In February 2002, the Scottish electronic duo Boards Of Canada released Geogaddi, their second full-length record. Their debut album, 1998’s Music Has the Right to Children, had established brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin as masters of wistfully enigmatic electronica, and laid much of the groundwork for the Ghost Box record label and the genre defined as Hauntology in the 2000s. Wreathed in obscure samples, analogue synthesisers, and hypnotic beats, it was shot through with eerie echoes of a half- forgotten childhood, familiar but distorted, as though glimpsed underwater. While their 2000 E.P. In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country hinted at the emergence of a darker vision, it was Geogaddi that really brought their sinister undercurrents to full fruition.
The record’s mysterious name is apparently a fictional combination of existing words. The band themselves have avoided divulging its exact meaning, their canny silence resulting in dozens of interpretations of the title. It is widely agreed that geo relates to the Earth, but views differ on the remaining syllables. I think gad may be being used in the old-fashioned sense of a hedonistic excursion, the usual frivolity of the word creating a sly contrast with the unnerving atmosphere of the album, although others have related it to a religious deity. Di means two or double, while possibly also hinting at the diabolical. Therefore, Geogaddi could be interpreted as meaning a trip between two Earths, from the everyday surface to a darker underworld.
The equally ambiguous cover artwork could be seen as supporting this ‘two-Earth-journey’ definition, particularly its more occult aspects. The fiery oranges and reds suggest an inferno, a molten core rising from the earth (an image furthered by the tracks Energy Warning and Dandelion,whose respective samples explicitly refer to alternative energy sources and undersea volcanic life). Less scientifically, the blurred figure with legs and arms outstretched seems suggestive of a summoning ritual. That he is doubled recalls the di of the title, and his repetition to form six figures encircling a hexagram brings to mind demonic associations, with both the shape and number being linked to superstitions regarding the Devil.
It is worth noting at this point that the devilish themes of Geogaddi should be taken with a pinch of salt. It is a playful record, rather than an ‘evil’ one. That is not to say that it does not take its play seriously; it fully intends to intrigue, and to provoke thought and feeling. However, it should not be considered a manifesto or confession, any more than The Number of the Beast proved Iron Maiden worshipped Lucifer, or that writing Rosemary’s Baby made Ira Levin a witch. As Michael Sandison explained to the Dutch music website OOR in March 2002: “We’re not Satanists, or Christians, or pagans…If we’re spiritual at all it’s purely in the sense of caring about art and inspiring people with ideas.”
In the same OOR interview, Sandison stated that the album could be interpreted as “an imagined movie…a kind of Alice In Wonderland adventure, but with a damaged mind.” The 23 tracks do seem to take the listener through the arc of a narrative, but its exact plot and purpose remain intentionally elusive. Individual track titles are often highly specific but entirely without explanation. Who are Julie and Candy? Why are we at The Beach at Redpoint? Unintelligible voices drift and swarm throughout, either buried in the mix, treated with vocoder-like effects, or deliberately reversed, perhaps in a nod to the 1980s ‘Satanic panic’ and its hysteria concerning backwards messages hidden on popular records. In trying to decipher Geogaddi, you risk becoming a character in your own existential horror film, obsessively trying to unlock its puzzles only to find that you are simply uncovering echoes of your own crazed imagination.
There is a constant sense of receiving only a small part of a cryptic but urgent message. The brief opener Ready Lets Go (sic) contains a slowed-down sample of an S-burst emission from Jupiter, quite literally introducing the album with a transmission from another world. Radio waves whine, hum, and crackle beneath several tracks, forming a kind of aural backbone to the record. Gyroscope prominently features an anonymous broadcast apparently sampled from a numbers station (enigmatic and often untraceable numerical messages sent via short-wave radio, probably linked to defence and espionage). The female announcer declaims the digits with an almost ecstatic relish, as though they were an incantation or spell, as rattling beats swing wildly from speaker to speaker. The effect is completely discombobulating, making a mockery of the title (a gyroscope being an instrument used to measure and maintain angular velocity and orientation).
Gyroscope’s enchanted counting seemingly links it to the second track, Music is Math, as well as providing a dark echo of the joyous Aquarius from their debut album. Music is Math combines a pensive, crystalline synth melody with squelching drums that sound like they are struggling up from the primordial mud. It appears to refer to philosophical ideas linking mathematics and harmonics, explored by various ancient civilisations and now defined as the cross-disciplinary field of musical acoustics. Numerology and musical theory also have esoteric links to religion (such as the ‘Devil’s interval’ tritone or the apocalyptic numbers cited in the Biblical Book of Revelation). When a voice just before the one minute mark proclaims “the past inside the present,” it seems to affirm the infinity of these notions, as though they are merely waiting to be awoken from their atavistic slumber.
