Boards Of Canada, the mysterious duo made up of Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin, first burst upon the scene in 1998 with their excellent debut Music Has The Right To Children. That album introduced the world to their unique sound made up of airy ambient melodies, hip-hop influenced drums, vocal samples from educational films and other strange places, and the ability to generate hard-to-define emotions.
This sound was so unique and full of potential that it was not messed with very much on their darker 2002 follow-up Geogaddi. Although Geogaddi featured some wonderful songs (including the ultra-creepy "The Devil Is In The Details" which features the voice of a woman who sounds like she's drowning), it contained too many pointless interludes and was pretentious enough to end with a song, "Magic Window," that was nothing but silence. Now, Boards Of Canada returns with their third album The Campfire Headphase. It adds tweaks to the BOC style and although there are shades of brilliance, this is an album that has the duo looking back at their own work for inspiration.
From the moment you see the cover artwork for The Campfire Headphase, you know that this album will have more in common with the duo's debut album than with their previous album. Like the cover for Music Has The Right To Children, turquoise is the prominent color here and a photo (this time of one person) is blurred beyond recognition. However, Boards Of Canada resist making a carbon copy of their debut in several ways.
The biggest difference between this album and their debut (as well as Geogaddi) is the addition of live instruments into the mix. "Chromakey Dreamcoat," the first real song on the album, is powered by a slightly out-of-key acoustic guitar sample. The acoustic guitar also figures heavily in the mellow "Satellite Anthem Icarus." The use of live instruments also leads to another way The Campfire Headphase is different from its predecessors: tighter production. This album feels more polished (and, dare I say, conventional) than BOC's other efforts. The songs are more melodic and easier to get into. The superb "Dayvan Cowboy" is a good example of this. This song builds itself for over a minute before it reveals itself. The powerful, varied percussion present on the song shows that the duo has not abandoned everything from Geogaddi. Interludes are kept to a minimum, with many of them tacked on at the end of songs. Also, The Campfire Headphase is the shortest of BOC's three albums and has less tracks than the others as well.
The final way this album differs from its predecessors is the overall feel. Each BOC album has its own feelings that it generates. Music Has The Right To Children had an eerie yet positive feeling to it while Geogaddi had a feeling that was harder-edged and at times just a little unsettling. The Campfire Headphase has an overall feeling that seems to lie somewhere between the two. Since it's clearly inspired by the childhood experience of going to camp, that makes sense. Going to camp is a love/hate experience where kids never want to go and yet never want to leave. The track progression on the album also reflects this. The stronger percussion-driven songs like "Dayvan Cowboy" and "Peacock Tail" are frontloaded on the album. As the album progresses, there are songs that are more ambient than percussive like "Ataronchronon" and "Slow This Bird Down." It leads to the album's closer "Farewell Fire," a song that very gradually devolves to silence in the same way a fire slowly goes out.
Overall, I think The Campfire Headphase is another excellent Boards Of Canada album. With tighter construction than their previous albums, the addition of live instruments, and vocal samples relegated to the background, it's probably their most accessible album to date. At the same time, I don't think it surpasses their previous work either. Although there are some very good songs to be found here, I wish that BOC took a little more risks with this album. The use of instruments is welcome, but no track on this album really stands out from the fray the way the best tracks on Geogaddi and Music Has The Right To Children did. This duo is capable of creating truly innovative music and in a way, it's disappointing that they chose to look back instead of truly moving ahead. Despite this, The Campfire Headphase is an enjoyable, nearly filler-free album that should reward fans in repeated listens until the next BOC release.