[This is part one of what will be an ongoing series on why you should like everything I like, or you are an asshole.]
When we were 12 or 13, my brother and I found a book called “Big Secrets: The Uncensored Truth About All Sorts of Stuff You Are Never Supposed to Know”, written by William Poundstone. In it were the alleged recipes for Coca Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken, details on the inner-workings of lie detector and Rorschach tests and how to “beat” them, and the secrets behind the illusions (tricks are what a whore does for money) of David Copperfield, Uri Geller, and The Amazing Kreskin. This was before the Internet was ubiquitous, so this esoteric information wasn’t readily available to pre-teens with an abundance of curiosity.
The last chapter, my favorite, included Poundstone’s skeptic view on secret messages in music and films, as well as a section on shortwave radio “numbers stations” used by governments to securely communicate with secret agents in the field. (For more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numbers_station)
The section on secret messages included examples from music I had either liked or heard prior to reading it. There was The Beatles’ “Revolution 9”, in which the words “number nine” supposedly reversed to “Turn me on, dead man”, or Strawberry Fields Forever, where John Lennon was purported to quietly say “I buried Paul” in the fade-out at the end of the track. (See the “Paul is Dead” hoax: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_is_dead) Also included was Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust”, where the title lyrics were alleged to reverse to “It’s fun to smoke marijuana.” The book was the catalyst for me to become a Pink Floyd fan, whose “Empty Spaces” includes one of very few actual examples of backwards messages, which is, underwhelmingly: “Congratulations. You have just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to Old Pink, care of the Funny Farm, Chalfont…”
I discovered the book right around the same time that Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network was still on basic cable. They used to run an hour-long show on Sundays at 11PM (conveniently before the midnight airing of “The Young Ones” on MTV) dedicated to exposing the evils of rock and heavy metal, and how these Champions for Satan were encoding hidden, evil instructions in backwards messages on their albums.
Only I wasn’t watching it to protect myself from these aural abominations…I was looking for recommendations.
This show [if you can remember what it was called, please let me know] was directly responsible for introducing me to many of the rock and heavy metal bands I grew to love. The fact that this effect was directly in opposition to the show’s intended purpose still fills me with glee to this day. Maybe I’ll make a t-shirt:
The combination of the book and the CBN show, and their suggestion that things which were controversial or “evil” could be hidden in plain sight was tantalizing and terrifying at the same time. Since then, I’ve always had a keen interest in learning about things that are obscured from the public eye.
Fast-forward a few years to my mid-20’s. I had lived through high school without sacrificing any of my pets to Satan, and also endured some of my friends being swept up in the 90’s “raver scene”. This picture represents the essence of my opinions on electronic music at the time:
…this coming from a guy who once had shoulder-length hair and an affection for tie-dyes. I mean, SERIOUSLY…you know you’ve fucked up some life decisions when even a hippie thinks you look stupid.
Heterosexual dudes I grew up with were taking ecstasy, dancing to techno, and giving each other foot-rubs. Couple that image with the fact that a good deal of electronic music (or any popular music in general, really) is just an annoying amalgamation of other current best-selling popular songs or trends.
The formula seemed to be that an electronic “artist” would steal a vocal sample from that deep-voiced guy who does the voice-overs for all of the movie trailers, add a steady THUMP THUMP THUMP for a drum beat and a couple of repetitive keyboard arpeggios….and voila! Art!
Push a few buttons, write a song, eat some designer drugs, and explore your sexuality.
My knee-jerk reaction to all of it was, “No, thanks.”
I was so opposed to the creeping tide of electronica, I even started boycotting bands I liked when they would add a DJ or samples to their repertoire.
I first heard Boards of Canada on a BBC Radio show called “Blue Jam”, which was a surrealist sketch comedy program with a mostly ambient electronic background soundtrack, conceived by British comedian/satirist Chris Morris.
Morris made a TV adaptation called “Jam” as well, which I’ve said is basically “Monty Python meets Tales From The Darkside.”
The best part of Morris’ shows is that the music adds an unsettling layer to its already disturbing subject matter. I enjoyed it tremendously, and for the first time in my life it became clear that electronic music wasn’t just a repetitive one-trick pony. I realized that in the right hands, those electronics could be used to make music that was compelling and creative. I later found out that the same assumptions and accusations I was making about electronic instruments had been leveled at Bob Dylan upon his conversion from dedicated acoustic folkie (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_Dylan_controversy), or Pink Floyd for their extensive use of keyboards.
