Through the Magic Window



There couldn’t be a better transitional work between Music Has The Right To Children and Geogaddi than In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country; the change in mood from one album to the next makes more sense with that four-song sequence placed between them, containing elements of both while also being something wholly singular. Music took the nineties electronica Boards of Canada had experimented on in their earlier albums and used it as the cytoplasm for their distinct mix of phantasmal samples, whimsy, and strange references; if that album is a representation of the act of remembering, then Beautiful Place seems to be one of actually looking at those old, dusty things you remember, experiencing them as they are (I mean, the closing track is called “Zoetrope”). The warmer synths on the previous album are edged out by a more repetitive, mechanical sounds, especially in the first two songs—the worn, grinding functionality of the beats at the base of something like “Kid For Today” trade the ephemeral for something that feels way more physical, like it is being played from some old sound machine that’s barely holding together. That holds for the title track, which seems a bit more “traditional” BOC if only for the inclusion of laughing children and straight drum machines, but still maintains the starkness of the rest of the album. Importantly, though, it also very quietly segues into another one of the duo’s full-scale obsessions: yes, if naming a song after an important figure in the story of the Branch Davidians didn’t clue you in, quoting that same person a the later song tells us we’re now in full-on religious cult and symbolism territory. It’s the year 2000, and Boards of Canada is thinking about some things.

Thus, we come to Geogaddi.

The physicality of the sounds in Beautiful Place are gone as soon as the first track begins, and what we have instead is a full-on embrace of the weird, layered electronic mode; the mood and the ideas remain familiar (“the past inside the present”), but have been developed, expanded, reformed. The slow, contemplative quality on the EP (which is present in Music in places as well, in something “Pete Standing Alone”) felt calm but ambivalent; Geogaddi, on the other hand, is all the uncertainty that was always present on the edges of their previous work stepping to the fore, revealing something darker beneath the surface while using some of the same tools. Things we thought we understood about their music are reconfigured: for example, “Aquarius” on Music also contains subtle references to number stations and numerology, but those take on a decidedly more unsettling quality in “Gyroscope”. Nostalgia is no longer the subject, though nostalgia is still present, if only to provide some context to what is happening now—television and movie samples return in songs like “Energy Warning” and “Dandelion,” but they have become more specific in nature (and seem in many ways quite ominous, like our childhood babysitter has been sending out warnings all this time) and are generally outnumbered by much creepier voices that alternately insert themselves subtly in the background noise or become unnervingly clear. The manipulation of all these different sounds has changed as well—it is no longer just degraded, but fully distorted—it sometimes feels like you can’t even tell where they’re coming from.

Anxious is probably the best word to describe much of the album—a scattered collection of thoughts, skipping from feverish panic to lonely rumination moment by moment. The closest Geogaddi gets to high-energy tracks—the equivalents to “Telephasic Workshop” and “Roygbiv” on Music—are “Julie And Candy” and “Alpha and Omega”, which are both essentially extended freak outs; the latter especially portrays the simultaneously frenzied and claustrophobic atmosphere of crowded places (throwing in electronic sounds and more traditional instruments, like the flute and drums in “Alpha and Omega”, side-by-side is a surefire way to make a song sound askew—see also “Diving Station”—the sinister counterpart to the work of ambient pioneers like Harold Budd.) Unsure of anything and surrounded by unfamiliar voices, it sounds like a world spinning away without you knowing where it’s going and when it’ll stop. This direction probably shouldn’t be a surprise: I’m not going as much into the historical context of this album as I did about its predecessor, but it’s worth pointing out that while Beautiful Place was very much in the post-millenial fuzz particular to the year 2000, Geogaddi, released in early 2002, was in a very different place, for reasons you can probably guess—“anxious” isn’t even the half of it.

While previous albums had a considered back-and-forth between modern living and the natural world; the duality in Geogaddi takes us elsewhere. Nature is no longer a reliable escape—in tracks like “The Beach At Redpoint”, nature feels overwhelming, and if “Dandelion” is mainly Leslie Nielsen explaining marine ecosystems and scientific research to us, it stills feels desolate; that beautiful place out in the country isn’t as reassuring as it used to be. The contrast point this time becomes a series of philosophies and approaches, with references to arcane science (“The Smallest Weird Number”), alternative artistic methodologies (“Music Is Math”), psychiatry (“The Devil Is In The Details”), and yes, the religious practices of groups like the Branch Davidians, directly name-dropped in “1969.” Is this meant to sound like a whole album desperately searching for answers to something? One of my favourite things in the BOCpages entry on Geogaddi is the inclusion of an Amazon review of the album accusing it of being satanic; maybe it’s not so difficult for someone in a certain state of mind to come to that conclusion—the ungainly mix of philosophies and extreme use of varying levels of subliminal messaging brings to mind all matter of occult-like experimentation (also, BOCs tendency to include Satanism-based in-jokes in pretty much anything they do.) When you intentionally make your music so dense, just brimming with unknown sounds threading in out of each other in ways you don’t even notice without multiple listens (I never noticed the person humming at the beginning of “1969” until rather recently) and based around all manner of obscure references, you’re pretty much inviting people to look for conspiracies in the work. What all of the aforementioned stuff communicates to me, though, is more a desperate attempt to find something, some way of thought, that could hold off the lurking feeling that something is wrong.

Which isn’t to say that the whole of the album is unrelentingly grim; bits and pieces of lightness come through, especially in the latter sections of the album—it’s just that it still has to contend with the overall tone of the music, becoming just one piece among many. Some parts of “A Is To B As B Is To C” even sound very much like Music before the track starts to collapse in on itself. I don’t think the album is trying to get across the idea that the darkness is inescapable (and we in hindsight know that it wasn’t for them, because of what ended up following Geogaddi), but its presence cannot be ignored; all of our thoughts, positive and negative and unsure, are all together in one place for us to navigate. The second-to-last track on the album is one of the most sombre-sounding things in BOC’s entire catalogue, but it is followed by something—over a minute-and-a-half of silence. That’s the point where you are released. We all hope you learned something from this experience.