Boards of Canada: The Campfire Headphase

Chameleonic artists like Stravinsky and Miles Davis flourish throughout long careers by shape-shifting stylistically (Björk might be considered a current if less towering exemplar of the phenomenon). More commonly, acts like Sigur Rós and Boards of Canada emerge seemingly fully-formed with a massively influential, genre-defining debut which then becomes a straitjacket as they struggle to advance beyond the style without sacrificing their identities in the process. The Campfire Headphase is a virtual poster child for that struggle, with Marcus Eoin and Mike Sandison attempting to advance the Boards of Canada style beyond Music Has The Right To Children (1998) and its darker follow-up Geogaddi (2002) without losing it in the process; if anything, the new album finds them moving forward too cautiously with the sound only cosmetically different from before.

The album opens promisingly with the signature swirling breaks and gauzy beauty of “Chromakey Dreamcoat.” The anomalous sound (for BOC) of distorted guitar fuzz eases the listener into “Dayvan Cowboy” before a clearer, ‘50s-styled twang introduces an epic episode of surging washes, strings, and slamming drums. The drowsily pretty “Hey Saturday Sun” likewise startles as the group strips its sound to a relatively skeletal core of drums, electric guitar, and keyboards. “Tears from the Compound Eye” single-handedly instantiates the group's penchant for alchemizing kaleidoscopic haze into fragile melancholia and prismatic memory. Elsewhere, languid hip-hop pulses float through the dreamy sparkle of “Peacock Tail.” Perhaps the album's strongest piece, the ebullient “Oscar See Through Red Eye” impresses with its splatter-funk hip-hop beats, handclaps, and hallucinatory strings and washes.

But a vague disquiet gradually sets in as one realizes that whatever changes there are are largely superficial, and that the group has tweaked its sound too little. Two differences are conspicuous: a heavier guitar emphasis, and the almost complete absence—regrettably—of vocals, a critical component of BOC's first two albums. Beyond that, much is the same as before: there's a predictably hazy overture (“Into the Rainbow Vein”), intermittent interludes of ambient blur (“A Moment of Clarity,” “Ataronchronon”), and again a bucolic, organic feel that suggests communion with nature. The Campfire Headphase is a thoroughly credible Boards of Canada album, one that impresses more than Geogaddi but certainly pales next to Music Has The Right To Children. While the new release does refine and subtly simplify the group's sound, there's also nothing on it that matches the stunning invention of the debut's “Telephasic Workshop,” “Turquoise Hexgon Sun,” and “Aquarius.”

October 2005