Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
The cover of 1998's Music Has The Right To Children

20 years ago, Boards Of Canada made electronic music personal

The cover of 1998's Music Has The Right To Children
Photo: Boards Of Canada/Warp Records

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Boards Of Canada inspires a level of obsession that is all but unmatched in music fandom. (That’s true even for electronic music, a genre that tends to attract a lot of gearhead know-it-alls, where your inability to distinguish a CS1x from an AN1x means you should probably fuck off and stick to Pearl Jam.) You can attribute this religious fervor for the Scottish duo to the mystery it cultivates: It took nearly seven years before Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin even copped to being brothers, for example, while until very recently, they shunned interviews outside of the occasional email exchange. By all accounts, they’ve performed live a mere 10 times in their two-decade history, the bulk of these shows occurring before their debut album was even released. Meanwhile, their songs and album art are filled with cryptic symbolism—subliminal references to numerology, obscure scientific phenomena, religious cults, and the like. Perhaps not coincidentally, Boards Of Canada’s rise coincided with the flourishing of the internet, where you can spend hours deciphering those clues on fan forums that resemble the red-string-laced evidence boards in serial-killer movies. Like Lost or Cicada 3301, Boards Of Canada fandom can send you down an ever-spiraling rabbit hole of puzzle-solving and supplemental reading, if you want to.

Sandison and Eoin began making their myth early. They created the first Boards Of Canada songs largely for themselves, recording them as just another expression of their Hexagon Sun multimedia art collective, which the two have described in vague terms as a sort of never-ending campfire party in the Scottish highlands—like a hippie commune staffed by graphic designers. Its first, self-released cassettes, Twoism and Boc Maxima, were distributed in extremely limited runs to select pals, family, and people they admired. One of them was Autechre’s Sean Booth, who helped Boards Of Canada get its first official release, Hi Scores, on the independent label Skam. By the time Boards Of Canada (along with a handful of those early tracks) made its way to the venerable Warp Records for 1998’s Music Has The Right To Children, the group already had a fully formed mystique.

In the absence of any concrete information, Sandison and Eoin were often painted as a sort of secretive, forest-dwelling cabal, possibly recording inside an abandoned nuclear bunker, almost assuredly trying to brainwash its listeners into some sort of techno-paganist sect. In their first-ever published interview, Sandison and Eoin deflect nearly all talk of how they make their music—a rarity for the process-focused electronic genre—insisting they were “more interested in the psychological capabilities of sounds and images than their aesthetics,” as well as in creating “triggers, embedding, and subliminals.” They’d talk this way throughout their career—less about what their music actually sounds like than what they wanted it to do to you.

“We’re not trying to accurately pastiche the past; it’s about inventing a past that didn’t really happen,” Sandison told Clash in 2005. That same year, Sandison elaborated on that approach to The Wire: “When I was a kid, about 5 or 6 years old, a relative of mine had one of those tacky ceramic owls on their mantelpiece, and it had multifaceted, diamante eyes. I was totally obsessed with those sparkly glass eyes, for ages. I felt like looking into them was like looking sideways though everything, right through time. That’s what we’re trying to do with our music.”

Abstract as it may seem, it’s actually a perfect summation of Boards Of Canada’s prevailing mood: childhood daydreaming mixed with ’70s kitsch; a wistful nostalgia refracted and distorted; an artificial recreation of a (probably false) memory. Music Has The Right To Children sums this up with its cover art—a sun-bleached vacation photo of a family whose faces have all been blurred out, eroded by time or your own failing mental faculties. As Sandison explained, “If there’s sadness in the way we use memory, it’s because the time you’re focusing on has gone forever… It’s a theme we play on a lot, that bittersweet thing where you face up to the fact that certain chapters of your life are just Polaroids now.”

