As should be known by now, Boards Of Canada fans are a bunch not to be messed with. Though I must have missed the exact moment of canonisation, most will still remember the impressive backlash the people over at FACT had to face, after daring to make the duo's overlong absence the subject of their 2013 April fool's joke – and, rather ironically, only a few weeks before the Scottish duo used Record Store Day to sneakily unleash a marketing campaign that became one of the more memorable music-related occurrences of last year.
The ensuing LP, Tomorrow's Harvest, Boards Of Canada's first full-length since 2005's agreeable if somewhat under-whelming The Campfire Headphase, arguably revived some of the signifying features of the duo's early output and was widely met with acclaim, yet somehow fell short of replicating the impact of their debut Music Has the Right to Children and its successor, Geogaddi.
But what was that original appeal of Boards Of Canada, the appeal that's left such an impression on listeners and critics more than a decade later? The answer probably lies not so much in their musical innovations, though there sure were plenty when their first album hit the stores in 1998. I'd argue that it was at least just as much about timing, and the release date of Geogaddi in particular.
Most would likely consider Music Has the Right to Children the more significant and seminal album, indeed a "defining moment in British music" history, in the words of The Independent's Sarah Birke. When the duo's sophomore album came out 4 years later, not only Pitchfork's Mark Richardson was quick to note that "it seems a safe speculation that the concept of 'reinvention' is not part of the Boards Of Canada M.O."
But then again, should North American writers have a say in this anyway? As one of the preeminent figureheads of the Warp roster, the project's oeuvre seems so inherently British that writing about it for a UK publication even from a continental perspective feels almost like a sacrilege. Perhaps ironically so, considering that the part of Great Britain where Boards Of Canada's Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison were born in 1970 and 1971, and where they reside up to today, might finally cease being part of the United Kingdom come September.
In 1998 though, this question didn't seem to matter as much. At least from the outside, the idea of Cool Britannia was thriving. Electronic music coming from the island was more relevant than ever, even if the end of the decade showed some signs of creative exhaustion. Trip hop had passed its peak and, in its aftermath, all sorts of derivative styles had started to spread, most notoriously the various strands of "chill out" music, et al.
Frankly, everyone suddenly listening to the latest Café Del Mar compilation was not a very pretty picture. While it should be noted that Warp had its share in the development with releases such as Nightmares On Wax's Smokers Delight in 1995, the signing of Boards Of Canada was a testament to the Sheffield label's undaunted willingness to explore new possibilities, and the enthusiastic reception of Music Has the Right to Children certainly proved them right.
This breath of fresh air, to be sure, was already waning again when the much-anticipated follow-up Geogaddi came out in February 2002. Always suspicious of creative repetition, for some critics the fact that the duo had not completely overhauled their approach to production – the warm analogue synths, tape manipulation, the employment of arcane samples and an overall mysterious edge –meant that Boards Of Canada's momentum was already fading. Yet even those who expressed disappointment could not help but observe a significant change in tone: darker, more sombre and twisted than 4 years before. There was something subtly unsettling about Geogaddi and it seemed all too fitting.
It might perhaps sound unduly dramatic in hindsight, but 5 months after 9/11 and for someone who had just started university, for a while things really seemed to be shifting. It wasn't yet possible to pinpoint in which direction we all were heading. Despite all predictions to the contrary, the year 2000 had not brought along the Apocalypse, but only two years later, the future seemed more uncertain than ever. All of a sudden, there was a climate of post-millennial tension.
It is against this backdrop that the music of Boards Of Canada started making sense to me. For a teenager in 1998, the concept of escapist nostalgia by means of electronic music - the evocation of an imagined, more innocent past - hadn't been all that convincing. Within the fraught post-9/11 political climate in early 2002 however, Geogaddi presented itself as an afterthought to the pseudo-Utopia that had lasted for a decade after the end of the Cold War, and whose delusions now slowly became obvious. If anything, the terrorist attacks had thoroughly ridiculed Francis Fukuyama's hypothesis of the "end of history".
Quite the contrary, in fact. History had continued unapologetically. The ghosts of the Cold War past had returned to haunt the supposed victors (rather literally, if you think about it). If the nineties had suggested a glimpse at the ultimate triumph of Enlightenment, 9/11 had confirmed the famous assertion of Horkheimer and Adorno that "the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity".
Of course, it would probably be a stretch to call Geogaddi a political album, even if in retrospect tracks like 'Energy Warning' reveal an uncanny tendency to foreshadow events that would follow. But more than that, as hauntologists avant la lettre, Boards Of Canada captured the societal anxieties of the moment. In every respect, the oft-cited opening line of 'Music Is Math' turned out to be correct. The past indeed was inside the present. Burial's music, which would surface soon after, might (or might not) have mourned the death of rave. Geogaddi recognised the loss of something bigger: the idea of a utopian innocence as a possibility.
Boards Of Canada's aesthetic approach to express that feeling of loss has been known since Romanticism. Sounds of nature, warm synths, samples of educational broadcasts from childhood: techniques to re-mystify the world around us. But such a world of mystery doesn't merely comprise images of simpler times, and a more perfect world. Turning away from reason entails acknowledging evil, and it is here where the subtle shift from Music Has the Right to Children to Geogaddi is most significant.
Shortly after 9/11, German author and filmmaker Alexander Kluge, whose work is heavily influenced by Frankfurt School critical theory, suggested that humanity can only ever exist within the Devil's blind spot. Where Boards Of Canada's debut seemed to embrace that exact spot of fulfilled innocence, Geogaddi could not help but face the present's "triumphant calamity" in its attempt to re-mystify the world, which might be the reason why the Devil plays such a prominent role on the album (ironically or not), as observed by Adam Harper in his outstanding essay on Hauntology.
Apart from a track named 'The Devil Is in the Details', and the fact that the album is precisely 66 minutes and 6 seconds in length, satanic symbolism is also employed on the tracks 'Alpha and Omega' and 'You Could Feel the Sky' (mainly by means of back-masking). In the weeks and months after 9/11, references to Satan were indeed ubiquitous, from his face in the smoke emanating from the World Trade Center to descriptions of principal actors in the media, from Bush and Blair to Bin Laden, depending on who you asked.
Sure, this all might have been unintentional. However, the timing of Boards Of Canada's recurring invocation of the ultimate evil on an album in the beginning of 2002 was both stunning and disconcerting, and it only reinforced the impact of Geogaddi. More than that, the approach turned Boards Of Canada into prime representatives of a postmodern musical aesthetic that alludes to an imagined age of utopian innocence. Yet, instead of embracing pure escapism, the album served as an unsettling reminder of the present's calamities, and that makes the album as significant today as it was 12 years ago.
You can follow Henning Lahmann on Twitter here: @nfopop
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