October 22, 2022

Boards of Canada – The Campfire Headphase (Warp)

Such a relief, in a year of follow-on after follow-on that disappoints, to find that this latest in the list of most-eagerly-awaiteds doesn’t.

It’s been three years since BoC’s second album, Geogaddi, drifted over the horizon with that album’s perfect closer, Caravel – about the time your average caravel might take to reappear on the opposite horizon after completing a leisurely circumnavigation, indeed. And Campfire Headphase has that sort of feel to it – a return to port, eager to share travellers tales and mermaid melodies and to catch up with the local news before – and this is the inevitable part – heading off somewhere else.

Never has a group been more maligned-by-genre than Boards of Canada. Whoever decided, back in the heady days of ’98 when the extraordinary Music Has the Right to Children emerged out of nowhere and blew everyone full away, that this was to be called ‘Intelligent Dance Music,’ deserves the red-faced anonymity they so evidently craved. Unfortunately, IDM stuck, and spawned a thousand clones. Fortunately, BoC just ignored all that, and moved on.

The outstanding phase-shift on Campfire is one of mood attributable in no small degree to the radical superimposition of some super-confident shoe-gazing (is that an oxymoron?) and some retro acoustic guitar stuff of the kind you’d never in a thousand years have imagined would work in the BoC soundscape. But it does. Sort of. Mostly. And – paradoxically, since one obvious reference is to the undisputed master of the music-to-slit-your-throat-by genre, the magnificently melancholy Kevin Shields – it serves to uplift, rather than depress, as if Loveless Kevin had been rescued from the eighties, whisked off down a wormhole, chucked back a decade into the welcoming arms of The Incredible String Band, and – as in all the best sci fi romances – found lerv at last. (It gets lost in translation, that kind of metaphor.)

It’s definitely going to be divisive, this album – there are some who simply won’t welcome this definitive stride away from the electronic psychedelia that’s been the Boards’ purlieu for so long. It’s nowhere remotely near the disgusting fusion of guitar and electronics of those early nineties abominations like EMF or Jesus Jones, but still, it’s very different, and is going to take a bit of getting used to.

It’s a grower, certainly – on first hearing (apart from the shock of the acoustic) it seems to be less polychromatic than either Geogaddi or Music Has The Right, although still employing that gorgeous dreamwash sound texture as a sonic underlay. The familiar mix of attenuated decayed synth and whacked-out beats is still there (although there’s noticeably less quirky vocal sampling – hands up for more Leslie Nielsen!), but it’s the guitars that are, for the most part, driving the emotional carriage, this time, and the effect is rather like reaching out in a sleepy haze to stroke the dog and finding it’s become a cat – similarly furry and friendly, but requiring a fuzzy readjustment of the sensory apparatus. The penultimate and final tracks, however – Tears From the Compound Eye and Farewell Fire – are a deeply affecting pair of seemingly effortless (and guitarless) chorales drawn from that golden well that has irrigated so much of the Boards’ soundscapes, to such inspirational effect.

There’s at least two pirate versions of this album out there on the internets for those who’re curious to check them out (*ahem* Soulseek): one’s worthless – a braindead remix – but the other’s very interesting indeed, because it would seem to be the leaked master of an earlier version of the album – old-school BoC sound, without the guitars, which some – I’m still not definitively committed on this – might have preferred. Plus there are a few tracks on there that didn’t finally make the album that will become absolute must-haves for hardcore fans if they can be authenticated (eg an extraordinary version of Tears From The Compound Eye on piano and some tortured ethnic mouthpiece that sounds like John Lennon jamming with Miles Davis in a gothic cistern). It’s a tad unethical, I know, to include comment on pirates (sorry, Warp dudes!), but somehow appropriate to the brothers Sandison, who’ve inadvertently courted controversy since the beginning (there’s still a wacko crypto-Illuminati site up out there dedicated to proving the Boards link with the Branch Davidians through a numerological analysis of their canon).

A belated welcome, incidentally, to music’s newest official fraternity: having concealed the fact for years for fear of being compared to the Orbitals, apparently (?!?), newly declared brothers Marcus and Mike finally outed themselves to Pitchfork in a pre-release interview (disappointing choice – it should have been to The Scotsman), thereby joining brothers and sisters Hood, Oasis, Doves, and CocoRosie, inter alia, in this year’s bumper clutch of family releases. One up to the Brotherhood of Man.

One hesitates to remark on it, but there seems to be a breeze of change wandering around the Zeitgeist at the moment, stirring up tiny little dust-devils of alarmist optimism. Whether this portends the dawn of yet another ‘new’ Age of Aquarius or a reprise of the old Age of Diazepam is still too early to call. But maybe we’re going to have to get used to it – music predicated on joy. Think Sufjan Stevens, think Devendra Banhart, and now, think Boards of Canada. Nowt wrong wi’ lookin on the bright side, I say. (Just hang on to that umbrella.)