Boards of Canada – Music Has the Right to Children (1998)
So, I’m doing a new thing again, and as such I wanted to start off by writing about something important. If I am known as anything at all, it is mostly likely as a “music person”. I have had several podcasts, blogs, and sad conversations with disinterested people about the topic of music, writ large. As such, I want to discuss the bane of every hardcore music fan’s existence; the one question they dread answering the most: “What is your favorite album?”
This question is a dagger for music obsessives because it boxes them in. A singular favorite pigeonholes music people. Even genre specialists like hip-hop heads and metalheads hate this because the diversity within a genre can be vast. For example, let’s say you ask this question to a metalhead. They could respond with something like Kill ‘Em All by Metallica, and that would be a fair answer. But there are so many other possibilities depending on what kind of metalhead you are talking to. An old-school thrash guy might say Eaten Back to Life by Cannibal Corpse. The new school hipster might say Sunbather by Deafheaven. The stoner metal fan might say Dopesmoker by Sleep. In fact, there’s a really good chance they’ll say that, but I digress. You get the idea. Every genre has a multitude of sub-genres splintering out like capillaries that represent something very important to, like, five hundred people.
The “favorite album” question is also a catch-22, because if you say, “Oh, I like pretty much everything”, most people understand that to be code for “I don’t really have an opinion on music”, which is exponentially worse because that means you’re incredibly basic.
That said, music obsessives usually DO have an answer to this question, and I’m certainly no exception. It is an answer that I have had for about a decade now without a lot of variation: Music Has the Right to Children by Boards of Canada.
I first heard this album my freshman year of college at Bowling Green. This was one of the ten or so CDs I bought on my first trip to the wonderful Finders’ Records. This trip would prove to be rather important for me because A.) it was the greatest album haul of my life and B.) it became the foundation of where I am today. The butterfly effect this had me is kind of insane to be honest.
This haul made me want to find more “out there” music, which led me to buy tons of CDs, which led me to trading in several of those CDs, which led me to getting a job at a record store, which led me to meeting pretty much everyone in the dark hipster underbelly of Canton in one way or another, which spurred me into moving into comparable avenues of expression such as writing, and now here we are today. It’s crazy how life works. I distinctly remember buying Music Has the Right to Children, Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s I See a Darkness, Ween’s The Mollusk, the singles collections for Super Furry Animals and Yo La Tengo, and maybe Dr. Octagon, but Music Has a Right to Children was the pinnacle of that haul.
It’s not hyperbole to say that up until that point, I had never heard anything like Music Has a Right to Children. I had loved electronic music from the very beginning of my musical fandom. From the genre’s standard-bearers like Daft Punk and Fatboy Slim to utter dreck like Scooter and Moby, I was about that life. I slowly began to find other “hipper” musical interests, but I always maintained my love for electronic music.
But by the time I entered my freshman year of college, the electronic music boom of the late ‘90s had been soundly quashed by the curmudgeonly, Denis Leary-esque old guard lamenting a potentially guitar-less world. Christ, the world was almost past the peak of rock’s flaccid “triumphant return” with the likes of The Strokes, The Hives, The Vines, and countless other “The” bands I couldn’t care less about. Music had pretty much moved on altogether, or more accurately, the masses had moved on, probably to Kanye. If I’m being honest, I had probably moved on as well, most likely swept up in the foolhardy notion that electronic music was frivolous and lacked that indefinable aspect of music called “soul”.
But then I listened to Music Has the Right to Children.
I was accustomed to the Chemical Brothers-esque Big Beat stylings, but this album was something different. There was a living energy to this album that most electronic albums lacked, and even eschewed. This album was not the bloodless vanguard of the late ‘90s electronic scene knifing its way into the future. It was not digital. It barely felt analog. More often than not the album felt downright agrestic, almost as if you could pluck it from a twisting vine curling up a fence post in the Scottish Lowlands. It felt evocative of warm, half-remembered cultural ephemera while still being fresh and vibrant. The tone vacillated between sweetly bucolic and cryptically sinister, but never once felt jarring. Even when the glitchy trappings endemic to electronica presented themselves, they were muted by the wispy, pastoral flourishes rippling throughout the record. Music Has a Right to Children was a masterclass in downtempo refinement. It changed my life, and I had to know more.
