THE PLAYLIST #3 | Treading the Boards of Canada

Welcome to THE PLAYLIST, where we pick a theme and, er, make a playlist around it. Sometimes you might get an essay, other times you might get just one sentence as a precursor to the laser-focused audio delights that await below. Aidan Hanratty has a 20-track primer on his most favourite band just for you… 

It’s impossible for me to be objective about Boards of Canada. When the reclusive Scottish duo released Tomorrow’s Harvest, their fourth official album, in 2013, I found myself saying that I couldn’t say if it was “good” or “bad”, just that I loved it. I discovered them late, in 2005. With most acts I can pinpoint how and when I discovered them, or when they clicked with me. Not so with Boards of Canada, who seemed to appear fully formed in my consciousness that summer. I spent the next year immersing myself in their music, perhaps not as disappointed as many others with the pastoral turn that occurred with The Campfire Headphase, as I was still relatively new to them myself (more on that later). 

After privately releasing Twoism (an eight-track release somewhere between EP and album) in 1995, the pair were signed to Skam, a label that released work from artists like Lego Feet (aka Autechre), Gescom and Bola. This was followed by another EP, Hi-Scores, and then two years later their first album proper, Music Has The Right To Children, co-released with Warp. Often featured in “albums to hear before you die” lists, it’s emblematic of their 90s sound. Lots of murky synth work, strange vocals dissociated entirely from their original context (most famously, ‘Aquarius’ features a repeated “orange“) and a general sense of wistful melancholy. It induces in many people an imagined nostalgia, borrowing as it does from a sort of reconstructed childhood, with its VHS samples and fuzzy sheen.

Next up came ‘In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country’, a four-track single that on the surface seems beautiful and welcoming, but is laden with references to cult leader David Koresh, with one track named after a rival of his as leader of the Branch Davidians (she is also mentioned on Geogaddi‘s ‘1969’). The group has been accused of Satanism and other such occultish tendencies (see here for a lengthy such treatise), and that reached its apex with the dark and sinister Geogaddi. If MHTRTC was sadly welcomingGeogaddi is a sweltering nightmare of garish lucidity. Several tracks feature reversed melodies, the music has an odd sheen of terror and there are even reversed vocals on ‘You Could Feel The Sky’, which when played backwards are “a god with hooves; a god with horns“. Who could that refer to…  

The Campfire Headphase came in 2005, and with it a more pastoral and rustic feel. Real guitars played out over their signature hazy, scorched sounds, an almost winsome approach following its devilish predecessor. It lacked the punch of the previous two albums, yet is not without its highlights, while its accompanying single ‘Trans Canada Highway’ features a return to the brief and lovely vignettes that were so plentiful on MHTRTC. But that was it, and for a long time.

Finally, in 2013 they returned with the simply magnificent Tomorrow’s Harvest. A soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist (yes, you’ve heard that before, but it’s definitely true here), it sounds like a post-apocalyptic 1970s, nuclear power gone wrong, a world scorched. 

I’ve only included music that’s been released officially, and thus available on Spotify. Anyone intrigued enough by this selection can start their own trip down the wormhole that is their early/rare releases, and there’s nowhere better to start than at bocpages, the unofficial but exhaustively catalogued wiki for the group.  

As I said, this is in no way an objective playlist. It features my favourite tracks (though cutting that number down to 20 proved nearly impossible, and it went through many iterations). Each track offers a distillation of everything that’s so mesmerising and spellbinding about this duo: there’s a mutant groove in tracks like ‘Nlogax and ‘Iced Cooly; there’s a knowing sense of humour mixed with chilling terror in references to the occult in tracks like ‘You Could Feel The Sky’, ‘1969’ and ‘In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country’; while ‘White Cyclosa and ‘Everything You Do Is A Balloon’ offer a horror-movie aesthetic that cuts deep. I’ve tried to keep away from anything too obvious, so that means no ‘Roygbiv, no ‘Happy Cycling’, and definitely no ‘Dayvan Cowboy’. I could easily have made a playlist of 50 or more, or else three different lists of 20, but this is what you’ve got…

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