Boards of Canada: ‘In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country’

With In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country, Boards of Canada resist ingestion into an over-intellectualized theoretical edifice.

Boards of Canada
In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country

When I was a wee lad I used to wake at the ungodly hour of 6:30AM on Saturday mornings, much to the chagrin of my still slumbering family. Mum, Da, and sis were forced to endure the ethical trials of Davey and his canine claymate, Goliath, as I anchored myself three feet in front of our family room television. If it wasn’t the stop-motion animation of Davey and his catechismic cadre, there was the bearded rustic, Marty Stouffer, whose woodland adventures with his pet bear, Griz, and other friendly fauna were documented on the PBS staple Wild America.

Today, the boob-toob buddies of my childhood, from the pasty, pursy Baxtor of the Great Space Coaster to Monkee-see Monkee-do buffoons, The Banana Splits, have been replaced by purple dinosaurs, pear-shaped alien infants, and raspberry-colored doggie detectives. Sure, some 20-odd years have passed, and no, you won’t find me surfing through the Nick Jr. nightly line-up, but I must admit that I have not fully outgrown my fey fascination with my little pony paraphernalia or the quest to find the most kick-ass Nintendo cartridge. If you harbor similar obsessions with the cathode-ray phantoms of your childhood, you share the concerns of the Scottish ambient electronic act, Boards of Canada.

Perhaps allusions to the SnuffleuPagus vs. SnuffleuFagus debate grossly oversimplify Boards of Canada’s thematic impetus – to view them as a schizoid amalgamation of late ’70s pop culture playmates is rather misleading. What BofC recalls are the television shows that mark the hours of a child’s day, the videos that are played and played over again until the magnetized images all but disappear. In their music, you hear the slack-jawed silence of mesmerized pre-teens lulled to near unconsciousness by a babysitter’s recourse to Bert, Ernie, and the entire Children’s Television Workshop.

Don’t slap on that retro label just yet, however. Boards of Canada do not employ cut ‘n’ paste tactics or samplings of theme songs and sound bytes. Their music is not an attempt to re-live or revive the golden years of toddler-esque innocence or teenage rebellion. Their project centers more on preservation, on continuing to enjoy the wide-eyed wonderment of childhood. It’s a subtle difference, which is easily understood in light of the band’s bohemian origins.

Although Boards of Canada are currently a duo, Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin are part of a larger multi-media arts collective, dubbed Music70, that has been producing minimalist conceptual films, staging arty multi-media happenings, and composing experimental electronic music since the early ’80s. In many ways, Boards of Canada are an extension of the collaborative efforts of Music70 – a product of 20 years of artistic incubation. There is no reaching back or re-discovery in their music. It is more properly a continuation of the visionary explorations of a prolific and precocious pan-artistic movement.

Having spent a good-sized chunk of those impressionable childhood years in Alberta, Marcus and Michael were exposed to healthy doses of educational documentaries produced by the National Film Board of Canada. The influence of these films is seen not only in the Band’s adopted name but also in their first major label release, Music Has the Right to Children. “Wildlife Analysis”, the album’s introductory cut, captures the essence of their singular style – an electronica soundtrack for a Nature documentary, the musical counterpart to a disarming combination of surrealist films and Jacque Cousteau specials.

I hate to resort to the jargon of music theory, but in the case of Music Has the Right to Children, it is all about timbre – the way the various tones and sub-tones interact to create an almost indescribable warmth. Each track on the album communicates a bubbly inner glow – hovering bass chords create an eerie auditory haze over which dulcet tones bounce and unfold. The sweet, sleepy melodic hums and the bloated notes of overgrown toy keyboards are punctuated by deliberate down-tempo beats and precision mixing of voiced samples. The result is an organic, visceral soundscape evoking the monkey bars at your local park and a seaside stroll by a graying coastal town.

Peppered liberally with samples of giggling children and flocking gulls, Music Has the Right to Children accomplishes what few electronic albums have. It paints a purely natural environment – a musical experience that reflects a child’s entranced amazement at a solitary polar bear roaming the Arctic or a family of whales floating in the murky depths of the North Sea.

On Music Has the Right to Children, Boards of Canada intersperse moments of peaceful clarity with visions of bigger things to come – not necessarily a sense of epic anticipation, but a simplistic wonder at the vastness of our world. The emotional charge of the album is not so much exhilaration or ecstasy but a hypnotic calm, the Zen-like trance of a ten-year-old as he stares at wispy clouds passing overhead. For Boards of Canada, the refusal to bear the yoke of adulthood yields a tender sound that channels the contemplative and tranquil curiosity of their youth.

Unlike most practitioners of Intelligent Dance Music, Boards of Canada do not adopt a digital deconstructionist ethic, nor do they rush headlong into the academic sphere of technofied existential crises, cyborg manifestos, and identity politics. Where their Illbient genre mates, like Aphex Twin, DJ Spooky, Autechre, and Oval, produce theory-infused electronic commentary on the fragmentation of post-modern subjectivity – dissertations set to music, Boards of Canada resist ingestion into an over-intellectualized theoretical edifice.

As the house band for the Discovery Channel, Boards of Canada often allude to weighty concepts like evolution, chemical engineering, and quantum physics. Their treatment of this thematic material, however, does little to convey the gravity of these scientific terms. Their approach is playful — expressing the eager and ingenuous optimism of a young scholar, more interested in a personal knowledge of his surroundings than foisting such discoveries into a framework of thesis statements and social contextualization. The title then, Music Has the Right to Children, while punning on the bio-technic fireworks of electronica’s post-structuralist contingent, seems to hint more at Sandison and Eoin’s personal desire to forgo adulthood. Through their Music they assert their Right to remain Children.

From the ambitious declaration of their major label debut, Sandison and Eoin return to the introspective roots of their Music70 projects with the EP, In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country. The four new tracks are almost all atmosphere, lacking the bass-y lines that rolled through Music Has The Right To Children. Saturated with lush, glimmering tones supported by relatively understated beats, the 24-minute record picks up spindly whispers from MHTRTC, elongating, inverting, and internalizing those trace tones.

Like Hexagon Sun, the band’s reclusive compound (a refurbished nuclear bunker that doubles as a recording studio/living space) in the Pentland Hills of Scotland, the EP seems to signal an isolationist turn. Less communication and more rumination, In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country is a slender and deeply private statement that shimmers and flows at an almost undetectable pace. With full metaphorical moxie, Boards of Canada conclude the EP with “Zoetrope” Boards of Canada an optical toy steeped as much in child-like awe as the pop-science playground that inspires most BofC compositions. The softly whirling cycled sounds of “Zoetrope” ease the spinning wheels of thought and time. The ultimate track, like the entire EP, is a slow-burning release of energy, a focused and emotional sigh.

In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country is a hermetic gesture from Boards of Canada – a temporary return to the safety of Hexagon Sun. The band’s reflective coda gently concludes the sonic tropes of Music Has the Right to Children and drafts a blueprint for their forthcoming sophomore release, one of the most highly anticipated albums of 2001.

– Shailesh Rao