Aside from the brief snippet The Smallest Weird Number, the track 1969 is the only one to actually bear a specifically numerical title. Its heavily treated vocal line appears to refer explicitly to cult leader David Koresh, whose breakaway religious sect met a fatal end in Waco, Texas in 1993; suggestively, his name is sung in reverse. It shares this theme with the band’s previous E.P. In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country, which was primarily concerned with Koresh’s Branch Davidians (as does the sixth track Sunshine Recorder, with its repetition of the phrase “a beautiful place”). Although 1969 itself has no particularly strong historical relevance to Koresh or the sect, it was the year in which another cult infamously ended in terrible bloodshed, with the Manson Family murders. It was also the year in which Anton LaVey published The Satanic Bible, and of the notorious Rolling Stones free festival at Altamont, where members of the Hell’s Angels ‘security’ beat and murdered audience member Meredith Hunter. Such events have frequently led to the year being viewed as the bitter end of the 60s countercultural dream, lending a grim irony to the mechanical voice that repeats “1969 in the sunshine” throughout the track’s closing minute. These seemingly disparate elements all tie into the album’s overarching obsession with the darker sides of music, religion, and numbers.
The heart of Geogaddi’s journey seems to be reached after the brief thirteenth track. Tellingly titled Opening the Mouth, its short garbled flute refrain brings to mind the music of the ancient nature god Pan, whose goat-like hindquarters were later adopted into Christian images of the Devil. Alpha and Omega follows, its off-kilter percussion augmented by wildly pattering hand drums. A reverberating four-note musical motif works its way up and down the scale, like a darkened echo of the five-note harmonic signal used by the aliens in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There is a definite feeling of disorientating momentum and descent, tightening in claustrophobia as the music finally slows, its subterranean destination reached. As well as referring to the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, the title also quotes the definition of God given in the Book of Revelation. Its spiralling music paints a picture of falling uncontrollably before something that simply cannot be grasped, an all-powerful presence or knowledge that sweeps away the very ground beneath the feet. But who or what has been discovered?
Perversely, the calmer musical surface of The Devil Is in the Details contrives to make things even more unnerving. The plinking synth line refuses to resolve, circling ominously over a gentle, squishy-sounding rhythm that sounds disturbingly like a munching mouth. A patient maternal voice delivers a soothing monologue inviting you to relax your “unconscious mind,” but its insidious edge of sibilant distortion is deeply sinister. It is like listening in to a brain-washing session, being unwittingly persuaded into something awful.
By the time the album reaches Dawn Chorus, the listener might anticipate a return to daylight safety. Instead, the musical pitch bends and slips, as though the rising sun were an utterly sickly yellow. The wordless voices that cry out seem lost in an uncomfortably intense state somewhere between relief, orgasm, and sheer terror. The ordeal may have been survived, but at the cost of all reason. You Could Feel the Sky opens with percussion that sounds as if it were dragging itself across the floor, trying to claw its way back to sanity. Subdued synths burble darkly, while another reversed voice murmurs about “a God with horns…A God with hooves.” The title suggests a return to the surface, but encumbered with an unpleasantly enhanced sensitivity to the elements.
The penultimate Corsair brings the journey to a sombre, ambient close, like a funereal reimagining of Brian Eno’s An Ending (Ascent) from his 1983 album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks. Unresolved, it fades away into the entirely silent void of Magic Window – a moment for traumatised reflection, or simply a further playful touch to stretch the record’s duration to a Satanic number? Marcus Eoin told Earplug Magazine Issue 54: “Steve Beckett (Warp records co-founder) actually suggested to take it to a total 66 minutes 6 seconds because then everyone would think it’s the Devil who made the album. And we just laughed.”
Ultimately, it is a fool’s errand to try and impose an exact narrative or meaning on the record; it is a maze of ideas, a hall of mirrors. Like Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 The Shining, it deliberately poses conundrums which can never be solved, and this is a core part of its strength and its pleasures. Boards Of Canada have continued to release brilliant music, with The Campfire Headphase embracing twisted pastoral folk in 2005, and 2013’s Tomorrow’s Harvest offering a bleakly compelling vision of ecological apocalypse. Yet for me, Geogaddi remains their most fascinating, contentious, and mysterious work, as endlessly listenable and atmospheric as it was on its initial release twenty years ago.
The quotations used in this piece are taken from interview transcripts available on the website https://bocpages.org/ – a treasure trove of articles and information on Boards Of Canada, and highly recommended if you would like to find out more about the band.