Review of Boards of Canada's Geogaddi

The mad scientist team at Boards of Canada, Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison, spent the last few years in their Hexagon Sun Lab in the Scottish Highlands, toiling long into the night on their latest greatest invention. The project failed to fulfill their intentions, but the results are fascinating and have been released on CD and triple LP on Warp Records. So what exactly was the aim of this mad experiment? It was, as put on track 2 'Music is Math', to capture "the past inside the present". They built a time machine, and their destination, as the title of track 10 reveals, was 1969.

So what kind of 1969 did they hope to capture inside 2002? From the results I'd say a 1969 with nothing to do with the Stooges, but maybe a little to do with Charles Manson and the end of the Sixties, and a bit of Neil Armstrong, Stanley Kubrick and David Bowie's space oddysseys too. But ultimately it is something completely new.

Professors Eoin and Sandison fed all kinds of old junk into their machine, including a huge number of faded sun-bleached photographs and grainy, wobbly nature documentaries made by the National Film Board of Canada, distorted by thirty years of dust and sunlight. They also fed it the results of their previous explorations into their own nostalgically distorted childhood memories, which were released in 1998 as Music Has The Right to Children.

They must have made a mistake somewhere in their complex calculations ('A is to B as B is to C', 'The Smallest Weird Number'), because the past that the time machine reproduced was even more distorted than these representations of it, with barely any resemblance to the real 1969 at all.

In fact, its inventors inadvertently created a magnificent new world, which they christened Geogaddi. Probes into the unexplored territory took measurements with some of the team's other inventions, their 'Sunshine Recorder', 'Horizon Radar', and their own brand of 'Gyroscope'. Results showed temperatures far too high for humans to survive in. Geogaddi is a planet of almost unbearably beautiful fire and water, sunshine, dawns, beaches and horizons.

Music Has the Right to Children, while frequently giving us the eerie feeling that there was something dark, dangerous and very bizarre lurking beneath the surface, was an album full of warm fuzzy synth sounds, laidback hip-hop beats, playful samples and pretty melodies. Geogaddi is a far bolder work, never aiming to merely comfort and soothe, always striving to move us profoundly. It is both brighter and darker: radiantly ominous. The title of track 3, 'Beware the Friendly Stranger', captures this sense that the darkness is closer to the surface, and the surface is thinner. There are less pretty melodies and less funky beats. Instead, simple chord progressions are used for maximum emotional impact, and loose ensembles of percussive sounds drive the feelings into us like a stake into a vampire's heart.

But the area that this album makes the greatest advance in is texture. Those wonderfully cheesy synth tones have been almost completely abandoned in favour of sounds that bristle, glisten, crackle and sparkle. The progression is almost as great as that made by Aphex Twin from his first to second Selected Ambient Works. But unlike SAW Vol. 2, Geogaddi is also a work of dense layering of sounds. 'A is to B is to C' reminds me of 'Revolution 9'.

I think that Boards of Canada's power to move the listener to another place is undeniably great, but the more important question is whether it is a place we would like to inhabit. The album starts with a thrilling but almost frustrating seven-track stretch of unnerving tension, culminating in 'Sunshine Recorder', whose eerie high-point is the ironic refrain "a beautiful place", a good example of the way BoC's trademark cute kid voices have now become damn creepy. The tense stretch is suddenly broken by the ecstatic release and impossible euphoria of 'Julie and Candy'. The airy flutes and slow-motion beats of this track make me think of walking through clouds. Its pleasures are all the richer as rewards for the long trek to get it.

Similarly exhilarating is 'Dawn Chorus', on which the cracking vocal and My Bloody Valentinesque mammoth pitch-wavering sounds can't stay in tune under the weight of the track's immense grandeur. These tracks are uplifting in a deeply serious way, aware of their ephemeral nature where Music Has the Right's 'Roygbiv' was blissfully ignorant. The most deeply melancholic moment of all comes near the end with 'You Could Feel the Sky', whose vocal is by a sad old man rather than a happy child. Boards of Canada are as nostalgic on this album as they have ever been, but it is the sad nostalgia of remembering your life when close to death, not the excited nostalgia of reliving your childhood.

For several reasons, Geogaddi isn't as immediately enjoyable as its predecessor, and doesn't give off the same kind of warm comforting glow. But it's a deeper work of greater power and beauty, and should eventually come to occupy an equally prominent place in your heart.