[March 5, 2016]
By Spencer VH
With a career spanning over twenty-five years, Edinburgh, Scotland’s Boards of Canada just might be one of the single most influential electronic music artists of all time. That being said, they still might also be one of the most underrated. With compositions in mainstream films, television shows and million dollar commercials, you might think that the Sandison brothers are revered elder statesman of the electronic music community. While being credited as influencing some of the world’s most popular musicians, in the currently EDM-dominated realm of electronic music, they are from the status quo. It all started in the early 1980s, when brothers Mike and Marcus were already experimenting with recording techniques at ten years old.
Continuing to use the skills they’d began experimenting with as children, they abandoned trying to be in bands in their teenage years and focused on their work as a duo. In the early 1990s, they formed the Hexagon Sun collective with other like-minded young musicians and began releasing their first recorded material under the Boards of Canada name. Without the backing of a record label, the brothers self-financed and self-released 1995’s ‘Twoism’ on cassette. It’s believed less than one hundred copies were created and until it was re-pressed almost twenty years later, the cassette was sometimes sold for over $1500. One of these tapes landed in the hands of Sean Booth, half of the electronic duo Autechre who was working for Manchester-based Skam Records. With the attention and backing of Skam, the Sandisons were able to put out their first widely available release in the form of 1996’s ‘Hi Scores’ EP.
Due to the rarity of the group’s previous releases, ‘Hi Scores’ was considered by many to be the group’s debut. In the pre-Internet era of bootlegs tapes and CDs, Boards of Canada was sometimes thought to be a secret alias of well-known electronic musicians Aphex Twin or Autechre, but the official release finally brought the true members of the group into the spotlight. While not pioneers of their genre, the Sandison brothers years of working so closely together as a team allowed them to craft a release that was so tight and so technical yet breathed naturally as a beautiful and intricate six songs that it took the electronic music world by surprise. The opening beat of ‘Seeya later’, a song featuring on both ‘Hi Scores’ and the group’s true debut ‘Twoism’, is one of the most familiar to fans of the group. It also began the trend of calling back to and reworking material from previous and future releases. The second track on the 1996 EP, ‘Turquoise Hexagon Sun’, is also featured on the group’s next release, their first full-length ‘Music Has The Right To Children’, which truly launched the group’s popularity into as far mainstream as IDM music could be at the time.
Truly coming into their own as musicians on the seventeen-song effort, it saw them take their experience of manipulating sound and intertwining in with melody in ways rarely seen before. Mixing traditional electronic music with intense sound manipulation and utilizing field recordings, the band was pushing into the music of the future while producing songs that somehow had the warmth and familiarity of the most well-known classical music releases. Even those who sometimes dismiss electronic music that isn’t beat-driven party music can still find upbeat segments of songs with pop music sensibilities; they are simply intertwined and co-mingled with cerebral percussion programming and synthetic auras.
The ideas and techniques on ‘Music Has The Right To Children’ call back so often to those established on ‘Hi Scores’ that even after ten official releases and an unconfirmed amount of unofficial recordings over their twenty five plus year career, the 1996 faux-debut is still widely considered to be the jumping on point for fans of the group’s music. Re-released in 1998, 2002, 2005 and 2014 (which was a full remastered edition), ‘Hi Scores’ is still considered an incredibly important release of the group, while many tenured musicians move far beyond the songs and ideas of their debut. I don’t know for sure and can’t speak for the Sandison brothers myself, but I can imagine that the first music truly embraced by the public at large would hold high sentimental value – especially when created in such close constructs with a sibling.
Boards of Canada’s influences does not only stem out to other electronic artists, although that influence is very apparent. Modern synth purveyors like Oneohetrix Point Never and Four Tet spin similar soundscapes, but Boards of Canada’s percussive influence can be seen in the producers of modern hip-hop, specifically for artists rhyming over laid-back, airy beats like Lil B and ASAP Rocky. Boards of Canada were not the first to put strong percussion under light synthetic music, but the tightness of their songs construction is some of the most suitable for laying vocals over, despite the group’s lack of vocals over their own music.
The group’s career is far from over, with the highly acclaimed full-length ‘Tomorrow’s Harvests’ released in 2014 releasing to high acclaim and continuing the group’s traditional festival touring route. The similarities in their most recent release and one of their first are striking, but instead of continually rehashing old ideas, Boards of Canada has made a career out of continually erecting new ideas out of their incredible life-long musical foundation.