One branch of the electronic-music family tree—though a solid limb, more than a decade old—has never been fitted with an acceptable name. Entranced by a mingling of dance-oriented rhythms and experimental, ambient impulses, listeners called it “intelligent dance music”—I.D.M. for short. But they always used the term sheepishly: It was snobby, and the tunes it purported to describe weren’t always danceable. Warp Records, the U.K. label whose roster includes many of the field’s revered innovators, suggested the more accurate “electronic listening music.” And now, with their latest effort, one of the bands in Warp’s stable, Boards of Canada, make a strong case for forgetting the whole debate and simply calling what they do “music.”
A duo from the countryside near Edinburgh, Boards of Canada first won wide acclaim with the release of their 1998 LP, Music Has the Right to Children (Warp). The most compelling songs on that album rely on beds of warm, synthesized textures, ghostly electric piano and gentle, flute-like tones, often bent slightly out of tune or tweaked beyond recognition by studio trickery, then blanketed with densely layered, kaleidoscopic rhythm tracks. There’s no singing, but disembodied voices float in and out, sometimes snipped down to syllables and woven tightly into the percussion, sometimes sounding like they’re filtering down from a television upstairs, or like a child murmuring to himself.
On their new record, The Campfire Headphase, most of these stray bits of speech have receded or disappeared, replaced with guitars planted squarely in the foreground of the mix. Blending rock’n’roll six-strings with synths and sequencers is hardly a novel experiment, but in the past the result has too often been a clumsy hybrid. The best tracks on this disc sidestep that problem by treating strums and arpeggios like any other noises: sonic artifacts to be looped, processed and manipulated.
On “Chromakey Dreamcoat,” a warbling guitar figure repeats nervously over a mechanical beat packed with tinny squeaks and sharp claps. The stuttering cadence of the loop plays intriguingly off the sense of human timing preserved in the guitar sample. “Dayvan Cowboy” is a collage of overdriven drums and cymbals cut up and pasted over a sheet of trembling guitar chimes and melancholy cello. The trick lies in coaxing the different voices into sustained dialogue. When the parts are at odds with each other, the spell is broken. On “Hey Saturday Sun,” for example, loosely played arpeggios (complete with fingers squeaking across strings) lean awkwardly against a leaden, rigid drum machine.
There are tracks that recall classic Boards of Canada as well, reveling in artificial soundscapes, unique timbres and textures impossible without electronics. “Oscar See Through Red Eye” (these guys must keep a pretty weird magnetic poetry kit on their fridge) shifts haphazardly from one tonality to another with a floppy, bone-shaking synthesized bass and a rhythmic engine prone to clicking, chirping and gurgling. On “Slow This Bird Down,” a legato haze drifts back and forth across the stereo field over a sparse, slow beat punctuated by rattles and metallic pings—a lullaby for robots. A pastoral guitar part emerges only in a muted, minute-long coda, but it sounds completely at home with the rest of the piece. It’s another reminder that with the right connective tissue, man and machine make a pretty good pair.
Another group that’s combining electronic sounds with guitars (as well as drums, bass, vocals and the song structures of rock) is the Mobius Band, a trio that last year moved to Brooklyn from near Northampton, Mass. They recently released their full-length debut, The Loving Sounds of Static, on Ghostly International, an Ann Arbor record label also devoted to technology-friendly artists.
Two of the Mobius Band’s three assured instrumentalists take turns singing. On The Loving Sounds of Static, they knit otherworldly sampled sounds and thorny percussive sequences so elegantly into verses and choruses that it’s easy to forget they’re playing anything but the most tuneful, catchy indie rock. The album is another argument against simple categorization—intelligent rock music, anyone?
The songs often evoke those moments when, for better or worse, youthful illusions start to give way to adult uncertainties. The melodies—the vocal parts, and many of the keyboard and guitar lines—are compulsively hummable. On “I Just Turned 18,” lyrics that portray the helplessness of prolonged adolescence contrast with a simple and endearing tune, like something out of a beginner’s piano book.
What’s most striking are the Mobius Band’s adventurous rhythms. Equally adept with propulsive rock, metronomic grooves and synth-pop marches, they’re constantly engaged in subtle rhythmic interplay, bouncing eighth notes off each other and skipping in and out of programmed patterns. “Close the Door” starts with a bass thump, a single guitar note and a persistent beeping noise, each resonating to a different pulse, and builds into a shimmering web of sound. On “Taxicab,” the drum machine clicks along mostly in sync with a pensive guitar motif, but it hesitates in the second half of each measure, creating a faint tension.
That’s the sort of detail you’d expect to hear on a Boards of Canada record. And it’s a sign that musicians—regardless of whether they’re twiddling knobs and pressing buttons or banging away at strings stretched across pieces of wood—will always find a way to teach each other new tricks.
I-Huei Go is the senior research editor at The Observer.