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Boards of Canada - The Campfire Headphase

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Artist: Boards of Canada

Album: The Campfire Headphase

Label: Warp

Review date: Oct. 30, 2005

Boards of Canada’s first album, Music Has the Right To Children, was my entry into beat-driven electronic music. Having cut my teeth on the thorny but rewarding complexities of Stockhausen, Berio and Xenakis, it was refreshing to soak up BOC’s surrealistically sunny vibe, an ordered miasma of scenically rhythmic ambiances where the innocently familiar and the mildly alien regularly switched places, creating a universe that was never too unfriendly and often achingly beautiful. Melody was a primary component of the Scottish duo’s allure; they managed to spin out tunes that sat just above any background harmony, the two elements joining forces at key moments of stunning clarity. Geogaddi continued the trend, and that disc’s major distinction lay in the heavier background material that so often surged to the fore, still never eclipsing any of the disturbingly otherworldly melodic musings.

On The Campfire Headphase, their third full-length, melody has all but evaporated. We are left with the underpinnings of a Boards of Canada disc, the intricately woven tapestry of sound that has always supported the trademark “phat beetz.” If the sonic stew that remains morphed, ebbed and flowed as on previous efforts, this new aesthetic might have worked nicely; unfortunately, it happens far too rarely. This might result, in part, from the inclusion of readily identifiable guitar tropes, sometimes altered but often nakedly “authentic.” On “Satellite Anthem Icarus,” some six-string hero or other handles both melody and rhythm, lending a certain dominant monochromaticism to whatever else ensues. The same is true of “Chromakey Dreamcoat,” and the minor sample manipulations do not generate enough interest to carry the track.

“Dayvan Cowboy,” however, is a jaw-dropping indication of what The Campfire Headphase might have offered if innovation was placed front and center. Commenced by a huge slow but clean mass of guitar shoegazery, the track swells and intensifies; a well-placed tambourine thwacks and jangles, accentuating and offsetting simple melodies in the manner of Spaceman III or Ride at their best. The rhythm fades and disappears, followed by a chorus build and jump-cut to even cleaner and “straighter” guitar contemplations before the rhythm kicks back in again with distorted vengeance, never repetitious for more than a few seconds. This is not the BOC I’d come to know, but a more powerful beast aware of a broader historical and sonic perspective.

“Dayvan Cowboy” is almost worth the price of admission, but it makes the remainder of the album seem derivatively “New Age.” It’s the only five minutes out of 62 where the group becomes more, or other, than they have been, and the transformation is revelatory and contextually disheartening. Often beautiful but almost never more than superficially engaging, the rest of the disc rehashes the mellow dream-time orchestrations of BOC’s past while adding nothing to its legacy, and the only switch that occurs is when vague interest is replaced by somnolence.

By Marc Medwin

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