Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children is without question the album I’ve listened to the most in the past 16 years. The runner up isn’t even close. I don’t get tired of it. And there’s a particular way I don’t get tired of it that’s unlike most other music I love. I believe that has something to do with the uncanny sonic experimentalism and painstaking studio craftsmanship that went into it. Scottish brothers Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison deliberately eschewed dance music convention and set out to create a timeless sound with their debut LP, a sound that affected mind and body differently than other music, working on a deeper level, creating an almost meditative effect – despite how dark and eerie it can also be. For me it’s not just listening to a collection of tunes; there’s something about it that’s more like a kind of practice or therapy, if that doesn’t sound too New Age – BoC’s music is much more epic and expansive and emotionally full than New Age. Perhaps it’s therapeutic in the way that rereading a beloved favourite novel or rewatching a favourite film can be. Listening to it always makes me feel a little better and helps me reset – makes me feel more like myself.
Music Has the Right is also one of the best sounding albums ever made, in terms of its depth and swirling, cinematic layers of sound. There’s an amazing clarity to its hazy, shoegazey distortion, if that makes any sense. Like a monument carved out of rare stone that’s been polished to a sheen, and then carefully scratched and scored to give it an unforgettable texture. Its distortion shimmers. Music Has The Right… is also the album I always test a new set of speakers or pair of headphones with – in particular “Telephasic Workshop,” with its colorful whirling synths and its huge playful thumping low end.
I came to Music Has The Right to Children late, in 2002, four years after it was released in the spring of 1998. I gave it a miss when it first came out because both as a DJ and a music fan I was already tired of the trip-hop and big beat that was so dominant back then. And though I admired the experimental electronica of BoC’s Warp Records brethren Autechre and Aphex Twin, the pranksterish noise that defines much of their work often left me cold. Despite the incredible buzz the album generated as soon as it dropped I made the mistake of assuming it would follow those trends. Later I would learn that Music Has The Right doesn’t follow any trend. It’s too grand and visionary to be filed under any dancefloor-based subgenre, and it’s far more beautiful and warm and human than Autechre or Aphex have usually managed in their later work. It belongs in a league with transcendent sonic pioneers like Pink Floyd and Kraftwerk and My Bloody Valentine.
The album was recorded far from any clubbing epicentre in the pair’s stomping ground in rural Scotland. Eoin and Sadison worked hard to avoid predictable breakdowns and obvious samples and other cliches of dance and electronic music. The pair have said they weren’t even fans of contemporary dance music, and were more influenced by psychedelic innovators like the Incredible String Band and Mike Oldfield. But the beats on Music Has The Right are still tight, and the bass is buttery and deep and funky. Even though its head is in the stratosphere, the album still bangs, in its own lazy, earthy way. Tracks like “Aquarius” and “Telephasic Workshop” top almost any trip hop released in that era in terms of bumping bass and head-nodding dopeness. Much like DJ Shadow, whose classic debut LP Endtroducing was released a year and a half earlier, Eoin and Sandison were nerdy studio perfectionists who still knew how to swing a funky beat. In both cases the combination of that funk with obsessive experimentalism resulted in unclassifiable music that still sounds fresh and exciting compared to the work of their peers.
Music Has The Right To Children. I’ve always loved the title of the album and I go over it in my head often. At first it makes no sense, like it’s been cut and pasted from two sentences. But it takes on warped meaning the more you think about it. First of all it’s a declaration, a mini-manifesto, and I love the boldness of that. The brothers definitely had something to say, despite how esoteric their music is, and the fact that it largely lacks a human voice (other than the sampled vocal snippets of documentary narrators or kids playing that constantly bubble and buzz and fade in and out of the soundscape like friendly ghosts). To me the title has a dual meaning: first, electronic and experimental music should be played for children. It shouldn’t be limited to the domain of dark clubs, it should be for everyone. (That’s especially poignant to me as a dad, though as it happens my three-year-old son is more into Autechre than BoC.) And music should have descendants, it should have offspring, it should grow and change and evolve into the future.