The song from the video clip above, “Wildlife Analysis”, is the first on Boards of Canada’s debut LP “Music Has The Right To Children”. All of their albums start with, and include throughout, short vignettes like “Wildlife Analysis” which segue between the songs on the albums. Most of BoC’s albums are more or less “concept albums” with songs that fade into each other without breaks. For the most part, there are few intelligible words or lyrics other than the song titles and the occasional vocal sample.
“Wildlife Analysis” is basically just a flute with something droning in the background. But it made me start thinking, “This is electronic music? Conceptual continuity without lyrics? How is this possible?”
People often use the word “nostalgic” to describe the music of Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin, the brothers who comprise Boards of Canada. Maybe it’s because they’re extremely fond of old analog synthesizers and keyboards, the warm and fuzzy warped-tape effect that pervades much of their early material, or the faded-Polaroid aesthetic in the artwork on the covers of their early albums and EPs.
In any case, their music frequently evokes the specter of distant, fading memory and obsolete synthesizer technology which time has forgotten. I have read reviews of their albums which compare their music to the soundtracks of 70’s and 80’s horror films as well as educational/public television programming. Their name is reported to have been taken from the National Film Board of Canada, in homage to their production of many of the aforementioned educational films.
To paraphrase another reviewer, their music conjures that feeling of being a child when everything around you seems so much bigger, confusing, and terrifying than it actually is.
And that part is just the carrier signal.
The Stanley Kubrick of Music
I’d write something about Stanley Kubrick and his subversive uses of props and sets to convey meaning outside of the plot or dialogue in his films, but that will take too much time, and has been covered extensively elsewhere. If you’re interested, check Rob Ager’s site Collative Learning for a level-headed analysis of Kubrick’s work in that regard.
Boards of Canada embeds concepts in their music in a very similar manner to what Kubrick did with film. Like Kubrick, BoC are notoriously reluctant to accept any celebrity status and rarely allow interviews. They’ve also had only a handful of live appearances in their nearly 30-year career. All of this creates a mysterious, seemingly impenetrable aura which adds to the allure. For me, half of the attraction to Kubrick and BoC has been in trying to decipher the actual meaning behind their work, underneath their surface narratives.
On the surface, Music Has The Right To Children is a relaxing and pleasant (if melancholy) album with warm analog synthesizers and muted drum beats. Then on the last track, “One Very Important Thought“, is this sample:
“Now that the show is over, and we have jointly exercised our constitutional rights, we would like to leave you with one very important thought: Some time in the future, you may have the opportunity to serve as a juror in a censorship case or a so-called obscenity case. It would be wise to remember that the same people who would stop you from listening to Boards of Canada may be back next year to complain about a book, or even a TV program. If you can be told what you can see or read, then it follows that you can be told what to say or think. Defend your constitutionally protected rights – no one else will do it for you. Thank you.”
So I’d just relaxed while listening to this beautiful album and heard those words. I wondered, “What the fuck did I just listen to?” A little research reveals that those words (with the exception of “viewing an adult film” changed to “listening to Boards of Canada”) were originally included at the end of a 1982 porno film called “A Brief Affair”. It was supposed to exhort the empty-balled filmgoers to stand up to the Moral Majority, which was just starting to gain steam in Ronald Reagan’s 1980s.
In one of their infrequent interviews, BoC referred to the underlying messages on Music Has The Right To Children this way:
“Our titles are always cryptic references which the listener might understand or might not. Some of them are personal, so the listener is unlikely to know what it refers to. Music Has the Right to Children is a statement of our intention to affect the audience using sound. The Color Of The Fire was a reference to a friend’s psychedelic experience. Kaini Industries is a company that was set up in Canada (by coincidence in the month Mike was born), to create employment for a settlement of Cree Indians. Olson is the surname of a family we know, and Smokes Quantity is the nickname of a friend of ours.”
These were just hints at the strangeness and OCD-level attention to detail to come.
Boards of Canada’s second LP, Geogaddi, is one of my favorite albums of any genre, and is probably a good starting point for anyone who hasn’t heard them before. It is also quite possibly the work of the Devil.
