Every bit as accomplished as its predecessor, Geogaddi may be the even more striking album, a maverick outlier in a genre that too often slips into conformity.
Boards of Canada smashed out of the gate with debut LP Music Has the Right to Children, an immediate entry into the ambient pantheon whose use of old equipment and imperfect field recordings lent a tactile, human warmth to music that can easily lapse into detached, clichéd pulses of New Age tone clusters. Like the best works of Brian Eno and Wolfgang Voigt, Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin could make blissful relaxation music with such personality and clear direction that Music almost felt like a concept album despite containing no lyrics. Despite arriving late to the ’90s electronica craze, Boards of Canada became some of its last luminaries, and the swift canonization of their debut put considerable pressure on a follow-up.
Stopgap EP In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country demonstrated that Boards of Canada was no fluke, but it wasn’t until 2002 that the group released its second album, Geogaddi. Ambient music typically suffers from a limitation of form, with some artists racking up literally dozens of releases that offer only mild variations to established themes of spaced-out noise. But Geogaddi represented the hardest left turn in ambient since Aphex Twin followed his kinda, sorta, not-really chill LP Selected Ambient Works 85-92 with its dissonant, unnerving second volume. Like SAW Volume II, Sandison and Eoin’s sophomore effort exchanges pleasing vibes for something altogether more ominous. If Music was sun-kissed with radiant warmth, Geogaddi, as hinted by its blistering yellow and red kaleidoscopic cover, felt more like being lowered into a volcanic den. The music is pressurized and claustrophobic, choking on fumes.
The intro of “Ready Let’s Go”/”Music Is Math” unfurl with digital squelches, distended and indecipherable vocal samples in a sluggish, circling march that disturbs rather than soothes. “Beward the Friendly Stranger” is almost nothing but tape hiss, and the jittery percussion of “Gyroscope” sounds like the scuttling of insects underneath a warped, dilapidated sample of a child counting to 10. These songs all bleed into each other as one undulating movement of unease, creating enough flow to let the listener fall into the album while darting around conflicting moods that prevent any attempt to play it as background noise. The music is still shapeless enough to qualify as ambient, but the unexpected left turns constantly shift focus until one’s brain has to concentrate on following along.
The continuous sense of movement between tracks does not preclude distinctiveness between the compositions. “Sunshine Recorder” swoons hazily into view like the shimmer on a sweltering day, its bleary synth line given an addled stutter of a beat to make it even more disorienting. “Julie and Candy” sounds like trip-hop recorded off a pirate radio broadcast and played back at half speed, all crackle and distended sultry whirs. It’s elegant and grotesque at the same time, the soundtrack of some cabaret detached from time. Even the short tracks that could easily have been throwaway interstitials have personality. “The Smallest Weird Number” sounds like a parody of Tangerine Dream-esque kosmische, with its bright tones even joined by chirping birds to create a warm vibe that is spoiled when notes are suddenly dragged into dissonant minor keys. Elsewhere, “A Is to Be as B Is to C” sounds like surfing radio channels of public television muzak, incessantly switching between oscillating and looping synth patterns of nondescript, formless music. In some ways, it sounds like the first seed of vaporwave.
Ambient music tends to strive for a timeless quality, the slack and amoebic compositions precisely intended to set one’s mind at rest and provide an escape from the present. But Geogaddi is thoroughly informed by the electronic trends of the previous decade. “1969” opens with the sort of eerie sci-fi warble that graced untold jungle/drum ‘n’ bass tracks, only to morph into a staggered beat that deconstructs hip-hop rhythms. “Alpha and Omega” is pure Balearic, its gimmicky flute sampling and island drums spliced into bouncing laser-beam synths. Only at the tail end of the album does it slip further and further into full, unbound ambient, the scratchy, runoff groove loop of “You Could Feel the Sky” giving way to the cold beauty of “Corsair” and the silence of “Magic Window.” Every bit as accomplished as its predecessor, Geogaddi may be the even more striking album, a maverick outlier in a genre that too often slips into conformity.