In the late ’90s, the very idea of atmospheric downtempo electronic music felt new and exciting. The people who made that music during that era weren’t inventing a new form, but the idea of what they were doing — throwing away old pop-song ideas, conjuring feeling with hazy computer-constructed bleep-thumps — was charged with newness. In the early ’00s, that newness was gone, and atmospheric downtempo electronic music had become, in some ways, the sound of commerce.
Moby changed things. The man licensed every track from 1999’s
Boards Of Canada were, and presumably still are, the duo of Scottish brothers Michael and Marcus Eoin Sandison. Those two brothers had been making music together since they were little kids, using tape decks to splice together experimental collages of whatever they heard around them. The duo took their name from the National Film Board Of Canada, the entity responsible for many of the nature films that the brothers absorbed as kids. (They’d lived in Alberta for a little while because their father had a construction job there. The endless skies left a deep impression.) In 1998, Boards Of Canada released Music Has The Right To Children, a smeary and evocative debut album that riffed on nostalgia, reshaping all those modular-synth nature-film soundtracks into a sort of meditation on childhood memory itself. Music Has The Right To Children bore precious little resemblance to the smooth, gleaming downtempo that would follow, though the album probably still helped shape that sound. Then, for the better part of four years, Boards Of Canada were relatively quiet.
We now know that four years is absolutely nothing for Boards Of Canada. BOC’s sophomore album Geogaddi will turn 20 tomorrow, and in the two decades since its release the group has made a grand total of two albums. Tomorrow’s Harvest, their most recent LP, came out nearly nine years ago. Still, in the time between Music Has The Right To Children and Geogaddi, music had changed. The world had changed, too. With their second album, Boards Of Canada didn’t steer into the zeitgeist that they had helped to create. Instead, they plunged straight into the darkness that they saw all around.
Boards Of Canada don’t give many interviews, but in 2005, Michael Sandison told Playlouder, “Geogaddi was kind of exorcising demons, and even after we’d set out to do a record like that, smack in the middle of working on it, 9/11 happened. I remember there were a few of us in the studio that day, and we just ended up glued to the TV.” Geogaddi was a hugely anticipated album, and even though it shares plenty of sounds and ideas in common with Music Has The Right To Children, the tone is eerier and queasier — and when you’re dealing with formless and mostly lyric-free music, tone is the most important thing.
If Music Has The Right To Children is about anything, it’s about childhood and memory — about the blurry images and ideas that come from the time before we can rationally explain anything, the slight bits of information that always seems slightly out-of-reach. The Sandison brothers built that feeling from shards of sound that they’d warped and stitched together themselves. The Sandisons built Geogaddi in many of the same ways. They assembled it with keyboards and acoustic instruments but also with samples of long-forgotten cultural detritus. Now, thanks to the internet, we know where those samples come from — which Sesame Street featurettes, which old horror movies, which documentaries. When a voice comes in to talk about volcanoes, we know that’s Leslie Nielsen narrating the 1980 National Geographic special Dive To The Edge Of Creation. Somehow, though, that knowledge doesn’t strip the mystery out of things.
Boards Of Canada have never been much interested in explaining their process, so we don’t really know how closely Geogaddi‘s creation resembled the Music Has The Right To Children sessions. We do know that the sounds and textures are pretty similar — the humming and oozing synths, the squelching boom-bap beats, the static and echo giving everything a slight layer of distortion, the ghostly voices buried in the mix. And yet the feeling is all different. Where Music Has The Right To Chidren works as a meditation, Geogaddi comes off more as a warning.
Boards Of Canada weren’t, and aren’t, really part of any scene or community. The duo recorded for Warp Records, the beloved cult electronic label, but they weren’t trying to spatter brain matter with mathematical data the way their labelmates Aphex Twin and Autechre were doing. The Sandison brothers lived in the Scottish countryside, and they had their own rituals for putting things together. At the time, critics searched for ways to describe the feelings that their music evoked. Those critics used “psychedelia” as a catchall term, they invoked folk-horror pagan rituals, and they wondered over the origins of a name like Geogaddi. (The Sandisons themselves said that the title was a combination of words, but they wouldn’t say which words. They wanted listeners to come up with their own meanings.) Critics loved this music, but they still struggled mightily to describe how it works. We still do. An album like Geogaddi resists description.
Geogaddi is 66 minutes and six seconds long — not a coincidence, according to the people who made the record. Its 23 tracks are about evenly split between brief interstitial interludes and longer, more ambitious pieces. There are certainly standout tracks on Geogaddi — like “Dawn Chorus,” which sounds like My Bloody Valentine selling their guitars and buying sequencers, or “1969,” which is like the music that DJ Shadow might hear in a dream. Mostly, though, Geogaddi plays as a near-seamless whole, a hour-plus immersion in not-quite-right sounds. You could relax to Geogaddi, and I did a whole lot of that. But the album itself twisted with unease.
When Geogaddi came out, I had a job working overnight security in the dorms at Syracuse University. It was a job that a bar-scanner could do. From midnight to seven in the morning, I’d have to look at the IDs of the students entering and make sure they had a sticker that was the right color. After a couple of hours, nobody would come in, and I spent the rest of the night fighting to stay awake. Geogaddi stayed with me during those nights. I stole a promo copy from my college radio station, borrowed my friend Vanessa’s bright-pink Hello Kitty CD boom box, and got a whole lot of studying done while those tracks hummed and keened and stuttered. I fell asleep on that job plenty of times, but I never fell asleep when Geogaddi was on.
Today, the downtempo records of the early ’00s sound hopelessly trapped in time, fully tied to their moment. Geogaddi does not. Its squirming, uncanny intensity has endured. I hear echoes of the Boards Of Canada album in Four Tet’s homespun twinkle-splashes and in the corroded-VHS-tape excursions of chillwave. Various forms of underground rap have also latched onto the textures and sensibilities on Geogaddi. Where Boards Of Canada used old sounds to make new music, younger producers are now making music out of what Boards Of Canada did. Geogaddi samples have powered tracks from Lil B, Yung Lean, $uicideboy$, Lil Peep.
Geogaddi lingers because it exists outside of time. Boards Of Canada were reacting to the sounds that they knew and the events that they saw. They seemed to be reflecting on the present, the past, and the future all at once. They were assigned a place in a zeitgeist that didn’t interest them at all, and they more or less refused to take part in that zeitgeist, even if that zeitgeist could’ve made them rich. (Boards Of Canada have not, for example, performed live since around the same time that Geogaddi came out.) Geogaddi might be 20 years old now, and it might call up memories of a time that’s 20 years past. But Geogaddi does not belong to that time, as some records do. Geogaddi belongs to nothing and nowhere.