Boards Of Canada
The Campfire Headphase
oland Barthes would tell you that myth is a powerful thing, that it perpetuates itself, that it doesn’t need to be created, just allowed room to develop, that it emerges everywhere within the scope of human culture. By avoiding face-to-face interviews, by revealing scant biographical information (and what they did reveal, it transpires, was sometimes false), by making music characterised by enormous semiotic and literal holes which practically beg the listener to inject their own interpretations and construct their own folklore in order to understand it, Boards Of Canada have inadvertently allowed an entire world of myths to build up around them over the last decade or so. And now, it seems, they’re trying to destroy it.
The Campfire Headphase comes wrapped in a sleeve none-more-Boards-Of-Canada, turquoise-tinted mildewed Polaroids of dozens and dozens of people who may no longer exist scattered across the digipak. Song titles (if they are songs—a dictionary will tell you that a song is something to be sung) such as “Chromakey Dreamcoat,” “’84 Pontiac Dream,” and “Tears From The Compound Eye” fit comfortably alongside the titles from their previous albums and EPs. The opening seconds of “Into The Rainbow Vein” confirm that the sound of The Campfire Headphase sits just as flush with their history. But this was bound to be the case—Boards Of Canada nailed their aesthetic long ago, and have no desire to change it.
Some myths debunked, and truths revealed. Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin are actually brothers (Eoin is Marcus’ middle name); they concealed this fact because they didn’t want to be compared to Orbital. Yes, they’ve used numerological theories to structure their music, but no, they’re not practicing members of any cult or occult group, despite a few oblique references placed within their songs. Yes, they are keen on keeping themselves separate from any perceived scenes or trends, but no, they don’t believe their geographical location is key to the creation of their music. The duo have also detailed how they artificially age their music, talked about how they compose, record, and then spend months, if not years, perfecting everything in post-production. It seems, in telling us this, that the Sandison brothers are deliberately seeking to erode the intricate tapestry of theories, rumours and speculations that has surrounded them for years in order to allow their music a degree of contextual freedom. Depending how you feel about the band, this is either necessary or foolhardy.
There are aesthetic changes—the interpolation of (heavily treated) guitars into the duo’s sonic soup has been discussed extensively. Yes, from a distance it makes The Campfire Headphase sound like My Bloody Valentine, but it’s a lazy comparison. Likewise there are less unsettling vocal sample interjections, no playground laughter, no oblique quotes about paganism or distant, childhood declarations of love. It’s a less unsettling album overall, lighter in tone, more directly tuneful and even, on a couple of occasions, positively uplifting without (much of) a sense of bittersweet melancholia underpinning it. But it’s still far from being Simon & Garfunkel; most people, faced with The Campfire Headphase, will find it an uneasy listening experience, even if, after Geogaddi, hardcore BoC fans may not.
Make no mistake though; this record contains some of the most astounding music that Boards Of Canada have ever composed. Four minutes into “Peacock Tail” a tiny, tremulous melody emerges and is as good, as evocative, as heart-tuggingly uncanny as the nearly intangible movement in “Kid For Today” (from the In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country EP), perhaps as anything they’ve produced before at all. There are the bizarre, upwards-spiralling melodic fills of “Ataronchronon,” the infinite fadeout decay of album closer “Farewell Fire,” the huge (by their standards), almost jubilant tunefulness of “Satellite Anthem Icarus.” “Dayvan Cowboy” is an ambient wash of distant, corroded, almost unheard hum for two minutes before open, reverberating guitar chords fall into place and strings lift this typically Boards Of Canada sound and make it soar like they never have done before. A rattle of drums three minutes in is like Dylan going electric or something. It’s their most tangible, solid moment of music since “Roygbiv,” and it might just be my favourite song on the album.
Oddly it strikes me with this album that Boards Of Canada and Sigur Ros are following similar career paths, which no doubt will be blasphemy to some readers, and that after acclaimed and beautiful breakthroughs (Music Has The Right To Children and Agaetis Byrjun) and moodier, aesthetic-deepening follow-ups (Geogaddi and ( ) - you can count Von and Twoism as counterparts too, if you like), their current records see them re-establishing lines of communication, focusing themselves and becoming unafraid of their music. The Campfire Headphase turns previously oblique approaches to building new worlds of sound in more concise directions, makes Boards Of Canada more accessible without making them any less special. They are still isolationist, peculiarly nostalgic, disconcerting and beautiful. They’re still unique. They always will be.