The Campfire Headphase is the worst sort of record. I can talk at length about Music Has the Right to Children because that album inspired such a reaction. I can talk at length about Geodaddi because the high and hyperbolic reviews for it inspired such a reaction. In between these two extremes is The Campfire Headphase, something that’s too pleasant to hate, too boring to love. Too nothing to something about.
Put simply, if you cut out the four-song stretch from “Chromakey Dreamcoat” through to “Dayvan Cowboy” and made an EP out of them, you’d have something that would rival A Beautiful Place Out in the Country in terms of quality (and maybe even stick “Hey Saturday Sun” there too, though that one sounds like a rearranged “Chromakey Dreamcoat,” a fact that’s easily overlooked since there’s half-hour between the two tracks).
Boards of Canada even make it easy for us, sandwiching those four songs with two vignettes of absolutely nothing. I must have listened to “Into the Rainbow Vein” at least 10 times before realizing it was happy to simply exist, and if y’all will recall, it was the shortest tracks on Music Has the Right to Children that were best, because despite their running times, they all managed to evoke something.
You could point out that it’s unfair to compare The Campfire Headphase to the lofty heights of Music Has the Right to Children. I would counter that Boards of Canada set me up for it; the cover instantly reminds us of that of Music Has the Right to Children with its turquoise landscape and blotted-out face. Geodaddi didn’t, even though pictures in its liner notes featured the same aesthetic; practically knowing that people would reflexively compare the two, they gave it a completely different cover. But where is the Boards of Canada that I’m used to? And I’m not simply talking about the fact that guitars are used prominently here. I’m talking about tracks like “An Eagle in Your Mind” or “Gyroscope” that remind us that the ‘D’ of IDM stood for ‘Dance.’ I’m talking about the obligatory social commentary blurb of “One Very Important Thought” or “Energy Warning” that put us in a state of the now. Where are they?
As for the guitars, which some people might have found blasphemous, I don’t really mind their inclusion. What I do mind, however, is the fact that Boards of Canada use them in the most boring way possible. Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson writes that, “It bugs me that most of the songs here with guitar use one very simple picked chord and basically bring the loop in and out in predictable fashion. Perhaps because of the instrument’s familiarity it naturally draws attention to itself, and there’s no getting around that there’s not very much happening with the guitar on most of the tracks where it appears. It adds nice twist, sure, but nothing more.” It’s more than just the tracks that feature guitars though; most—if not all—of these tracks march into a sea of predictability. People who know me would probably write my critical review off as someone who just doesn’t like ambient; that’s not true. I like ambient, but most of the ones on The Campfire Headphase lack anything particular. They’re as fascinating as watching zoetropes (oh look, casual Boards of Canada reference) for people who are older than a day.
I guess you might say that I’m bored of Canada.
I liked this album when it first came out as any Music Has the Right to Children-lover should, going so far as to write a now-deleted, over-one-thousand-word review that talked about watermelons, and it’s clear that my initial fascination stemmed largely from “Gemini” and the fact that I was listening to new Boards of Canada music. As with every other Boards of Canada release, this one is needlessly long, so they could program it into some useless palindromic structure that no one gave a shit about: I think I heard “Collapse” in the Mass Effect series and I know I heard “Uritual” in The Social Network. “Jacquard Causeway” is horrifyingly boring, and contains the ugliest drum sound they’ve ever set to record; the short, vocal-containing “Telepath” feels like it was obligatory. The synth line that appears halfway through lead-single “Reach for the Dead” is a delight, as is the bass-driven ambient section that’s tucked at the end of “Sick Times” (which is so much better than the loud middle section). And yeah, “Gemini” is awesome: opening the album with what sounds like it could pass for an alternate version of the 20th Century Fox theme before the bomb shelter gates open and reveals all the dust and desert that’s left. Their best opening song since “Wildlife Analysis.” The rest of these songs are too sterilized to achieve the nuclear fallout atmosphere that they’re trying to achieve. And unlike their first two albums, this is devoid of emotion.
Or, to put it another way, here’s George Starostin to close: “This is one of the least convincing, most instantly forgettable post-apocalyptic albums I have ever had the displeasure of hearing. It builds up the atmosphere based on careful selection of tones, yes, so that the sound is very consistent (and many of the tracks virtually indistinguishable from each other), but that’s about it. Just like before, the duo does not care about causing any sharp sensations: everything is smooth and glossy — elevator muzak for the last working elevator in the world left after the last World War.”