I say BoC’s music lacks a human voice but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sound like it’s singing to you. Synthesisers are the epitome of music that’s mechanised and subsumed by technology, but there’s also something so eerily organic and natural-sounding about them too. (I won’t get into the philosophical bits – like when you get down to it an acoustic guitar is a machine just the same as a Roland 303.) In the right hands, analogue synths can sound like insects buzzing or whales singing, or a cat purring; or they can sound like bodily functions, like your stomach grumbling or your ears ringing – like the sound is coming from within you. This is true of a lot of synth music, including more dancefloor-oriented sounds like techno and electro, and that’s surely one reason for its enduring appeal. But on Music Has the Right, BoC foregrounded that analogue viscerality, and imbued it with a wonderful narrative quality. Take a track like “Kaini Industries” – its ringing, soaring synth lines, clearly influenced by experimental classical composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, sound like angels singing. It’s strange and ecstatic, 59 seconds of pure bliss. (I very often play it three or four times in a row just to soak it in more.) Or the gorgeous droning tones that open the album on “Wildlife Analysis” (also short, just over a minute long), sounding like a cross between birdsong and some extraterrestrial monk’s chant. Or the album’s climactic beatless track “Open the Light,” with its aching, tingly, elegiac mood that makes you picture some ancient heroic tale. Throughout the album these gorgeous analogue melodies blur and blend with the cascading choruses of samples, so that you often can’t tell the difference, like the vocal snippet on “Pete Standing Alone,” so distorted it doesn’t sound human anymore.
The wobbly distortion and flickering haze doesn’t just sound great; it’s central to Boards of Canada’s aesthetic. The band’s weird, counterintuitive name was inspired by the Film Board of Canada, the prolific government-funded film studio that produced many of the short films and documentaries that were shown in schools throughout the English-speaking world in the ’70s and ’80s. BoC’s music relates to those educational films on several levels. Childhood is an important theme for the band (Sesame Street is also sampled on the album); as are science, maths and nature; along with a complex sort of nostalgia for the ’70s, far more nuanced than the usual retro vibe.
Then there are the memories of watching the films themselves in classrooms. I recall it well. The wonder that would overtake you when the teacher turned out the lights and started the projector. The motes of dust in the flickering light; the hypnotic clattering of the reels; the tinny music on the projector’s little speakers, warped from being played so much. The colour of the film, all desaturated reds and greens, which we would later associate with dream sequences and psychedelia; and the ’60s fashions and outdated lingo of the actors. The stories were often lighthearted, with corny humour; but many films had a sense of dread too – macabre depictions of car accidents and fire disasters, or apocalyptic warnings about future environmental devastation. The mood these films created was powerful for a young mind, as influential on me as the knowledge they imparted.
BoC’s music is overtly intended to recreate the weird dreamlike state of watching those films, the wonder and the dread – as well as the movies and TV and pop culture of the era in general. That twisted nostalgia in combination with the album’s alien and futurist sound creates quite a surreal atmosphere of distorted time and space, an intense immediacy; listen to it enough and it takes on the feel of the soundtrack of your life. That’s true of any music you love, but BoC seem to have discovered a more powerful and direct method of physically doing this to their listeners. Simon Reynolds’s terrific 20th anniversary essay about the album for Pitchfork affirms this:
“Like many others, I found that Music Has the Right had an extraordinary power to trigger memories. Partly this was a side effect of the wavering off-pitch synths, redolent of the music on TV programs from my ’70s childhood. But in a far more profound, fundamental, and deeply mysterious way, BoC seemed to be tapping into those deepest recesses of personal memory. Blending intimacy and otherness, the music put you back in touch with parts of yourself you’d lost. This was their gift to the listener.”
When I think of the album, I’m struck by intense memories of the neighbourhood in Queens I lived in when I was first listening to it. Taking a walk by the baseball field behind the mall, beneath overcast skies; the ugly concrete parking garage that loomed over it with its spiral onramp looking like a brutalist sculpture of a UFO; the 7 train platform in the dying winter light. Other memories of that era come back to me in association with the album – a particular cool drizzly morning in May; a particular road trip to Boston in the summer. BoC’s music came from rural Scotland, and it sounded like it came from another galaxy, but somehow it seemed to be about the alienation of life in New York, and of our society in general, and about my childhood, and many other things that matter to me, and it helped me cope with it all. It’s hard to explain! But if you know the album maybe you know what I mean. I have a feeling anyone who’s listened to it a lot has had similarly vivid and personal recollections of it imprinted on their own lives.