With hindsight, it looks as though all the pre-release myth-busting that Boards of Canada embarked upon with this album was their way of subtly telling us they were splitting up. It’s now nearly eight years since The Campfire Headphase, and no follow-up has emerged. Even in Boards of Canada’s strange, slow-moving, sepia world, that’s a long time.
By avoiding face-to-face interviews, revealing scant biographical information, and making music characterised by enormous semiotic holes which beg the listener to construct their own interpretations, Boards Of Canada allowed an entire world of myths to build up around them. All of a sudden they confess to being brothers (who didn’t want to be compared to Orbital), denied being members of any occult group despite the oblique references scattered across their music, and explicitly detailed the previously mysterious processes they use to compose and record their music, and how they artificially age it in post-production.
The Campfire Headphase’s sleeve is none-more-Boards-Of-Canada; turquoise-tinted mildewed Polaroids of dozens of unidentifiable people who may no longer exist scattered across the digipak. Track titles like “Chromakey Dreamcoat” an “’84 Pontiac Dream,” almost seemed parodic. But ravenous fans were still riven apart by this album, in particular the decision to introduce (heavily treated) guitars into the sound palette, which made them cry blasphemy like Dylan fans when he went electric.
From a distance this interpolation of guitars could make The Campfire Headphase sound like My Bloody Valentine, but it’s a lazy comparison. The fact that there are fewer unsettling vocal sample interjections, no playground laughter, no oblique quotes about paganism or distant, childhood declarations of love is arguably more important a development; The Campfire Headphase is simply less unsettling than previous offerings. It’s still instantly recognisable as Boards of Canada, but it turns previously oblique approaches in more concise and (whisper it) uplifting directions. They’re still isolationist and peculiarly nostalgic, but now they have tunes.
Four minutes into “Peacock Tail” a tiny, tremulous melody emerges and is as good, as evocative, as heart-tuggingly uncanny as the nearly intangible movement in “Kid For Today” (from the In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country EP), perhaps as anything they’ve produced before at all. There are bizarre, upwards-spiralling melodic fills during “Ataronchronon,” an infinite fadeout decay for album closer “Farewell Fire,” and the huge (by their standards), almost jubilant tunefulness of “Satellite Anthem Icarus.”
And then there is “Dayvan Cowboy”, an ambient wash of distant, corroded, almost unheard hum for two minutes before open, reverberating guitar chords fall into place and strings lift this typically Boards Of Canada sound and make it soar like they never have done before. A rattle of drums three minutes in is like nothing else in their discography for impact and emotion. It’s their most tangible, solid moment of music since “Roygbiv”.
I was never an enormous Boards of Canada fan, never concerned with unpacking all the signifiers sprinkled through their records; I use their records as ambient music for the most part (which is in no way a pejorative). But there’s something else here, some deeper connection which dismantles that utility. Something else has been lost, arguably, but it’s a welcome development, I think. Even if Boards of Canada themselves dissolved under its weight.