In A Beautiful (and Scary) Place With Boards of Canada

Scottish brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin have made music that fits their public image: mysterious, introverted, forlorn and nostalgic (NPR)

In the ‘60s when I was a youngster my family lived out in the country, in a development called the Plott Farm, halfway between Canton, NC and the Bethel Community. It’s near Cold Mountain, namesake of Charles Frazier’s celebrated novel. I played with army figures in the ditch in front of our house, watching archeology students from UNC Chapel Hill walk by in their cut-offs and sandals, en route to a dig at a Native American mound at the end of our road.

bocIn those days my dad was a disc jockey at the local radio station, WPTL. I listened to him spin wax while playing outside, the crackling music coming through a single earpiece from a transistor radio.

The days before I reached double digits were both exuberantly carefree and numblingly anxiety-ridden. The summertide bliss of “Green Tambourine” by the Lemon Pipers was jarred to a halt by the words, THIS IS A TEST OF THE EMERGENCY BROADCAST SYSTEM, and the blaring signal that followed. Every hair on my body stood on end. This beautiful place could be drastically altered in a moment.

Fast-forward to 1995. For personal interest I enrolled in a couple of evening courses at UNC Charlotte taught by James Tabor, a Dead Sea Scrolls expert and scholar of the biblical apocalyptic idiom. Tabor took time from lecturing to elaborate on his experience as a negotiator with David Koresh during the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco in April, 1993.

Five years later the dot com bubble burst…then 9/11, then domestic spying, then the real estate meltdown…wars and rumors of wars…and more spying…

Being the son of a deejay brought me to love all kinds of music, ranging from old-time and bluegrass to prog rock, bebop, and classical (especially the totalitarian paranoia seeping through Shostakovich). But I’ve never been much of a “beats” guy. I did get into “Crossover” by EPMD, and the spell-binding “6 Underground” by Sneaker Pimps remains a guilty pleasure; but scratches and cross-fading were never my thing. I didn’t go looking for what came to be called “intelligent dance music” (IDM).

So it was by pure accident that I stumbled upon a YouTube video of Air Force Captain Joe Kittinger’s 102,800 foot jump from the edge of space (1960), set to the song “Dayvan Cowboy” by Boards of Canada. A little while later I found a fan video for “Everything You Do is a Balloon,” paired with a scared and grainy bicycle safety classroom film from them ‘60s. I didn’t know exactly what I was hearing, but it had a distinct texture and feel that was both whimsical and ominous.

I was hooked.  The more I looked the more I discovered remarkably creative fan videos, grabbing old documentaries from the ‘50s and ‘60s (public service announcements, nuclear test footage), or avant-garde art, synced up with the beats and soundscapes. I had unearthed a mysterious community with its own rhetoric and rituals.

boards

The Boards (Bards?): Mike and Marcus, under a hexagon sun

Their knit hats aside, Boards of Canada  — Scottish brothers Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin, whose band handle was inspired by documentaries from the Film Board of Canada they watched as school kids — aren’t DJ’s in the standard scratch and spin mode (though there’s a bit of that in places). From their Hexagon Sun studio in rural Scotland come whistles, flutes, guitars, organs, drums, and analog synths, blended and mashed through old reel-to-reel decks, with hailstorms of static and hiss and (deliberate) warps and wobbles in tape speed.

With a recurring theme of childhood innocence interrupted by adult-size contingencies, augmented by eerie loops and samples – particularly of children’s voices – BOC’s music creates a time-elastic soundtrack for a kid raised in the unrealized Age of Aquarius.

In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country (2000) is a four-track EP inspired by the Branch Davidian tragedy. The title track features a doleful organ, jazzy synth, children laughing, and the distorted voice of Davidian member Amo Bishop Roden repeating, “Come out, and live with a religious community in a beautiful place out in the country.” Marcus Eoin told URB Magazine,

The Davidians thing was about the shock of seeing the way the U.S. authorities handled it all.

The pathos intensifies on the 2002 follow-up LP, Geogaddi. The track “Sunshine Recorder” includes a disembodied child’s solemn voice repeating, “…a beautiful place…” like an answer to Roden from heaven.  A sunshine recorder is a glass sphere that measures sunlight by focusing the light and burning a pattern across an inserted card. The dark irony of the government’s assault on the Davidians’ Mount Carmel Center (named for the place where the prophet Elijah called down fire on his sopping-wet sacrifice) is that the facility went up in flames with 20 children inside. In the classroom back in ’96, professor Tabor maintained that the government was ultimately responsible for the inferno — a view held by many today. “Sunshine Recorder” ends with children’s voices saying, “Bye…”

 

Last year (2013), the Boards released Tomorrow’s Harvest, a stylistic detour punctuated by arpeggio synths and string arrangements reminiscent of ‘80s horror and sci-fi films. “White Cyclosa” features the rumbling rotors of search helicopters; “Telepath” has an electronically-altered counting voice that appears to be under hypnotic suggestion or mind control (“Gyroscope” from Geogaddi also features a counting voice, transmitted from a short-wave “numbers station”).  “Palace Posy,” with its jerking time signature, is an anagram for “apocalypse.”

“Split Your Infinities” (grammar geeks, take note) includes this highly-distorted monologue:

The FEMA plans to imprison American citizens have generated a lot of interest around the country, in locating the potential prison camps throughout the country. These may be facilities currently being used as prisons such as those you saw earlier, or prisons that are being built supposedly in the name of the war on drugs. Or, facilities that have other uses but could quickly be used to detain large numbers of people…

“Semena Mertvykh” (seeds for the dead) is the parting coda, rumbling like a distant, approaching storm. BOC denies the album is “apocalyptic” per se, but rather looks ahead to a world after a major correction — or collapse; a time when society is reduced to “many small camps.” It’s music about childhood lost and unsustainable progress in the hands of mortally flawed adults animated by unseen spirits.

That’s not to ignore the more carefree and buoyant moments in the BOC catalog; they exist on every recording. They furthermore suggest that innocence, goodness, and beauty will outlive the downfall of edifices. Even Tomorrow’s Harvest features “Nothing is Real,” the most popular track on the album as voted by visitors to the BOCPages wiki site.

When I was a kid I listened to numbers stations on my dad’s short-wave. In grade school I watched scratched up Coronet films with snap, crackle, and pop soundtracks. That world was magical, mysterious, and sometimes scary.

This music would have fit as well then as now – as it no doubt will in a future out of our hands.

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