This is a revised and expanded version of an article I wrote for Tone Deaf in 2018 (and which was later republished by Classic Album Sundays)
Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children is without question the album I’ve listened to the most in the past 21 years. I can’t think of what the runner-up would be, but whatever it is, it isn’t even close.
I don’t get tired of this album, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. And there’s a particular way I don’t get tired of it that’s unlike any other music I love. I believe that has something to do with the uncanny sonic experimentalism and painstaking studio craftsmanship that went into it.
Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison, the reclusive Scottish brothers who make up Boards of Canada, deliberately eschewed dance-music convention with their debut LP, and set out to create something timeless. The result was a sound that affects mind and body differently compared to other music, working on a deeper level, creating an almost meditative effect. For me it’s not just listening to a collection of tunes; there’s something about it that’s more like a kind of practice or therapy. Hopefully that doesn’t sound too New Age — BoC’s music is much more expansive and emotionally full than your garden variety New Age, or more pedestrian forms of ambient. It’s not mere chillout music.
Listening to it always makes me feel a little better, and helps me reset. It makes me feel more like myself. But it is at times quite an unsettling and eerie album too (starting with the eerieness of the faceless vacationing family on the album cover). In that sense its therapeutic quality is like returning to a beloved film or novel, one that contains darkness and complexity but enriches your life all the same.
Music Has the Right is the album I always test a new set of speakers or or a new pair of headphones with — it’s a ritual for me. In particular I always put on “Telephasic Workshop,” with the crystalline incandescence of its colorful whirling synths and its massive thumping low end, to test the fidelity of new gear. Even after 21 years, the climactic stuttering kick drum on that track, sounding like a giant alien toddler euphorically pounding a toy drum the size of house, makes me laugh out loud with delight.
Five years ago, we threw a listening party for Music Has the Right to Children at Classic Album Sundays Sydney to celebrate its 20th anniversary. At CAS, for each album of the month, we play a vinyl copy in full and in hi-fi in a darkened room full of fans — what we call cinematic listening. Music Has the Right was one of the best sessions we’ve ever had (you can see glimpses of it in this old ABC Arts feature story about us, which was filmed the night of that party). It’s a perfect album for the format — no, it’s a perfect album, period.
First of all it’s one of the best sounding albums ever made, in its depth and its swirling, intricate layers of sound. Hidden wonders reveal themselves more the more you listen.
There’s an amazing clarity to its hazy, shoegazey distortion — if it makes any sense to say that distortion can have clarity. It’s like a monument carved out of rare stone that’s been polished to a sheen, and then carefully scratched and scored to give it an unforgettable texture. Its distortion shimmers.
It’s also a beautiful and inspiring album. Its cascading synth melodies are so unearthly, so enlivening, and its mood is one of elevation and deep engagement — again, more like cinema than music. It seems to have an unspoken narrative, like an epic adventure that takes you to many places before leaving you feeling fulfilled.
If you can manage, I highly recommend listening to it under similar conditions — on the best gear you have, in the dark, with friends — and see how it moves you. If not, a good pair of headphones will do the trick, as long as you let the whole thing play.
I came to Music Has the Right to Children late, in 2002, four years after it was released in April of 1998. There was a particular reason I gave it a miss when it first came out. Both as a DJ and as a fan I was already tired of the trip hop and big beat that dominated electronic music in the late 90s. And though I always loved the experimental electronica of BoC’s Warp Records brethren Autechre and Aphex Twin, the pranksterish noise that defines much of their later work increasingly left me cold.
Despite the incredible buzz Music Has the Right generated as soon as it dropped, I made the mistake of assuming it would follow those trends. Later I would learn that it doesn’t follow any trend. It’s too grand and visionary to be filed under any dancefloor-based subgenre, and, as weird as it is, at the same time it’s far more beautiful and warm and human than Autechre or Aphex have usually managed in their later work. It belongs in a league with transcendent sonic pioneers like Pink Floyd and Kraftwerk and My Bloody Valentine.
The album was recorded far from the usual clubbing epicenters, in the pair’s stomping ground in rural Scotland — “literally on a farm surrounded by deer and rabbits,” as Eoin told the Guardian. I’ve never been to Scotland, but based on my romantic conception of it, I’ve always thought that pastoral location seemed exactly right for BoC and for the album. Music Has the Right sounds like a hip-hop jam in a remote highland meadow on a summer’s evening, with golden sunlight casting long shadows on the wildflowers, and birds singing along. If you were on mushrooms. And if there were gigantic mecha from a Japanese sci-fi movie dancing with you.
Eoin and Sandison worked hard to make electronic music that was organic in feel, saturated with melody and deeply personal, and to avoid predictable breakdowns, obvious samples and other cliches of dance and electronic music. The pair have said they weren’t even fans of contemporary dance music, and were more influenced by psychedelic innovators like the Incredible String Band and Mike Oldfield. In this rare Pitchfork interview they say they are big fans of the Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine. You can definitely hear those diverse, expansive influences in their music and it sets them apart.
