Words and photos by Rafe Arnott except where noted
Triggering an emotion may be easier with a melody than rhythm, according to brothers Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin of Boards of Canada, but the faded patina of melancholy saturating the pair’s 1998 debut studio album Music Has The Right To Children, is as apparent in its tempo as its theme.
Relying heavily on drowsy beats, hypnotic bass lines, sought after synthesizer tonality and ‘70s educational television samples, Sandison and Eoin mined a shared – albeit decayed – analog past to create a future remembered. Like the warbled pitch of a cassette after being left on a sun-drenched dashboard all summer, this record captures a tangled zeitgeist of contrived childhood memories. Sonically-distressed, artificial recreations reminiscent of the false memory implants and Empathy Boxes used in Philip K. Dick’s dystopian science-fiction thriller Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Re-creations which, like the book, assured the LP’s thematic ascendancy into a generation’s collective psyche.
Photo below: Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin of Boards of Canada. Image courtesy Warp Records.
We used to chop up shortwave radio recordings on an ancient portable recorder and make tunes out of them by punching-in and layering tracks in a crude way..."
It has remained a benchmark in electronic music for more than two decades despite being lesser known commercially then many peer’s works. Repeated listening still fuels debate around what the album’s many vocal samples – mainly from children’s TV, documentaries, educational programming and field recordings – actually reference. Song titles “Wildlife Analysis,” “The Colour of the Fire,” “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” and “Rovgbiv” only add to the mystique surrounding the meaning of the album. Built upon the premise of deconstructed electronic and analog samples, deteriorated sonic affectations and artefacts, it can keep stoners tripping indefinitely; the album is a workshop for would-be IDM creators, producers and fans of Jaques Derrida. Oft classified or referenced as emotronic, downtempo, psychedelia, trip hop, ambient – even hauntology – (or simultaneously all of those) the LP defies easy categorization because of the complexity with which its foundations are torn down. If any cognizant thread of meaning is to be teased out without fraying too much fabric, it is in the sampling clues sewn throughout the album which hold it together.
This history of veiling recognizable motives and meanings within the brand seems to come naturally. BoC often zigged musically while others zagged, with any facts to be gleaned from the early days of their music creation coming from what the brothers copped to publicly. Neither admitted to even being related for more than seven years of their work being known, their different surnames apparently a way for them to further shroud themselves enigmatically (Eoin is Marcus’ middle name). Telling Clash in 2005, during one of their interviews, that “We didn’t go out our way to conceal the fact we are brothers. If people don’t ask about it we don’t bring it up. When we started releasing records we just wanted to avoid comparisons with Orbital… or even the Osmonds or the Jacksons.” While not necessarily viewed as wholly original in its musical DNA by critics of the day (who cite Nurse With Wound, My Bloody Valentine, Aphex Twin, and Brian Eno among others as probable influences), few albums of the period could be credited with swaying so many other artists to create material on their own terms – rather than seeking association with a style – than Children.
Photo above: About two years ago, I realized I needed to have an original copy of the LP (I’d had the 1998 Matador OLE-299-2 CD version for some time), so Discogs was consulted and a near mint copy was secured.
If anything, the album is the anti-IDM poster child of the late-90s as Sandison and Eoin rejected much of that premise at the time, focused not on sounding like what was to come, but what had passed. The idea of making people dance as an idiom within their artistic construct was anathema, as Eoin put it, they were “more interested in the psychological capabilities of sounds and images than their aesthetics.” Including the creation of “triggers, embedding, and subliminals… We’re not trying to accurately pastiche the past; it’s about inventing a past that didn’t really happen.” Children of the ’70s, the brothers were born into a family of musicians. Their father earned his living within the construction industry and this led the Sandison clan to Calgary, Alberta around 1980 to a job finishing the Saddledome.
