The golden era of electronic music discovery I mention in regard to B12 was well underway when I stumbled upon Boards of Canada (BoC). They anchored the end of that period for me, but it was already clear early on that they were influencing a new generation of followers and copycats. Their distinct brand however has never been quite replicated, despite many attempts.
Everything about the Scottish duo of Marcus Eoin and Mike Sandison seemed mysterious. They operated much like software manufacturers. A major release (LP) would be followed by plenty of erratic updates (EPs) on a schedule that would take years to play out for fans.
The long amounts of time between LPs would be eased with interesting EPs that suggested possible new directions (or not). The anticipation that came with a new BoC release came with the reassurance of a unique stylistic distinction. That being that they were one of the few electronic bands who managed to recall a sense of nostalgia in their music while being futuristic at the same time. Like looking at the future through an old 25 inch RCA tube television.
For BOC, that mixed metaphor came in the form of fussy samples of broadcasts and found sounds. However warm and familiar it may have sounded on the surface, there was always a dark side lurking. For the most part this dark side could be heard as out of phase loops or sounds played back as if they were coming from the last gasps of a cheesy old SoundDesign cassette player.
By the time they had released their third album, they were already stars thanks to the breakout Music Has the Right to Children (1998) and the follow up LP Geogaddi (2002). They had established a strict formula for music making and would tinker with the elements, while adhering to a system of layered notes with odd found media samples. The EP between the albums may not have always suggested the change of direction of the LPs, but that was part of what made them so exciting and rewarding to listen to.
For The Campfire Headphase, BOC would stick to the formula, but add occasional guitars. The string instruments were of course filtered and processed heavily (sometimes to the point beyond recognition), but the addition of guitars made some parts of The Campfire Headphase sound like a Beck album. In fact it was easy to imagine some tracks like “Chromakey Dreamcoat” as Beck instrumental – especially the ones that featured the occasional guitar embellishment.
When the guitar was not present (as on most of the album), BoC resorted to the tried and true method of carrying melodies with keyboard rifts. Tracks that do this like “84 Pontiac Dream” and the excellent “Slow This Bird Down” are in my opinion the strongest tracks here. In many ways they connected to the great BoC EPs of the past like Twoism and Boc Maxima. Even artists like Solange recognized the potential of The Campfire Headphase by recording a version of “Slow This Bird Down” with BoC in tow.
Depending on what version you are listening to, The Campfire Headphase can have up to 16 tracks. In fact the album took three years to record suggests that BOC evolved in the middle of the recording process. This might explain the stylistic contrast that the guitar brings to the overall production – with half of it sans strings, this could be two albums put together. With such a long gestation period, it was impossible to tell that this was a transitional album – as it was.
Despite the dual nature of the recording, it’s quite a technical accomplishment thanks to meticulous production values that made earlier internet traded recordings sound downright crude. Technical stuff aside, The Campfire Headphase still offers plenty of what people love about BoC with just enough experimentation to keep fans guessing.