But the beats on Music Has the Right are still tight, and the bass is buttery and deep and funky. Even though its head is in the stratosphere, the album still bangs, in its own lazy, earthy way. Tracks like “Aquarius” and “Sixtyten” top almost any trip hop released in that era in terms of bumping bass and head-nodding dopeness.
Much like DJ Shadow, whose classic debut LP Endtroducing was released a year and a half earlier, Eoin and Sandison were nerdy studio perfectionists who still knew how to swing a funky beat. In both cases the combination of that funk with obsessive experimentalism resulted in unclassifiable music that still sounds fresh and exciting compared to the work of their peers.
In particular I love the way BoC can lay down a dope beat like the one on “Aquarius” — a beat so good it would be a career highlight for a lesser production team — and then keep building on it, with more and more breakbeats and percussion and subtle details added to the mix, so that a tune is often climaxing four or five minutes in — and then, improbably, climaxing again, reaching majestic heights of trippy funk.
I’m thinking of one of the attendees at our CAS party five years ago. After the album was done playing, with the entire room sitting in stunned, blissful silence, we gently prompted them to tell us what they thought. A young woman at the back of the room, who was new to the album, raised her hand and almost bashfully told us that after hearing us bang on endlessly about how trippy and experimental it was before we played it, she was surprised by how funky and how hip hop the beats were.
That innate funk is why I’ve always loved the album so much, why it works so well, and I loved being reminded of that, or even corrected on that, by a new convert.
Music has the right to children. I’ve always loved the title of the album and I go over it in my head often. At first it makes no sense, like it’s been cut and pasted from two sentences. But it takes on warped meaning the more you think about it. First of all it’s a declaration, a mini-manifesto, and I love the boldness of that. The brothers definitely had something to say, despite how esoteric their music is, and the fact that it largely lacks a human voice (other than the sampled vocal snippets of documentary narrators or Sesame Street characters or kids playing that bubble and buzz in and out of the soundscape like friendly ghosts).
To me the title’s manifesto, if you will, has a dual meaning: first, electronic and experimental music should be played for children. It shouldn’t be limited to the domain of dark clubs, it should be for everyone. That’s especially poignant for me as a dad. Indeed, my eight-year-old loves electronic music, and he loves Boards of Canada and has since he was a preschooler (though as it happens he loves Autechre more!).
The children depicted on the album cover (as creepy as they are without faces) reflect the album’s childlike quality. It might help to know that two of those kids (the ones on the right) are Eoin and Sanderson as youngsters — that’s a real family photo.
Secondly, music should grow and change. It should have descendants, it should have offspring, it should evolve into the future. We as music fans deserve that – we have the right to that.
I say BoC’s music lacks a human voice but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sound like it’s singing to you. Synthesizers are the epitome of music that’s mechanized and subsumed by technology, but there’s also something so eerily organic and natural-sounding about them too. When you get down to it, a synth is a musical instrument, just like a guitar is a machine. There’s no rational distinction there.
In the right hands, analogue synths can sound like insects buzzing or whales singing, or a big cat purring; or they can sound like bodily functions, like your stomach grumbling or your ears ringing — like the sound is coming from within you. This is true of a lot of synth music, including more dancefloor-oriented sounds like techno and electro, and that’s surely one reason for its enduring appeal. But on Music Has the Right, BoC foregrounded that analogue viscerality, and perfected it.
Take a track like “Bocuma” – its ringing, soaring synth lines, clearly influenced by experimental classical composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, sound like angels singing. It’s strange and ecstatic, 96 seconds of pure bliss. I very often play it three or four times in a row just to soak it in more. (And the way it fades right into the sublime space-funk of “Roygbiv”? Forget about it — that’s one of the greatest, most spine-tingling progressions on any album.)
Or the gorgeous droning tones of “Wildlife Analysis” that open the album (also short, just over a minute long), sounding like a cross between birdsong and some extraterrestrial monk’s chant. Or the climactic beatless track “Open the Light,” with its aching, tingly, elegiac mood that makes you picture some ancient heroic tale.
Throughout the album these gorgeous analogue melodies blur and blend with the pixellated choruses of samples, so that you often can’t tell the difference — like the vocal snippet on “Pete Standing Alone,” which has been so distorted it doesn’t sound human anymore.
The flickering tones and wobbly distortion don’t just sound great, they’re central to Boards of Canada’s aesthetic. The group’s eccentric name was inspired by the National Film Board of Canada, the prolific government-funded studio that produced many of the short films and documentaries that were shown in schools and on public television throughout the English-speaking world in the 60s, 70s and 80s. BoC’s music relates to those educational films on several levels. Again, childhood is an important theme for the band; as are science, math and nature; along with a complex sort of nostalgia for the 70s — far more nuanced than the usual retro vibe.
