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Flint’s one-album wonders #5: Boards of Canada – The Campfire Headphase



In the fifth part of our series of artists and their sole exciting albums, we go beyond this blog’s usual musical scope and explore some ambient electronica, looking at one of the more underspoken albums of a cult classic music act.

I’ve had a thing for electronic music ever since I got properly into music, but that crush has rarely blossomed into true love if we venture beyond the typical boc_tch_rfoxverse-chorus-verse synthpop stuff. Largely because I’m a picky arsehole and often find myself more in love with the concept rather than the actual music. I have a huge thing for various forms of dance music, though you’d never guess it from how little I have it in my collection and my aversion to clubs and other natural habitats of the genre tree; it’s a genre largely based on individual songs, which somewhat chafes against an album nerd like me. IDM and its various offshoots fascinate me as well, but often things get a little bit too abstract for my small mind. But ambient – ambient I adore. Always have done. I’m a huge sucker for atmosphere (in case you couldn’t tell from how that word is one of the most frequently appearing words in this blog) and ambient is all about atmosphere. It’s music to sink into and my god do I love to sink into my music.While full-on electronic material is a sadly small minority in my music collection, I’ve ended up picking up a fair few ambient albums along the way.

The recently resurfaced Boards of Canada haven’t had a large career in terms of release numbers, but they’ve managed to establish themselves as the go-to names for electronic music/IDM/etc. Most of the applaud goes to Music Has the Right for Children, their debut album – one that, predictably, I loved more as an idea than I did as an actual record. Boards of Canada do gorgeous soundscapes very well, but I’m left cold by the rest of what goes on with the songs which often clashes a bit too much from what I find to be the key element. The difference with The Campfire Headphase, their third album, is that it’s solely devoted to those soundscapes. It’s softer, warmer and more lush than its predecessors – the emphasis is entirely on the ambience.

With that change, everything clicks together. The hazy, fuzzy sounds – like bittersweet notes from a distant recording – are uninterrupted and left to work their magic. They’re accompanied by other elements, obviously, but this time they do not clash together. The glitchy beats and various other electronic shuffles have been replaced by softer beats and selected live instrument accompaniment, most prominently guitars that make understated but important appearances in a large number of tracks. The filtered dreamy atmospherics that have become Boards of Canada’s trademark touch come fully alive here. It’s all very dreamy, but not in the sleepy way – it’s hazy and misty dreaminess, more akin to waking up peacefully.

Peacock Tail

Like the vast majority of ambient albums, it all tends to turn into one big soothing pile of sound – the songs have distinct parts, there’s better ones and slightly lesser ones and while similar in production not everything is identical, and yet very few songs ever really rise above others in a particularly poignant way. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for something to obsessed with creating and sustaining a mood like ambient albums do, and The Campfire Headphase doesn’t suffer one bit from its rather homogenous flow and the uninterrupted passage of lovely sound. Calling The Campfire Headphase monotonous is rather unfair though – there’s a surprising amount of things happening with each song and despite being an ambient album, rhythm carries a heavy role. It’s not quite enough to make you actually associate particular songs with their titles, but a fair chunk of the album has its own distinct nature even if they all mold into a part of the greater whole.

The one song that does deserve a special mention is, of course, “Dayvan Cowboy” – the “hit” of the album and Boards of Canada’s arguable signature song. It’s the song that jumps up to every single person who hears the album and for a good reason – on an album filled with mellow ambience, it’s the single song that decides to aim to the skies instead. It builds up, it soars, in comparison to the rest of the album it downright explodes. Where everything else on The Campfire Headphase wades through dreams, “Dayvan Cowboy” is wide awake and living life to the max. It’s a gorgeous song and an undisputed, deserved centrepiece of the album.

The reason why I rarely speak about my love for ambient is that it’s really hard to come up with anything particular to say about it – even with my obsession with atmosphere, it gets a bit painful to try to come up with new adjectives and similes to describe what is effectively really strong mood. At its best ambient evokes mental images and transports the listener to another place, but the problem there obviously is trying to convey one’s mental worlds over to another person. But even at the risk of sounding like a pretentious git waxing empty poetics, The Campfire Headphase has always represented summer to me. It’s serene, peaceful mornings where sunshine wakes you up to another gorgeous day; it’s wide fields of tall green grass bathing in warmth in a world where there’s nothing to worry about; it’s the warm, quiet evenings where the sun slowly sets into the horizon. It’s a beautiful album and one of my go-to ambient works.

Dayvan Cowboy

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