At its best, Campfire Headphase, the latest outing by electronic duo Boards of Canada, evokes what it might be like to walk through some Icelandic landscape: icy sheens, coarse static from some transistor radio off in the distance, and snow drifts blowing across wide-open plains. While the record is not without its hiccups, the band's soundscapes are, overall, deftly crafted, and make for an enjoyable listen.
Echoes, guitar strums, live drum shuffling, faint blips, synthesizer brushstrokes, and a range of other computerized sounds all feature prominently in a record that shows the band consciously shifting away from computer-reliant sounds to the integration of instruments and organic sounding elements.
To that end, "Chromakey Dreamcoat" is one of the record's finest points, showcasing what marks Boards of Canada as the creative electronic masterminds they have come to be known as. The track opens with a simple guitar line and a head-nodding downbeat, and then makes a recognizable shift into what could be called a different movement of the song -- layers of computerized and organic-sounding noises, what could be seagulls, mixed with tambourines and a ghost-like lute. The track then continues by swinging back and forth between the guitar line and the seagulls, with the song's interlocking parts working well together, each building off the momentum of the other, until the song stops with a silent pause, then starts off in another direction entirely -- a different guitar line, with textured static and some murmuring voice, then drifting to the song's end. Each part of the track plays a role in the story being told, all in the context of an enlivened groove.
Much of the record shows Boards of Canada in similarly pleasing moments, with the band experimenting with melodies and backdrop built on organic instrumentation, or at least, organic-sounding instrumentation. "Oscar Sees Through Red Eyes" is one such excelling track, as are "Slow This Bird Down," which has a quiet and lovely guitar interlude at its end, and "Peacock Tail," another favorite featuring what sounds like softly plucked guitar strings and a shuffling drum beat with xylophones against thick static. "Dayvan Cowboy," too, has a shimmery quality, again built on a mix of synths and guitar, with moments of melody-carrying cellos and crashing cymbals in the background -- the closest the band gets to building a track entirely around a guitar melody, with the band's preeminent use of guitar proving a refreshing counterpoint to the seemingly computer-only tracks that also appear on the record.
Indeed, it's at the moments when the record relies solely on computer-generated sounds that it gets stuck -- either in a mechanistic groove, with some tracks sounding more like tiny inner gears turning inside a Swiss watch rather than a song, or in its own inchoate meanderings, sometimes hampered by both in the same track, such as on "Tears from the Compound Eye," which approaches boringness in its constant synthesizer drones and its whispery, uninspired rhythms. "Farewell Fire," which should be an epic song at over eight minutes in length, is again an unemotional synthesizer drone embedded in static that ends by drifting off into over three minutes of barely discernible noise. This track is not almost boring, but one that genuinely tests the patience, with inchoate meandering the true culprit there. "A Moment of Clarity," an unfortunate misnomer for the throwaway 55 seconds of wavery synthesizer that the song actually is, suffers from the same type of musical treading of water -- drifting to go nowhere. This may have some theoretical or high-brow artistic merit, but it's neither enjoyable nor moving to listen to, which, at least for this listener, is really the bottom line.
The Campfire Headphase is another ambitious record by the ambitious electronic minds of Boards of Canada. There are missteps that weaken the overall strength of the record, but the record is merit-worthy overall, especially in what appears to be a definitive step toward experimentation with organic sounds -- earth, wind, guitar and human sounds that lend a new texture to the band's normally computer-reliant compositions. It's not the most engaging record I've heard from Boards of Canada, but it's a respectable entry into new sound repertoire for the band. - Christine Back
Ms. Back lives in Fort Greene, Brooklyn with three guitars, a 1950s Mason & Hamlin piano, and a beagle. When not studying legal doctrine and social justice law, she fronts the indie-rock band Que Verde and dabbles in art, film, and writing projects.