Ah, but trying to learn more about Boards of Canada was anything but easy. The duo has always been notoriously reclusive. Most people know about Daft Punk’s mysterious aura, but as far as enigmatic electronic duos go, I think Boards of Canada torches them. A lot of this comes not just from the group themselves, but from the music they put out. Daft Punk make incredible, yet straightforward dance music (to put things very reductively).
Boards of Canada do not.
Their music is layered with haunting allusions to the Branch Davidian cult, numerology, artificial intelligence, fringe science, and subliminal messaging. There’s a malevolence to their music that bubbles underneath their pleasant exterior. To put it plainly, it seems like they’re up to something at times, whatever that might be. So, all that said, who are these guys then? What’s their deal? Are they weird Koreshian, Satan lovers holed up in a bunker somewhere in the fields of Scotland? Eh, not exactly. So, what’s up with them? Well, we thankfully have a better understanding of them in 2020 than in, say, 2006 when I first encountered them, so I’ll try to explain their whole deal as best I can.
Boards of Canada are an electronic music duo from Edinburgh, Scotland. The two members are Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin, who are brothers. Right off the bat, this was a fact that wasn’t public knowledge until a September 2005 interview with Pitchfork. They actually began the interview still pretending to not be brothers until Marcus had the interviewer turn off the recorder and ask Michael if it was ok to discuss. They said it was so that they didn’t draw comparisons to another UK-based brotherly electronic group, Orbital, in their early years, but again… up to something.
The two began making music at age 10, and formed bands throughout high school in the mid ‘80s. Eventually, Michael brought Marcus into his band, the two brought in synths, and everyone else just fell off. The two were inspired by groups such as The Cocteau Twins, The Incredible String Band, My Bloody Valentine, Devo, Wendy Carlos, Seefeel, Nitzer Ebb, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and even Front 242. But perhaps their most notable inspiration was that of the ‘70s nature documentaries created by the National Film Board of Canada.
Their family had moved to Canada from Scotland due to their father’s work, and became drawn to these very tranquil educational pieces. A lot of their work revolves around this blurred vision of nostalgia; music that happened in the periphery two decades prior, and possibly more. Scores for educational films, field recordings, warbly synth muzak, all the music used to fill dead air, all that stuff no one actively paid attention to was used as the foundation for a lot of their work to great effect. It swaddles you in a warm, nostalgic feeling and you barely even know why at first. It just feels oddly familiar; lived in.
As the duo entered the early ‘90s, they began to refine their sound, record and release demos for their self-financed label Music70, and play small shows amongst the slowly coalescing “Hexagon Sun”, their small group of artistic collaborators. Again, the “Hexagon Sun” collective just adds more to the group’s mystery. While the “Hexagon Sun” does refer to several aspects of their career: the group’s crew of artistic compatriots (like a Fort Thunder in Rhode Island, for instance), the duo’s recording studio (which has been described by multiple sources as being similar to a bunker), and as part of several song titles throughout their discography (“Turquoise Hexagon Sun” is on Music Has the Right to Children), some BoC fans believe that this is more than just a bunch of artists, and are in reality some manner of cult.
This sentiment is probably not helped by the group’s intense secrecy, as well as the fact that if one were to go to the collective’s website prior to 2005, it would redirect them to BoC’s official website, but not before providing a turquoise mirrored text image reading: “the internet is evil. wake up.” Are they a cult? Honestly, kind of hard to say at this point as I fall further down this rabbit hole.
The brothers only began shopping around their EPs in the mid ‘90s due to a lack of confidence, according to that same 2005 Pitchfork interview (also, if you couldn’t tell, they don’t do interviews very often. There are a few: the 2005 P4K one, the 1998 one for Virgin Megaweb, a 1998 one from Forcefield, but they’re few and far between, especially in recent years). One such person was Sean Booth of Autechre fame, who had close ties with the experimental Manchester electronic label Skam Records. The group signed with Skam soon after, and released the absolutely beautiful 1996 EP Hi Scores.
