Boards of Canada
[Warp Records; 2002]
It's a bit of a stretch, but a while ago I compared Boards of Canada's seminal Music Has the Right to Children with Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. I wasn't saying anything about the similarity or relative quality of the actual music, of course; I was just making an observation about how each album has a remarkably wide appeal that stretches beyond fans of its respective genre, while simultaneously carrying great weight with more experienced and discerning listeners. Because of this dual nature, both records are considered ideal "first purchases" for those curious about the musical world they come from. The comparison fails in other respects, but there's no doubting the consensus of opinion that has formed around these records, shared among both newcomers and schooled aesthetes.
The reputation of Music Has the Right to Children has everything to do with why Geogaddi is one of the most anticipated records of 2002 for indie and electronic music fans of all stripes. It's been four long years since this Scottish duo's landmark debut, and during this time, we've seen an uncountable number of "kind of like Boards of Canada" bands drifting by, with only a toddler's handful of new material released by the Boards themselves-- namely, the In a Beautiful Place out in the Country EP, released in late 2000. As Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison toiled away in secrecy in their Hexagon Sun studio and remote artists' compound, fans speculated about possible new directions: where would they go next?
Geogaddi provides a clear answer: not so far, really. As similar as this album is to the rest of the band's catalog, it seems a safe speculation that the concept of "reinvention" is not part of the Boards of Canada M.O. Their exceptionally distinctive and oft-imitated sound emerged fully formed on the early EPs, and for now, at least, they're sticking with it. While some will complain about Boards of Canada's failure to cover new territory, which puts them apart from the praised eclectic "searchers" of the music scene (Miles made only made one stab at Kind of Blue before moving on, after all), the rest of us will delight in what we see as a very accomplished album packed with great music.
When it comes to discussing records, though, similarities are boring, so let's talk about what makes Geogaddi different. The first thing that comes to mind is the shift in mood. While the band continues to traffic in childhood and nostalgia, the atmosphere on this album is a shade darker than on previous releases, and comparatively tense with a noticeable thread of paranoia. Boards of Canada have always had a disorienting cast to their music, in part because of their proclivity for the quivery modulation of their analog synths. But where the warbles once seemed designed to evoke the sensation of strained memory, the distortions now have a disturbing undercurrent, suggesting that something frightening might lie beneath the surface.
Part of this darker trend comes from a thicker production environment and apparent aversion to unused space. On Geogaddi, Boards of Canada have replaced silence with the drone, and the master tapes are saturated with the sounds of the duo's customized machinery. There's none of the wistful airiness of a track like "Turquoise Hexagon Sun," nor the lighthearted warmth of a Music Has the Right to Children track like "Aquarius." Gone, too, is the gentle pastoralism of In a Beautiful Place out in the Country.
In its place, we find the swirling claustrophobic winds of "Julie and Candy," menacing swells of feedback anchoring the rhythm of "Dawn Chorus," and the lonely, isolated Nuno Cannavaro-isms of "The Devil Is in the Details," whose two sampled voices are a crying baby and a monolog given by a woman who might be drowning. Some of the beats on Geogaddi compliment this new, darker undercurrent and stand out from previous work. The pummeling, mechanized drum loop that drives "Gyroscope" is downright violent, and seems squarely aimed at the distorted child's voice in the background. And on "Alpha and Omega," hints of tabla mix with multi-layered percussion, lending an intriguing live band feel to an otherwise unremarkable track.
So, yes, the Boards have implemented their trademark tools on Geogaddi, but in the service of a slightly gloomier vision. Granted, the familiarity of their sound could prove to become a liability on their future releases, but it's easy to see why Eoin and Sandison have played this record so close to the vest. If you'd perfected a sonic playground like this, you'd probably want to explore it a while longer, too.