Well, maybe not, but the Sandison brothers certainly put a lot of what I assume is tongue-in-cheek effort into making it seem like it was. It contains references to mathematics, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, the occult, and the Bible. At the time of its release in 2002, they had already played their last live show, and their label Warp Records introduced the album with a six listening parties in churches around the globe…maybe as a humorous jab at its dark subject matter. Mike Sandison described Geogaddi as having, “a vague theme of math and geometry and how they relate to religious iconography.”
In contrast to Music Has The Right To Children, the music on Geogaddi sounds more ominous, including more prevalent drum beats throughout, a warped child’s voice reciting numbers (much like the voices on shortwave numbers stations) on “Gyroscope“, and a heavily distorted sample of what is likely a self-hypnosis tape on “The Devil Is In The Details“. “1969” contains a vocoded sample of someone talking about former Branch Davidian Amo Bishop Roden (whose name is also the title of a song on the 2001 pre-Geogaddi EP “In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country”) stating, “Although not a follower of hseroK divaD, (David Koresh, reversed) she’s a devoted Branch Davidian”. There is also a contender for the best sequenced drum beat in the history of music which I can only describe as sounding like “Satan unzipping his fly, lighting a match, and letting his dick flop out” on “You Could Feel The Sky“.
Including the overtly titled “Music Is Math“, Geogaddi is filled with sinister mathematical references and puzzles. The total running time of the album, including the last track (1:46 of silence called “Magic Window”), is 66 minutes and 6 seconds. Ripping the disc to WAV files on a computer yields 666 megabytes of data. The bassline and melody of “The Devil Is In The Details” are an octave and a major sixth apart and repeat the first note three times, making three sixths in a row…i.e. 6-6-6. Then there’s “A Is To B As B Is To C”, whose name is a reference to the golden ratio, and is chock full of backwards messages and potent nightmare fuel.
Despite the high weirdness on Geogaddi, Boards of Canada have repeatedly dismissed speculation that they are promoting the occult:
“[w]e’re interested in all kinds of subjects, and I suppose we went through a patch of looking at cults and the mass mind control of religion and so on. We read a lot and pay attention to cultural events, but we view everything from a distance. We’re up here in our observation point, gathering up data about all the weird shit that’s happening in the world and spewing it out in some way in our music and visuals. The Davidians thing was about the shock of seeing the way the U.S. authorities handled it all.”
“[w]e’re not Satanists, or Christians, or pagans. We’re not religious at all. We just put symbols into our music sometimes, depending on what we’re interested in at the time. We do care about people and the state of the world, and if we’re spiritual at all it’s purely in the sense of caring about art and inspiring people with ideas.”
Between 2002 and 2013, Boards of Canada slowed their output somewhat, releasing a full length album, an EP, and a handful of remixes for other artists (including a surprising remix of “Broken Drum” from Beck’s 2005 album Guero).
2005’s The Campfire Headphase was a considerable departure from their previous work and “does exactly what it says on the tin” as far as being an ideal album for a midsummer campfire. Marcus has stated that they deliberately used minimally-processed guitar and drum sounds and, “set out to make something simple that had shades of a road movie soundtrack, like the musical score to a surreal journey across a late 70’s North American desert highway, like a futuristic western or something…but [always with] something subtle and surreal going on in the tracks to remind you that you’re hearing something that has been tainted or spiked in some way by unfathomable futuristic technology. It’s maybe like campfire music played by android cowboys.”
The Trans Canada Highway EP was released in 2006, and is kind of a hybrid between the more band/instrument-oriented The Campfire Headphase and their earlier, more electronic-focused work.
According to interviews, BoC apparently spent time traveling, raising their children, and rebuilding their studio in the seven years between the release of Trans Canada Highway and 2013.
Record Store Day is a yearly promotion on April 20th, during which musicians release special albums to be sold at independent record stores around the world. During the 2013 iteration, Boards of Canada released a very limited 12-inch single in a brown sleeve with only the band’s name and a cryptic title: “—— / —— / —— / XXXXXX / —— / ——“. The first copy was found at Other Music in New York City and contained this:
One side of the album featured the six-note jingle, followed by a distorted reading of six digits (another numbers station reference). The other side was blank. This was the first verifiable output of a band that had been dormant for seven years. Needless to say, it caused a lot of excitement among BoC fans and vinyl aficionados alike. This single was later sold on eBay to someone with more money than common sense for $5700.