Around this time, the band had attracted the attention of Warp Records, one of, if not the, premiere electronic record labels in existence. Warp wanted to put out one of their albums as well, but did not want to infringe on the nascent relationship the group was forming with Skam. So, a compromise was reached; the group’s next record would be jointly released on Skam and Warp. That album was, of course, Music Has the Right to Children.
The album was released on April 20th, 1998 (yes, it was released on 4/20 blaze it), and was actually distributed by indie-rock stalwart Matador Records here in the states. It included a bonus track, “Happy Cycling”, that was initially left off of the UK release, but was eventually included on Warp’s 2004 re-release. In fact, the initial 500 copies of the Matador release left the track off as well by accident, despite the artwork saying differently.
The album actually charted in the UK, reaching #193, and was certified silver (which equates to over 60,000 copies sold) by the British Phonographic Industry (essentially their RIAA). The album would go on to garner much acclaim, especially as the years have gone by. It was #35 on Pitchfork’s Top 100 Albums of the ‘90s list, and #2 on their Top 50 IDM Albums of All Time. Mojo ranked it at #91 on their 100 Modern Classics list, and the album was featured in the book “1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die” by Robert Dimery. Pretty prestigious stuff.
Now, before we begin with the actual music side of the album, lets discuss the album cover. Before you even put the album on, the cover art is already working itself into your brain. The cover is a photo of a family standing around in the Banff National Park (specifically the Banff Upper Hot Springs) in Alberta, CA during the 1970’s. The band’s name and album title are in the lower right corner, printed in a sort of retro-futuristic sans-serif font. The photo itself is washed-out and tinted with a turquoise hue. But the family’s faces are what really put a point on the band’s message. All of the faces are blank and featureless, like a family of Gazelle Twins.
All of this is meant to evoke fond, placid memories, but as is often the case, memories are washed away by time, removing the details with it. By creating a sort of visual approximation of a memory expressed as a photograph, the album cover takes the idea of memory and gives it an almost sinister undertone. Memories can seem so vivid, but when pressed for clarity, memories tend to betray us, as the old adage would say. However, BoC frame this as in a way that make it seem more coordinated than incidental. What are our memories trying to remind us of? Is it what we want or is it what we need? It’s a simple but effective expression of intent. Nostalgia is not a 100% pleasant thing, and memory is more feeling than fact than we tend to believe.
But we’ve talked around his album enough, let’s get into the actual music. Simply put, it’s fantastic. I’ve touched upon some of the basic tenets this album adheres to, but what does that really translate to on record? Well, their interplay between the sinister and the comforting is exhibited within the first three minutes or so of the record. “Wildlife Analysis” is a pleasant seventy-six-second intro that sounds like it could score a gentle nature documentary about migratory birds, like its delicately lilting through the air itself. But this slowly fades into “An Eagle in Your Mind”. While still humming with ambiance, the pitch has taken a darker tone, haunting even. Then the glitchy IDM breaks begin to manifest. Then the semi-whispered sound clips emerge. Now all of the sudden you have this icy, itchy feeling that does not quite compute.
By about minute five into this record, you have a seemingly benevolent robot saying that he loves you, and you have a hard time believing said robot as this all seems too subversive and tense. By minute eight, you get to “The Color of Fire” and the album has morphed into just this terrifying, overly processed child’s voice REPEATEDLY telling you that they love you over music that could have been lifted straight from a Children’s Television workshop production. We aren’t even ten minutes into this album and at this point you are left wondering where they could possibly be going from here. Welcome to Music Has a Right to Children.
However, the dueling undertones running through this record are only part of the reason why I enjoy it as much as I do. If that was all this record had going for it, even as expertly as they do it here, I don’t think I would hold the record in such high regard. Thankfully, this album has so many other things going for it. Their synth work on this record is astonishingly beautiful.
I am a massive mark for old synths, particularly when they’re being “used as directed”, for lack of a better term. You have very famous examples of prolific artists bending the synthesizers of their era in ways their creators could never envisioned (David Bowie’s Low is a good example), but I love the weird, wonky sound that playing a synth straight creates. Certainly, BoC are manipulating a lot of things on this album, but a lot of the core building blocks of these songs derive from the aforementioned “industrial” muzak; music made to fill time under ceephax and color bars, not for pushing the boundaries of sonic exploration. This also probably explains my unironic love for the actual music of vaporwave, but that is for another time.
