Somewhere, about a 30 minute or so drive south of Glasgow’s city centre, there is a sizeable windfarm. In some ways it is a desolate place – built on the exposed landscape of the Fenwick moors, but on a clear day, if one can brave the wind, it is a beautiful place. It is one of the locations I visualise when I listen to Boards of Canada’s spellbinding EP ‘In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country’, released in 2000.
We all know the story – the Sandison brothers, Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin, emigrated with their family from their native Scotland to Canada for a very short period (1979-1980) when the boys were around 8 or 9 years old. BoC was formed in 1986, named after the National Film Board of Canada, producers of several television documentary films the boys had watched while living in North America. Since then, the band has had several line-ups, the only permanent and remaining members being the two brothers. They are one of the most critically acclaimed artists of the new millennium: their shy and reclusive character and dogged determination to allow their music to speak for itself without any self-promotion, has won them legions of admirers.
The music is characterised by a profound sense of displacement and dislocation. One might imagine this compulsion to document their childhood experiences would make for an indulgent trawl through their collective memories, but instead it fashions an experience which, with an almost Machiavellian plunder of the subconscious, subjugates the listener, who is beholden to probe into his own sense of nostalgia as the music plays. The idea that their music could actually brainwash people is an attractive one to Marcus and Eoin. “I do actually believe that there are powers in music that are almost supernatural. I think you actually manipulate people with music, and that is definitely what we are trying to do.” (Boards of Canada, 2001)
Listening today, there I am, 1975, sat in the lotus position amongst my friends in the school’s social area, observing as the janitor/technician wheels out this huge mass of electronic boxes and mess of cables (which look like discarded props from Tarkovsky’s ‘Solaris’) before, through the miracle of video recording technology, we settle down to watch an educational feature of highly dubious quality. For me, this image is a recurrent one when I listen to Boards of Canada. The analogy is somewhat apt. In the Soviet science-fiction film, the protagonist – Kris Kelvin – is sent to investigate the strange goings on aboard a space station orbiting the (fictional) planet Solaris. What he finds is that the planet’s ocean possesses the capacity to send ‘visitors’, apparitions or ‘islands of memory’ from the past, compelling the recipient to examine his own conscience, ultimately leading to psychological devastation. Let’s call it The Boards of Canada Effect’.
So what is the process they use? Well, on the surface the music of Boards of Canada is a kind of intense and brooding electronic introspection. With its utilisation of analogue synths and blending of distorted samples and sounds siphoned from vintage tape machines, it seems at times almost joyless: there is little that sounds rapturous or euphoric. But what lends it weight, is the tremendous patience and restraint in the composition – there is no premature reaching for ecstatic highs. Rather, there is an almost nerveless concentration on the development of each sound, where the most minor change of key or chord is liable to disorientate the senses. The listener is thus rewarded with a far more enduring experience, one which stands up to and bears repeated listens.
From the diaprojektor driven beats of the opener ‘Kid For Today’ to the indescribably beautiful closer ‘Zoetrope’ this is a faultless collection. On the latter, a patient minimalist keyboard begins its teetering search for a hook, which (thankfully) never arrives, the track almost dissolving within its own beauty before fading out. It sounds like the breathless farewell speech of an antique musical instrument which gave joy to many, but whose life is now gracefully ebbing away.
In between we have two tracks which remind us that while the boys rural sensibilities are a vital ingredient in the mix, so also is their discomforting capacity for blending their ‘electro-agrarianism’ (as Pitchfork labelled it) with sounds and themes suggesting something more foreboding. ‘Amo Bishop Roden’, the widow of David Koresh, of Branch Davidian / Waco infamy, lends her name to the title of one of the four tracks; this one features a repetitive almost static drone punctuated by beats which change tempo at regular intervals, while a plaintive keyboard surreptitiously fades in and out of the mix.
The title track features a recurrent BoC motif – the laughter of children, particularly disconcerting in the context of the song’s theme, but its unobtrusive beat is enlivened and beatified by one of the most hypnotic and unsettling keyboard parts you could wish to hear. The seductive but sinister atmosphere is accentuated by a vocoder-processed voice, slowed down, which repeats with chilling effect: ‘Come out and live in a religious community in a beautiful place out in the country’. I believe the voice belongs to Amo Bishop Roden. While eerily disturbing, it is a truly stunning piece of music.
‘In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country’ deserves to take its place in the all-time pantheon of greatest ever EPs, alongside ‘Chronic Town’ ‘Slates’ and ‘Datapanik in The Year Zero’. These may be musically tenuous reference points, but some even unlikelier comparisons could be made. In their approach to recording – where every note is sweated over until distilled to perfection, and each sound subjected to the utmost scrutiny before its inclusion on a record – BoC employ a similar aesthetic to their fellow compatriots The Blue Nile (at least in Buchanan’s early days). Finally, I was watching the Dexys documentary ‘Nowhere is Home’ on BBC4 last week, and was intrigued by Kevin Rowland declaring he had no interest in forming friendships with fans, but that he was determined to treat them with ‘total respect’ through a commitment to high quality recordings and the delivery of impassioned concert performances. That very admirable ethos mirrors that of BoC, which is based on the following principle:
“We always assume that the listener is the most intelligent person imaginable” (Boards of Canada, 2001)
This is a vision shared by the late great Soviet director, whose austere but visually stunning film-making invited its audience to co-create its own film from each individual’s subjective viewing experience. It may often not be true that the viewer – or listener – is the most intelligent person imaginable, but he can be sure of one thing: the quality of the music of Boards of Canada is guaranteed by such integrity and this unquestionably purist approach to making records. (JJ)