BoC’s music is an overt retro-futurist tribute to the music of those films, as well as the movies and TV of the era in general. A noodly track like “Kaini Industries” is an obvious nod to the little stings that accompanied title sequences or segues. But the BoC vibe is also intended to recreate the weird dreamlike state of watching the films themselves, the wonder and the dread of it all.
I recall it well. The awe that would overtake you when the teacher turned out the lights and started the projector. The motes of dust in the flickering light; the hypnotic clattering of the reels; the tinny music on the projector’s little speakers — the soundtrack warped from being played so much. The color of the film, all desaturated reds and greens, which we would later associate with cinematic dream sequences and psychedelia; and the 60s fashions and outdated lingo of the actors and narrators. The stories were often lighthearted, with corny humor; but many had a sense of dread too — macabre depictions of car accidents and fire disasters, or apocalyptic warnings about future environmental devastation. The mood these films created was powerful for a young mind, as influential on me as the knowledge they imparted. When I got to film school in the early 90s and began to experiment with Super 8 film, this influence circled back around.
The NFBC short documentary embedded below, Circle of the Sun (Colin Low, 1960), about a First Nations sun dance in Alberta, is a great example of the mood and the music of these films. Note that it features Pete Standing Alone, the Kainai man whom BoC named a track after on Music Has the Right. Eoin and Sandison lived in Alberta for a time when they were kids; and the photo on the album cover was taken there — the Canadian imprint on their lives is a major theme of the album.
(The brothers didn’t find out until much later that the NFBC had licensed some of their music for films. “We took that as approval,” Eoin told Pitchfork in 2005.)
All that haunted nostalgia in combination with the album’s otherworldly sound creates a surreal atmosphere of distorted time and space, a spooky immediacy; listen to it enough and it takes on the feel of the soundtrack of your life. That’s true of any music you love, but BoC seem to have discovered a more powerful and direct method of physically doing this to their listeners — perhaps from all of the vintage equipment they go to great lengths to source. “Everything we use is decrepit. Our studio is full of wooden things covered with red LEDs,” says Sandison.
Simon Reynolds’s terrific 20th anniversary essay about the album for Pitchfork affirms this weird immediacy:
Like many others, I found that Music Has the Right had an extraordinary power to trigger memories. Partly this was a side effect of the wavering off-pitch synths, redolent of the music on TV programs from my 70s childhood. But in a far more profound, fundamental, and deeply mysterious way, BoC seemed to be tapping into those deepest recesses of personal memory. Blending intimacy and otherness, the music put you back in touch with parts of yourself you’d lost. This was their gift to the listener.
When I listen to Music Has the Right, I’m struck by intense memories of Elmhurst, the neighborhood where I lived in Queens in 2002 when I first got the album. Taking a walk by the baseball field behind the mall beneath overcast skies; the ugly concrete parking garage that loomed over it with its spiral onramp looking like a brutalist sculpture of a UFO; the 7 train platform in the dying amber light of winter. Other memories of that year come back to me in association with the album — a particular cool drizzly morning in May; a particular road trip to Boston in the late summer.
BoC’s music came from rural Scotland, and it sounded like it came from another galaxy, but somehow it seemed to be about my life in New York, and my childhood in Oregon, and the first dandelions of springtime, and many other things that matter to me. It seemed to be about my feelings of alienation as a worker in neoliberal capitalist society at the dawn of a new millennium.
More than that it helped me cope with it all. It’s hard to explain these vague, diffuse but highly personal feelings. But if you know the album maybe you know what I mean. I have a feeling anyone who’s listened to it a lot has had similarly vivid and personal recollections of it imprinted on their own lives.
Boards of Canada have released exactly three more albums in the past 25 years. Each one is a masterpiece in its own right, especially Geogaddi, their darker, weirder, colossally brilliant 2002 follow-up to Music Has the Right. But I also love 2005’s The Campfire Headphase, their much more chill, shoegazey folktronica album; and 2013’s Tomorrow’s Harvest, which marked a return to the spooky retrofuturism. As great as all of them are, they’ve never quite topped Music Has the Right to Children — honestly, no one has.
The pair of brothers been mostly quiet for the past decade. They’ve haven’t played live since 2001, and they very rarely give interviews. The only things I’m aware of them doing in recent years are a handful of remixes for WHY? and Nevermen (the latter a supergroup featuring Blood Orange and Mike Patton); and the amazing mixtape embedded above, a mix of spacey ambient noise, moody postpunk, and weird esoterica that’s just about exactly what you would expect from a BoC DJ set.
You get the feeling time moves differently in the Scottish country. Or maybe if you’ve made four of the greatest electronic albums of all time, you don’t feel the need to rush into things. Personally I’m glad they aren’t running around playing main stages and watering down their discography with endless singles. It makes what they’ve done that much more special and mysterious and profound — above all their monumental, mind-expanding, reality-warping masterpiece of a debut LP.
Feature image photo credit: Boards of Canada