It probably isn’t much of a surprise then that I think that the best tracks on this album are the one-to-two-minute synth breakdowns that are scattered throughout. The muted warble of “Kaini Industries”, the proggy trilling of “Bocuma”, the austere hum of “Olsen”, “Triangles and Rhombuses”, all of which are just short interstitial ruminations on a theme, but all of them are killer.
To go along with the gorgeous synth work and the creeping malevolence, you also have the dreamy, psychedelic pastoralism permeating the record. It’s probably what most casual fans of the band both identify them with and gravitate towards, which makes sense considering that these elements were uncommon in the electronic music scene of the day. Despite the flood of imitators since, this album still combines these elements the better than anyone. The aforementioned “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” has this lovely ambient foundation from which their glitchy beats flourish. “Aquarius” has a dreamy, playful quality to it that allows it to subtly drift into weird territory (more on that later). I mean, in reality most of these songs have what I would describe as a modern psychedelic take on pastoralism.
If you aren’t aware, pastoralism in a classical sense refers to an idealized vision of the country, typically by an urban audience. As literary theorist Terry Gifford states, pastoralism “describes the country with an implicit or explicit contrast to the urban”, and I cannot think of a better example of that than an electronic band that made an EP called In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country. They even have the natural sounds of birds chirping on “Rue the Whirl” because they left their studio window open. If it isn’t becoming clear already, this album is continuously stacking disparate pieces and forging them into this fascinating final product.
You also have the aforementioned weirdness on this record. I’ve already touched on the Hexagon Sun stuff, but this record can get really strange. “Aquarius” has sound clips of a woman reciting numbers in sequence before breaking down into this weird number station-esque random number… thing. I don’t know. Also, there are kids just laughing and saying “yeah, that’s right” at random numbers and a man saying “ORANGE” over and over again. But perhaps the strangest thing about this record is the “song” “One Very Important Thought”. It’s just a woman talking over a very BoC style synth line, and while that’s not all that strange out of context, I’m just going put transcription of this track here to give you an idea of what I mean:
“Now that the show is over, and we have jointly exercised our constitutional rights, we would like to leave you with one very important thought. Sometime in the future, you may have the opportunity to serve as a juror in a censorship case, or a so-called “obscenity” case. It would be wise to remember that the same people who would stop you from listening to Boards of Canada, may be back next year to complain about a book or even a TV program. If you could be told what you can see or read, then it follows that you can be told what to say or think. Defend your constitutionally protected rights, no one else will do it for you. Thank you.”
This album barely has any lyrics on it, and while unnerving at times, this album is, on it’s face, one of the farthest things from obscene. I understand the stanning for free speech, especially in today’s day-and-age, but why of all bands would they feel the need to include that on their album? It makes one wonder what is actually on this record to make them preemptively include that?
Up. To. Something.
I mean, in all honesty, my guess is that this piece adds to their mystery while expressing their actual beliefs, but again this is all feeding into this creepy narrative undertone.
All that said, these are the obvious reasons why people love BoC, but I want to close the album talk with one of my favorite aspects of Music Has a Right to Children, and its criminally under represented by critics at large when discussing this record: Music Has a Right to Children bumps. There are some pretty sick beats flowing throughout this record. BoC don’t get as crazy as their contemporaries Aphex Twin and Squarepusher got around this era, but man this album can move when it wants to. “Telephasic Workshop”, “Pete Standing Alone”, and “Rue the Whirl” have some seriously kicking drums to them, and for all the pleasant interludes on this record, the meatier tracks on here are the ones I’ve grown fonder of as I get older.
This album really shouldn’t work. It’s a weird mélange of lilting synths, shifty kick drums, glitchy manipulations, and general weirdness, but I adore this album. Many have tried to capture something similar to BoC’s sound (Black Moth Super Rainbow, Four Tet, Caribou), but none quite hit like BoC do. There’s a reason this album is so revered, and while many people think they topped themselves with the release of Geogaddi, this remains my favorite BoC album, and my favorite album full stop.
For more long form talk about albums, check out our discussion of the 1978 punk classic Can’t Stand the Rezillos here.