Over the next nine days, new clues were released via YouTube, NPR and BBC Radio, Soundcloud, and on Twoism.org, a BoC fan site. There was also as a short film broadcast in a storefront across the street from Rough Trade Records in London and during a commercial break on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim (who have used BoC’s music for their own advertisements in the past).
BoC fans organized and began scouring the internet for clues. Their cooperation eventually led to assembling a 36-digit number to be inputted on a website, cosecha-transmisiones.com. This, in turn, revealed a video announcing the June 10th, 2013 release of their new album, Tomorrow’s Harvest.
I am greatly oversimplifying the promotion/game in the interest of brevity, but if you’d like to read all of the details, they are available on bocpages.org (which is also the go-to reference site for detailed information on any of BoC’s releases and their hidden samples).
This promotion marked the first time since BoC’s last live shows that the band was seemingly interacting directly with fans. Instead of buying generic advertisements saying “Hey, new Boards of Canada album out on June 10th”, they used a handful of mystery vinyl, two short radio broadcasts, some YouTube videos, and a short commercial to cause their fans (and, by extension, major music news sites and magazines) to generate all of the publicity they needed. In fact, the first mention of the album’s name or release date was in an internet video gleaned from the 36-digit code.
I’m no fan of advertising in general, but I am in awe of whomever was responsible for concocting the marketing strategy for Tomorrow’s Harvest. It engaged a fan base who are prone to looking for hidden clues and had been anxiously anticipating new material from a band who had been silent for years. It was simple, elegant, and incredibly effective.
Tomorrow’s Harvest sounds like the natural progression of Boards of Canada’s style without recycling their older material. It’s so different from their previous releases that much of it might have been deemed fake by their fans if it were just a collection of tracks downloaded from the Internet.
The concept of this album is more straightforward than the others. After decades (centuries?) of humanity raping each other and the planet we live on, we are about to harvest the ugliness we’ve sown. Mike described the album as, “not post-apocalyptic so much as it is about an inevitable stage that lies in front of us.” Marcus said, “I hope that it works to make the listener pause and consider where we are right now, where we’re going… I guess it’s essentially a political album, but we shouldn’t spell it all out, it’s important that the listener finds their own thing in there.”
Many of the song titles obviously refer to that “inevitable stage”, such as “Cold Earth“, “Sick Times“, “Come To Dust“, and “Semena Mertvykh” (“Seeds of the Dead” in Russian). In one of the very few interviews published after the album’s release, Mike said, “There’s actually more use of subliminals on this record than on any previous album we’ve done, so we’re interested to see what people will pick up on,” which leads one to think that much of the buried treasure on Tomorrow’s Harvest has yet to be discovered.
Some of the hidden references found so far are the title of “Palace Posy” (an anagram of apocalypse), vocal samples in “Sick Times” saying “you’ll believe anything” and “chemtrails”, and the deeply-buried, distorted audio at the end of “Split Your Infinities” which was lifted directly from a debunked conspiracy-theorist video about an alleged FEMA Concentration Camp.
I don’t necessarily think that Mike and Marcus are hiding under their covers in the Scottish countryside wearing tin-foil hats to keep the aliens who REALLY RUN EVERYTHING from reading their thoughts. I think the references on Tomorrow’s Harvest allude to the always-connected and increasingly superficial culture we live in, and its propensity to amplify the people espousing these types of theories…to the detriment of efforts to solve the actual problems we face as a planet.
So, what kind of music IS Boards of Canada, anyway? Mike says, “We’re just a band. Not an IDM [‘intelligent’ dance music] band, not an electronic band, and not a dance band.”
I agree that the term IDM is destined for relegation to dimly lit basements inhabited by rabid progressive rock fans and players of games which require hundred-sided dice. It reeks of pretension and should be abolished. But then, how do you categorize it? I think the point is that you shouldn’t.
The reason I enjoy BoC’s music is the same as why I like any of my other favorite artists. They defy categorization, and their music is like nothing else I’ve ever heard. They also impress me with their Kubrick-like ability to bury narrative in their music while using very few words.
Yes, they rely heavily on electronics and ancient synthesizers, but they’re not strictly an electronic band. I’ve never been a dancer, but I doubt you’d hear any of their songs blasting at full volume in a dance club or at a rave either.
The point is, they consistently push the boundaries of what is possible with music. That’s what I appreciate above all else.
You should too, or you’re an asshole.