Electronic music in the ’90s was awash in disparate aesthetics and maniacal variations. There was absolutely no shortage of artists trying to fuse beat-driven rhythms with wobbly synths and subsequently discovering that this mixture was as difficult to master as it was fascinating to hear. The confusion of mangled trip-hop was running rampant, and IDM was just beginning to see its initial fulfillment. Over the course of the decade, there was never a single set of guidelines in regards to the approach and application of these electric melodies and numerous circuital patterns, but there were a few artists whose innate inspirations allowed them to see the opportunities that these electronic blips and bloops afforded them.
Among those for whom this burgeoning artificial landscape posed questions that needed to be answered was Scottish duo Boards of Canada. Combining an affection for lo-fi samples and expansive rhythms, the band created vast musical vistas where their influences were given license to roam and explore a heady mix of experimental sounds and eclectic arrangements. Their brew of burbling synthetic tones evoked a mythical nostalgia, one where the past and present were obscured in a fog of sound and memory. They were purposefully indistinct, creating amorphous and quietly breathtaking panoramas that burrowed deep into your subconscious.
Built around the dynamic interplay of brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin (born Marcus Eoin Sandison), the duo grew up in a musical family where they learned to play various instruments at young ages. Around the age of 10, they began experimenting with tape machines in an effort to work with spliced samples and original sounds to create unique compositions. Throughout their teens, the brothers found themselves performing with various bands, but in 1986, Marcus was invited to join Michael’s band, and the roots of Boards of Canada began to stretch out.
Naming themselves after documentary films produced by the National Film Board of Canada, the band saw a marked decrease in membership in 1989 when all but Marcus and Michael exited the group. Through the early ’90s, the band collaborated with a number of local artists and put on shows drawn from the Hexagon Sun collective, a group of musicians based in Pentland Hills, Scotland. In 1995, the band released their first recording, an EP called “Twoism,” that was self-financed and mainly given out to friends and family. However, a few copies made their way to the public through a small mailing list, and the release was actually repressed in 2002.
They self-released another album, “Boc Maxima,” in 1996, and it was the precursor to their official studio debut, “Music Has the Right to Children,” which shares many of its songs. However, their first commercial release was with Skam Records, which was run by Autechre’s Sam Booth-one of only a handful of people to be sent a demo tape from the band. Skam issued “Hi Scores” in 1996, and it’s regarded as the first major release from the band. But up to that point, the band was still finding its footing, incorporating and adapting countless influences into an electronic soundscape of free-floating melodies and ambient textures.
With the release of “Music Has the Right to Children” in 1998, however, the duo exponentially evolved their characteristically amorphous musical outlook. Consisting of longer tracks with shorter interstitials, the record incorporates songs from earlier releases and redesigns their already-impressive appearance. Working with analog equipment, including synthesizers, reel-to-reel recorders, and samplers of various makes and models, the band fashioned a broad and cinematic environment of shifting electric perspectives and pinging tonality.
Easing us into this wondrous electronic spectrum is “Wildlife Analysis,” a gorgeous interlude that sets the stage for the dense and emotionally responsive second track, “An Eagle in Your Mind,” the kind of song that slowly envelops you and creates an oddly humanistic connection through its multitude of wires and cables. The band was looking at how we respond to these artificial sounds, and they discovered that we internalize them to such a degree as to render them tangible and fleshy, a physical spirit that can provide comfort and introspection in equal measure.
There is something intricately naive about these songs. And while that may sound like a dig of sorts, it really isn’t. They are able to capture an innocent experimentation that so few other artists are able to approach. Gentle melodies slide by on the edge of recognition, waiting for their chance to step out into the light and be recognized for a few moments before slipping again into the background. Shapeless and gauzy, these tracks prove that you don’t have to explicitly map out your inspirations for them to connect with people on an emotional level. We’re not talking about listless nostalgia, but a true representative progression of memory and its lingering effects.
“Music Has the Right to Children” is an anomaly, an intricate and fractured vision of the possibilities of electronic music that was released at a time when most musicians were still barely scratching the surface of these multitiered sounds. It is alternately childlike (i.e., boundless) in its rhythmic exploration and mature in the way these fractal patterns are woven into a seamless whole. It is mesmerizing and possesses a complex heartbeat that echoes through each song. As a result, these individual musical revelations comprise a comprehensive treatise on the proper way to revere and explore this formless and beautiful noise.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.