Nostalgia is right there in the group’s name, too, an homage to the National Film Board Of Canada documentaries that Sandison and Eoin watched as kids. Their music is explicitly intended to evoke the soundtracks of those warbling filmstrips you watched on your science teacher’s hangover day, or the retro-futuristic, synth-brass blasts that underscored ’80s production logos and myriad sci-fi curios now lost to VHS. There is also something crucial there in the way it’s off and slightly ghostly and degraded, like a Super 8 home movie that’s been digitally transferred. It’s long been a subject of debate as to whether Boards Of Canada pioneered, or even strictly belongs to, that Derrida-derived category of music known as “hauntology,” where electronic artists like The Caretaker, Burial, and William Basinski use vintage synths, crackling found sounds, and a patina of decay to recreate the past’s idea of a future that never happened. But Boards Of Canada definitely shares those artists’ obsessions with tones that seem to be distorting and crumbling while you listen to them, mourning themselves in real time.

On Music Has The Right To Children, that obsession with the dashed dreams of our shag-carpet, Betamax past is evident in an even more literal way: The sounds of kids are all over this thing, talking and laughing, their voices preserved in amber through dialogue snippets lifted from vintage kids’ shows. This wasn’t exactly innovative. Warp labelmate Aphex Twin had already wed naïve, childhood whimsy to computers on the fritz, and Boards Of Canada’s approach owes plenty to Richard D. James’ blend of the digital and the romantically pastoral—just as it had built on the rest of the “home listening” pantheon of electronic artists that preceded it, like Autechre, The Orb, and Brian Eno. But Music felt like the most direct statement yet on electronic music’s capacity for provoking deep introspection, magnified here into an attempt at actual hypnotic suggestion.

It’s why Music remains so timelessly effective 20 years after its release, even as some of its trappings—the DJ-scratching effect of “An Eagle In Your Mind,” the stuttering cut-up voices of “Telephasic Workshop,” the boom-bap trip-hop beats everywhere—now inevitably feel dated. (In a way, it’s now doubly nostalgic, gazing back at the late ’70s and early ’80s as reimagined by the ’90s.) Had Music been nothing but downtempo grooves, warmly detuned analog synth drones, and hazy mists of reverb, there would be little to distinguish it from any of the many others who have since dabbled in that smeary, watercolored palette, before or since. But as a later BOC track would reiterate, “The Devil Is In the Details”: Every sound and texture on the album is specifically attuned to stirring up the childlike wonder you felt back when you were first learning about volcanoes and the solar system, then subtly tracking its slow attrition under the weight of years.

And, you know, maybe it’s cheating to throw in a bunch of old Sesame Street samples to remind listeners of a time when they were young and safely swaddled in television’s warming glow. There’s something so instantly transportive about a child’s voice sounding out “I love you” over “The Color Of The Fire”—or exclaiming “Hey!” over the fat, stomping synth line of “Roygbiv,” or giggling at the goofy declarations of “Orange!” in “Aquarius”—that they might as well be recordings of your mom calling you to dinner. Still, it’s never so one-dimensional: “The Color Of The Fire,” reportedly inspired by a friend’s psychedelic trip, stretches and echoes its “I love you” until the words sound alien and slightly mocking. “Aquarius” bleeds all those “Orange!” chuckles into a synthetic woman’s voice as she rattles off a series of numbers—first sequentially, from one to 36, then breaking down into random digits before repeating “23,” for an effect that’s similarly disconcerting and seemingly fraught with meaning. As the fansite BOCPages details, after all, “23” is a key number in the The Illuminatus! Trilogy that Sandison and Eoin have referenced as an influence. Furthermore:

“In all versions of the Aquarius single, the counting sequence begins in order with 1 to 36, then the count goes to random numbers. The sum of each number from 1 to 36 is 666.When the number 23 is split into the numbers 2 and 3, the product of those two equals 6. When 6 is squared, you get 36.

The color Orange has a value of 1.5 in RGB standards. 1.0 Red, 0.5 Green and 0.0 Blue. Orange is repeated 8 times in the sequence giving a total value of 12 to the sum. This gives a total of 66 numbers, the sum of which is 1993 - The year David Koresh died.”