The LP’s cover is purportedly sourced from a family photo at Banff Springs in the nearby Rocky Mountains. It was during these formative years, with the added exposure to the light and space of the north, that the two became evermore musically influenced by what they heard and saw, Sandison telling NME in 2002.,“My memory of Calgary is a picture of boxy 1970s office blocks dumped in the middle of nowhere against a permanent sunset.” Exposure in their grade school era to National Film Board of Canada documentaries and animated shorts contributed further sampling inspiration, their name an homage to the NFB. Living in a home populated with musical instruments and the means to tape sounds, they started to experiment with field recordings, shortwave radio snippets and musique concrete, teaching themselves how to distort and layer sound by chopping it up and re-recording, overloading it, or playing synthesizers over it. High school saw both dabble in guitar and drums, joining in with other, musically-inclined kids before realizing their mutual interests were based more around electronic sound creation, and a preference for exploring sound with one another, rather than others.
Photo above: Stop/start on a dime dynamics, with zero overhang to notes through the Audio Note M3 Phono all-valve preamplifier, Shure M91EDM and Technics1210GR combo.
Early self-released work was on cassettes via their own imprint, Music70. These were given to friends, family, select labels and industry insiders. One of these was Sean Booth of Autechre. Booth urged the pair to connect with Manchester-based indie label Skam, who subsequently released their first official EP, Hi Scores, in 1996 and ended up co-releasing Children with Warp Records in ’98. Working from their studio located in the countryside 30 minutes from Edinburgh, the pair looked back to go forward with the LP, telling Pitchfork in 2018, “We'd been recording in various forms of the band as teens through much of the '80s, and already had a big collection of our own old crappy recordings that we were really fond of,” said Eoin. "Then, around 1987 or 1988, we were beginning to experiment with collage tapes of demos we'd deliberately destroyed, to give the impression of chewed up library tapes that had been found in a field somewhere. That was the seed for the whole project. In those days, everyone used to have drawers full of unique cassettes with old snippets from radio and TV, it's kind of a lost thing now, sadly. To me, it's fascinating and precious to find some lost recordings in a cupboard, so part of it was an idea to create new music that really felt like an old familiar thing."
Photo above: The 1998 CD version of the album is a sonic masterpiece, but falls short of rivalling the 2xLP.
Children came to my attention in 2000 while attending film school. The course was overwhelming in its time requirements; 18-hour-days, six days a week, so music to work by became a primary facet of one’s daily programming. This was the height of Napster, so my modem was screeching constantly as I downloaded every BoC snippet I could: Twoism, Hi Scores, Aquarius, Peel Session TX, and In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country, with Music Has The Right To Children being the crown jewel of this collection. About two years ago, I realized I needed to have an original copy of the LP (I’d had the 1998 Matador OLE-299-2 CD version for some time), so Discogs was consulted and a near mint copy was secured. I could play it constantly, but I only do so rarely – it has become a special engagement to listen to because I value the music and production quality so highly. The 1998 UK Skam/Warp 2xLP gatefold release features the Braille-stickered cover, is dead quiet in the groove, pressed with outstanding dynamics, presence and extended frequency response, with particularly ripe bass.
The album opens with “Wildlife Analysis,” and it’s no coincidence – having grown up in Canada – that the track’s plaintive historically-contextual synth melody pushes me back to a darkened Grade Two classroom. I close my eyes and I’m sitting cross-legged with other children as we watch a canoe being paddled into a bruised, purple twilight by voyageurs – the NFB film this memory references playing through a television mounted on a wobbly stand with wheels. “An Eagle in your Mind,” “The Color of the Fire,” and "Telephasic Workshop” each alternately flowing into one another with layer, upon layer of heavy, corroded beats, clicks, drum kicks, snares, high hat and bleached, overloaded vocal samples leading the listener down an overgrown, untended garden path of sonic memory triggers; bits of birds chirping, fragmented whispers – a jet engine stereo-panning overhead – all collaged so effectively with re-used scotch tape and white glue, one can practically smell it. “Workshop,” in particular, feels like the album’s opening-up point, as if that weedy path is now a livestock-flattened field of prairie grass where big, Hz-weighted beats can stretch bass drivers to their excursion limit.
