Hi Scores wasn’t Boards of Canada‘s first proper record. By the time it appeared in 1996, the Scottish duo had released a minor armload of cassettes and 12-inches, all of it in extraordinarily limited editions. But, for all the general public knew, it may as well have been their debut, given the way it arrived like a bolt from the aquamarine.
Even if you lived it, it’s getting hard to remember what it was like to discover music back then. But when Hi Scores began turning up in record bins, not only were listeners unlikely to know much about who they were or where the record came from, there were precious few ways of finding out. The snail-mail address listed on the insert sheet was just a P.O. box. A strip of Braille adorned the cover, heightening the record’s cryptic aspect. And the name of the label, Skam, lent a vaguely unsavory air to it all. On Hyperreal’s IDM listserv, it was ventured that Boards of Canada might be a synonym of Aphex Twin or Autechre or Mike Paradinas, or some combination of them.
It’s useful to try to return to that state of ignorance, if only because so many layers of myth have been woven around the duo since then, a dense cocoon of fantasy and obfuscation. Some of that has been their own doing, like the coded 12-inches they distributed on Record Store Day last year as a pre-announcement of Tomorrow’s Harvest—Willy Wonka’s golden tickets as re-imagined by William Gibson. And some of it seems to have been the result of an obsessive fanbase hopped up on rabbit holes and Easter eggs. (From the fan site bocpages.org: “It has been suggested that the ‘hi’ of ‘hi scores’ could refer to the initials of BoC’s alias Hell Interface.” Well, yes, quite; and so might we connect the duo’s reclusive tendencies to the fact that one anagram of the group’s name is “A Bad Raccoons Fad”).
But Hi Scores preceded all of that. There are ample clues of the kind of artists they’d become with Music Has the Right to Children, released just two years later, and not just because “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” is included here in an identical version. Five of the six tracks occupy the head-nodding, mid-tempo range that remains the duo’s narcotic wheelhouse. Sampled breakbeats drive most of the songs here, but they sound different from the scratchy, dust-encrusted breaks that instrumental hip-hop producers like DJ Shadow and DJ Krush were using around the same time; Boards of Canada’s breaks snap and thud with a weirdly rigid motion, and they’re fleshed out with metallic drum-machine sounds, like the boxy snares of “Nlogax” and the dry, deflated hi-hats of “Seeya Later”, that glint dully against the murk.
The duo’s tonal tendencies were already well developed: all six tracks feature their trademark four-bar chord progressions and cycling contrapuntal melodies. The air is uniformly wistful, full of chimes and shimmering arpeggios and buzzing, tubular tones, like singing ghosts heard through a drainpipe. And while they don’t wade as far into the lysergic depths that would distinguish Music Has the Right to Children—all those hazy, soft-focus tones meant to evoke the nostalgia of old nature films and washed-out Super 8—their synthesizers, subtly detuned, have a woozy, watery feel, slippery as something half-remembered. And on “Turquoise Hexagon Sun”, the sound of distant voices anticipates the playground concrète vibes of Music and Geogaddi.
But Hi Scores might be most exciting for the way it breaks from their later work. The title track, soaked in faraway buzz, as though it had been recorded beneath high-voltage power lines, offers up an overdriven growl that’s reminiscent of Aphex Twin’s “Ventolin”. It’s unusually muscular for them, and the same could be said of “June 9th”, whose laser zaps and faintly industrial crunch recall Autechre and Disjecta. And the best track on the whole release might be “Nlogax”, a snapping electro cut with a break reportedly sampled from Indeep’s “Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life”; with the exception of the Hell Interface remix of “Midas Touch”, it’s probably the funkiest thing Boards of Canada have ever done. And played back at 45 RPM, it turns into shuddering, head-spinning techno—a tantalizing example of a path the duo could have taken, but never did.
It’s not quite clear why, exactly, Hi Scores is getting re-released now. (A publicist notes that this is Skam’s 20th anniversary, but that’s debatable; 1994 was the year of the Autechre offshoot Gescom’s self-titled EP, but that record bore the catalog number of SKA002. SKA001, the eponymous debut from Autechre in their Lego Feet guise, dates to 1991, and while almost nobody actually had the thing, its existence was known, or at least rumored, by the mid-’90s.) Apparently, Hi Scores has been remastered from the original DATs, and while the digital promo doesn’t sound much (if at all) improved from the previous digital version, it’s possible that the new edition of the vinyl will sound better than the original wax. But even that hardly matters much, given that this will be the first chance for many of the duo’s fans to get their hands on the 12-inch at all. And while it might have been nice to be treated to some previously unreleased material—supposedly, there’s still a trove of unreleased Boards music moldering on old cassette tapes—perhaps it’s enough to have the original Hi Scores in all its crisp, concise glory. While it wasn’t their first record, it’s basically the spark that would ignite their reputation—the ember that would go on to fuel the whole glorious campfire headphase. Long may it smolder.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1sEdamR