(See? I told you they were obsessive.)

All those fixations—sneaky equations, allusions to the antichrist, David Koresh—would become even more pronounced on the 2000 EP In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country and, in what is probably Boards Of Canada’s best work, the 2002 album Geogaddi. (Well… It’s my favorite, anyway.) On Music Has The Right To Children, they’re deployed a little more innocently; there are only hints of the sinister intent, however tongue-in-cheek, of those later records. Mostly it’s compressed into subtle textures, like that shrieking choir of the damned (rumored to be sampled from 2001, or maybe Jesus Christ Superstar) in the background of ambling closer “Happy Cycling.”

Boards Of Canada’s debut also adheres much more faithfully to the band’s initial conceit: “An Eagle In Your Mind,”“Triangles & Rhombuses,” and “Open The Light” all sound like explicit attempts to recreate the themes of those old nature and science specials. Pitched-down dialogue from the Hugh Miles-narrated “On The Tracks Of The Wild Otter” eventually overtakes “An Eagle In Your Mind,” the story of a mother otter hiding her cubs from predators (and another alien, robotic “I love you”) lending a subtext of creeping unease to its beatboxed rhythms. The title of “Pete Standing Alone” actually takes its name directly from the subject of seven different National Film Boards documentaries, a displaced Albertan First Nations member whose struggles to maintain his tribe are also alluded to in the interlude “Kaini Industries.” The recording bleeds an ominous synth burble into the faded, distant sounds of a Native American ceremony—a nod to civilization’s own fading collective memory.

But again, there’s nothing superficial about any of this. There are obvious, diaristic layers to explore in the gently strolling “Turquoise Hexagon Sun,” which draws its background party chatter from those aforementioned studio parties in the woods. But there’s also the stretch beginning at 1:45, where the beat drops out and a tape hiss resembling someone’s staggered breathing comes to the fore, capturing that moment in any good drug trip where you suddenly become intensely aware of your own existence, a being both entwined and separate from the rest of the world. A similar thing happens with “Rue The Whirl,” where the repetitious figure of cascading woodwinds mirrors a bit of whirring machinery that becomes accidentally musical, and suddenly you can’t hear it any other way; meanwhile, there is the near-subliminal birdsong the brothers accidentally captured while recording with the windows open. Both, again, suggest a world that is constantly moving outside of you, while simultaneously urging you to drill down on the minutiae of these moments passing you by.

If that all seems syrupy and New Age-y, it’s far from it. However pretentious I’ve just made it sound, Music Has The Right To Children is primarily a stone groove; I defy you to listen to the classic hip-hop bumps and spliced Earth, Wind & Fire samples of “Sixtyten” and not nod your a head a little. It’s also got a good sense of humor: The spoken-word coda “One Very Important Thought” draws its very serious dialogue about protecting free expression from the closing credits of an ’80s porn, for god’s sake. And of course, you can also just enjoy all of this as mood music without worrying about the homework. It’s pretty without being twee or banal, and—the eerie, discordant tones of “Smokes Quantity” aside—it never sacrifices being enjoyable for the sake of forcing avant-garde posturing. All those thematic tensions between your sunny yesterdays and the lengthening shadows coming to claim them are simply felt, never thrust in your face.

It’s this uniquely emotional response it provokes that makes Music Has The Right To Children one of the most important electronic albums ever made—and arguably one of the most important albums, period. With its debut, Boards Of Canada took a form of music that was, by its very nature, a degree removed from the human touch and made it feel intensely personal. It invited its listeners to dig deeper—into its sly web of references, into the memories involuntarily provoked by its textures, and into themselves. In the process, it practically created its own subgenre, inspiring a legion of artists who had similar goals of getting inside your head. It’s no wonder its fans are so crazy. I’m one of them.

Sean O'Neal has been writing for The A.V. Club since 2006.

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