Chopped, warped staccato male and female vocal samples create an entirely separate melodic beat cadence as they pan between the speakers, while another deep voice intones “…order of Canada” intermittently dead centre between them. The entire sound stage in every axis overloading with sonic cues spatially arranged to simultaneously disorient and subdue one as every instrumental and vocal thread is grasped and followed. Discussing musical parts and the sum of them seems futile as the two wind and unwind, phasing in, and around one another in an ordered confusion of trance-inducing vertigo. “Sixtyten” with Apache helicopter-like blades of whirring, intense bass riffs is somehow balanced against voices speaking backwards, and LP samples being scratched/beat-matched and wound by hand on a turntable. It’s here, roughly 25 minutes into Music Has The Right To Children, one is reminded of another idea employed by PKD in Electric Sheep, the use of Penfield Mood Organs to acutely dial-in a person’s disposition, “according to a dynamic range of available settings.” This is what Sandison and Eoin do – they dial-in the listener to a range of settings available via the washed out nostalgia created with their musical and sampling prowess.
Photo above: An LP I listen to with restraint, lest I ever grow weary of its hypnotic pull.
As a somnambulist in a lightless bedroom, one feels rather out-of-body by the time the window-rattling bass lines of “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” disrupts any reverie. The almost claustrophobic samples of a party, or crowded room of people, overlaying the percussion on “Sun” unconsciously draws one in to decipher what’s being said – just as one would pick up snippets of conversation in a theatre lobby at intermission. “Kaini Industries” itself sounds like a reminder for people to return to their seats, as the second half of the show is about to resume. Boulder dropping kick-drum beats, announce the brothers haven’t forgotten that it is bass which drives a downtempo rhythm on “Bocuma” and Roygbiv.” Here the LP – of which I can think of few others who take the idea of a concept album to this extreme – pours on a sonic equivalent of distress or anxiety, as though we are all late for something, or waiting for a moment to occur. “Rue the Whirl” is uncomfortable, and you find yourself moving about trying to find a compass to guide you through these uneasily-orchestrated arrangements and pieces. “Aquarius” flips a switch and lightens the mood with drowning synth melodies, a funky electric guitar hook, shuddering uptempo beats and a children’s voice sample laughing, or repeating “Yeah, that’s right…” in a call-and-response tennis match between a grown man and woman saying ‘orange’ again and again.
The penultimate four songs – “Olson, Pete Standing Alone, Smokes Quantity, Open the Light” – lead one on a sonic journey where verse/chorus/bridge/chorus/outro cadence is further deconstructed, chopped, obfuscated and manipulated to push musical boundaries in new directions. Directions which elicit music-driven emotions charged by the disorientation BoC seems determined to gift the listener. The hallucinatory, underwater keyboard strokes of “Open the Light” filter into the conscious plane like bubbles floating to the surface of a murky pond. “One Very Important Thought” finishes off the album, and features what appears to be the only direct messaging on the entire 18-song LP. Messaging hinting that subversion of rights entrenched in law can come under attack at any time. A stern female voice informs the listener “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…If you can 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…” This concept of inviolable rights further draws a parallel with PKD’s writing in Electric Sheep, as it points to who decides who – or what in corporate law – is entitled to inalienable rights. Humans are, androids are not in PKD’s world, but in the world sonically inhabited by BoC those lines between the real and imagined, like much of the manufactured sonics saturating the album, are blurred.
This is an album for the heart, the mind. It’s of false memories, not necessarily one’s own, not even Sandison’s or Eoin’s, but so wholly relatable in their experiential presentation that for 62 minutes and 58 seconds one is allowed to be musically transported by its tugging familiarity. Its time-degraded analogue of emotions harkens to play-scarred Star Wars figurines lost in a jumble sale by a mother looking to spring clean. It is there, in that echo of recollection that is not the listener’s remembrance, but a contrived one built to evoke a response, that Boards of Canada has placed Music Has The Right To Children: on a shelf where it can be taken down, examined, and then put back. Perhaps, to be played another day.