Boards of Canada have always seemed like the most likely figures in the nebulous space of IDM to inspire their own cult. Given the general weirdness of their peers, that’s saying a lot: Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James is as enigmatic as they come, his ominously grinning visage a playfully unsettling icon of his equally mercurial music. The cacophonous soundscapes of Autechre are prone to more overt moments of sonic violence, even as their personas outside their knotty compositions are decidedly less cloaked in mystique. And listening to Mouse on Mars can feel like hearing a machine bounce and flex like a cartoon, expanding and contracting and springing leaks.
Boards of Canada, on the other hand, make music that’s mysterious by design. Their debut album, Music Has the Right to Children, invoked nostalgia through sonic textures that sound as if they were sourced from decaying film strips from the ’60s and ’70s, playful samples of voices distorted just enough to feel off but not to disguise them entirely. They never abandoned that wistful aesthetic even as their motivations became more sinister, however, building hooks from the concept of cult recruitment in their 2000 track “In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country,” which was built around a sample of a voice saying, “Come out and live in a religious community in a beautiful place out in the country.” It’s music that’s artfully composed and uncannily arranged—so much that the finished product can sometimes feel like a found artifact of a gently warping and oxidizing but beautiful score to a forgotten VHS tape.
Geogaddi isn’t the album that’s typically credited with being Boards of Canada’s masterpiece—that would be Music Has the Right to Children, an album that accomplishes the rare feat of using a style of music typically known for its cerebral complexities as a conduit to tap into an uncertain but very real emotional space. Yet on Geogaddi, Boards of Canada essentially create a sort of mirror masterpiece built on more playfully sinister and disorienting sounds and elements, both programmed and live sounds, and sampled elements that delve into even darker places—backmasked voices and other spoken Easter Eggs, ambiguous cacophonies and any number of curious coincidences that reinforce Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison’s suggestion of the album being an Alice in Wonderland-like experience. It’s an hour-plus-long trip down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass—choose whichever Carroll cliche you like—that uncovers more disquieting hallucinations the deeper you look. And the deeper that listeners looked, the stranger the details seemed to appear.
Some of the ephemera that emerges on first listen is perplexing, if entertaining, like the sound of The Naked Gun actor Leslie Nielsen narrating a National Geographic film about volcanoes in the brief interlude “Dandelion.” It’s the music itself that leaves the strongest first impression, their layered compositions more dense than frenetic, the pieces woven together and overlapping in gorgeously prickly ways. “Music is Math” is Boards of Canada at their most beat driven, however awkward it might be to do any actual dancing to the song. “Sunshine Recorder” sounds less like capturing the sun than what might happen if a synthesizer were left out in the heat for too long, warmly warbly and psychedelic, and “The Smallest Weird Number” seems to capture the sound of what it might feel like to see a ghost.
It gets weirder. The hazy “1969” immediately stands out for its heavy array of shoegaze-like elements, mesmerizingly arranged and eerie in its melodic immediacy. But when an effects-treated vocal floats in singing the words, “Although not a follower of hseroK divaD, she’s a devoted Branch Davidian,” once again reminding us of the duo’s fascination with cults. Similarly, “Julie and Candy” is one of the most musically unnerving tracks, so much of it seemingly moving backward, with harder hitting live drum sounds and a weird cacophony mostly comprising flutes and recorders. Samples from the George Romero film Season of the Witch are interwoven into the din, and though the name of the track suggests a kind of childlike innocence, it also seems to reference—intentionally or not—Candace Newmaker, a child who died of suffocation during an attachment therapy session in 2000. One of the unlicensed therapists present during the session, as it turns out, was named Julie Ponder, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison for reckless child abuse.
“Magic Window,” the final track, is purely silent—one minute and 43 seconds of it, in fact. Though the track is arguably “empty,” it does serve a clever and curious purpose—to bring the album’s duration up to 66 minutes and 6 seconds, as close as you can get to invoking the Number of the Beast in pure CD tracking terms. The actual intended reason for the gap is to allow the listener a brief break before the album starts over from the beginning; the 66:06 stunt was just that, as suggested by their label owner as a joke, the duo revealed in a 2005 interview. One contributor to the Boards of Canada wiki site even discovered that the file size when the album is ripped to wavs is 666 MB. Probably coincidental. …Right?
Everything you hear on Geogaddi is there for a reason, but it’s the reason itself that remains the biggest mystery. We can infer the band’s motivations via the fairly limited press they’ve done over the past couple decades, mainly that they were fascinated by things like cults, and in particular how poorly authorities handled the situation with David Koresh and his followers. It’s really not unlike the obsession with true crime of the moment, or even the group’s fans’ own obsession with cracking the album’s occult code. (And, of course, we know the 66:06 thing is mostly there for a chuckle.) But Boards of Canada seem to have been caught off guard by the extent of sleuthing and, by extension, assumptions made about the so-called “Satanic” ideas that went into Geogaddi.
“People were understanding things from our music that we didn’t put in there and were saying there was an evil undercurrent to everything. And we are not like that at all,” Mike Sandison said in a 2005 Pitchfork interview. “It was a theme that we wanted to pursue on that record but people have understood from that that we always put secret, dark, sinister, and satanic things in our music. And that became more important than the music itself.”
A funny thing happened after 2005’s The Campfire Headphase, however. The Sandison brothers went quiet for another eight years, once again leaving the mystery of their haunted electronic music up to ambiguity and allowing the legends to persist—not that they necessarily could end the speculation if they wanted to. And when they emerged again in 2013, they did so by delivering their most apocalyptic album to date, Tomorrow’s Harvest. Since then, though, the duo’s been relatively quiet yet again.
Boards of Canada, 20 years after the release of Geogaddi, might be a little perplexed by the amount of attention given to its most peculiar elements, but the mystery is in part what makes it special. Were Boards of Canada a metal band rather than a more nuanced pair of electronic composers, nobody would question it—chalk it up to subcultural aesthetics. But that this music doesn’t bludgeon, that it mesmerizes through unsharpened lines and miasmal textures, renders the phenomenon of its many odd references and coincidences all the more fascinating. Though they’ve perhaps shrugged at the myths it’s spawned (and even denounced some of them as a joke), their relative quiet keeps the ambiguity within its darkest corners alive. When there are YouTube channels dedicated to solving the mysteries of cinematic extended universes or attempting to determine objective answers to every artistic decision meant to be open to interpretation, it’s refreshing to know that Geogaddi continues to exist in this wonderfully uncertain space.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.