ve now been doing for over a decade. They’ve always used synthetic instruments to achieve a distinctly organic sound; now they’re using organic instruments toward the same end. In a phrase, Boards of Canada are purveyors of low-key headphone dance music. So if the Scottish duo’s first two albums sounded like scores to imaginary Japanese anime films, then The Campfire Headphase plays like the soundtrack to a film by David Gordon Green, the director of sun-drenched odes to the American South.

The stained and blurry snapshots that make up the album packaging and the music contained inside are like the happiest moments of childhood seen through the distorted lens of memory. The duo, Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison, are now in their thirties, and the snippets of children’s voices that floated through their earlier work are wholly absent here. But still the listener can feel the music pulling them toward some essential lost memory of childhood, as if the album is a grand work of fiction.

Though more melodically sparse than past releases, The Campfire Headphase still showcases the group’s unbeatable production skills. The songs are carefully structured and often grow in unexpected ways, while short bits of ambience serve as punctuation between the album’s more epic tracks. The synthesis of guitar and drums on a few tracks can come across as unoriginal, but then the otherworldly keyboard flourishes drift in and a rare beauty is achieved. Highlights include “’84 Pontiac Dream,” one of the few moments that harkens back to their older work, full of alien and distorted synthesizers playing haunting urban melodies. Meanwhile, “Dayvan Cowboy” finds them in an atypically psychedelic and wild mood. After these more bombastic moments, the album settles into an unbroken calmness, capped off with a slow fade-out into oblivion, the appropriately titled “Farewell Fire.”

But I digress. I’m a big fan of the old adage, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” That proves especially true when tackling a band like Boards of Canada. I must concede here that I have no idea how to accurately describe their music, and that the above ramblings will probably make no sense to the uninitiated.

Ultimately, all I can say is that the band evokes a deep nostalgia that is both intensely personal and musically universal. And though The Campfire Headphase may not be the life-changing, sophisticated, machine soul experience of their debut, Music Has the Right to Children (Matador), it does find them subtly changing their signature sound while maintaining certain immutable themes in their music–banjo, or no banjo.