Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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100 Years, 100 Songs: #88. Boards of Canada – “ROYGBIV”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 29, 2007


Ambient electronic artists aren’t exactly known for their brevity. The majority of the most famous ambient works–Brian Eno’s “1/1,” Oval’s “Do While,” just about any track on The Orb’s Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld–clock in at lengths that would be considered unthinkably ostentatious in most genres. Hell, even John Cage’s “4’33” lasts longer than your average pop song. And this average length makes sense, given the goals of most ambient music–the excessive running times give these songs a chance to lull the listener under their spell, to fade into their subconscious, and to act, like Eno has famously suggested, as pieces of furniture in a room as much as pieces of music.

And that’s what makes Boards of Canada’s “ROGBIV” so completely perverse. The song, from BOC’s Music Has the Right to Children, a landmark album in late-90s ambient electronic music, has a melody more beatuiful (and more insiduous) than any other on the album, and a groove more hypnotic than most of BOC’s forefathers could ever have hoped to pioneer. But despite being the album’s clear highlight, as well as its veritable centerpiece, the song lasts a scant 2:31–beginning to fade out just when you think it should be starting to really kick in. It’s an unusual tactic, to say the least.

But really, there’s not much that’s usual about Boards of Canada. Calling them ambient in the first place would probably be considered grossly inaccurate (and arguably even insulting) by many of the band’s fans, despite on the surface being an adequate description–since BOC (mostly) perform lengthy, looping insturmentals with minimal hooks and excessively chilled-out atmosphere. But really, they’re right–calling BOC ambient is like calling Nirvana grunge, or The Clash punk–superficially accurate, but still deeply insufficient. To say that their music functions like a piece of furniture would indeed be insulting.

BOC are one of those groups whose music occupies a unique emotional space, one thoroughly indescribable in music critspeak. The closest comparison of feeling I can think of is the music of Orbital (which I assure you is no minor compliment, as I will make exceedingly clear later in this countdown), but their music is much heavier, lacking the innocence and youthful excitement of BOC’s best stuff. It’s not music meant to be shuffled in the background, it’s music to make you feel actively alive, which is why the great majority of BOC fans don’t give a damn about Karlheinz Stockhausen, or even Tim Hecker–many of them might not even own another non-rock album in their entire collection. The music’s just too powerful to ignore.

Take this recent video of a couple dudes performing “ROYGBIV” entirely a capella. The idea at first sounds ridiculous, since the song is both electronic entirely instrumental (minus the occasional “Hey!” exclamation), but remarkably, the song is almost as intoxicating performed entirely through whistles, dum-dums and beatboxing. And more importantly, it displays the sense of enthusiasm provoked by listening to the song–who, of the people that’ve heard this song, hasn’t tried to sing along with it, despite the lack of words to sing along with? It’s just such an incredible and awe-inspiring song, that merely listening to it isn’t nearly enough.

And yet, just two minutes in, you can already start to feel it ending. It’s an extremely daring gambit on the part of BOC–most electronic outfits would kill for a song this good, and once they had it, you better believe they’d want to milk it for as long as humanly possible. But BOC didn’t even release “ROYGBIV” as a single, ensuring that not only would it never get extended remixes from a host of mediocre house DJs, but that the song would never be overplayed in the first place, making the 2:31 that the song lasts all the more precious.

Brilliant. But still totally sick.

5 Responses to “100 Years, 100 Songs: #88. Boards of Canada – “ROYGBIV””

  1. Andro said

    I am pretty sure 4’33” was written by John Cage, not John Cale.

  2. Henry P said

    Great piece. Great song. Great video.

  3. Joe said

    When I was first getting into BoC, I was visiting a trendy clothing store in Chicago that played various house & electronic music on their overhead speakers. One of the mixes they played had a version of “Aquarius” with dialogue from “The Breakfast Club” mixed in. It was so bizarre. Haven’t been able to track it down since then, not really sure that it’s even out there to find in any “official” sense.

    “Roygbiv” is great, btw.

  4. […] And then, as the song gears up for chorus #2, it stops. Just stops. When I first heard it on XM, I thought the DJ had come in too early or missed a cue or something–there’s no way they’d just end the song like that, right as things were really getting good. Hardly the first pop song that I wish could’ve gone on longer–Dinosaur Jr.’s brilliant but abruptly over cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” comes to mind, as does my #88 song of all-time. But those guys always sort of felt like pranksters at heart, so it doesn’t seem quite so deceptive. The way Hynde sabotages her own mini-masterpiece, however, just feels like a betrayal. I wasn’t optimistic about there being a 12″ version of this one, so instead I tried to see if I could just round it out myself. There’s nothing wrong with short pop songs, and I tend to really admire bands who can squeeze a great song into three minutes or less, but perfect pop songs need closure, and that’s what “Talk of the Town” lacks. So rather than make it into The Pretenders’ “Free Bird” or anything, my edits were very simple, and the finished product is only about a half-minute longer than the original song. […]

  5. […] positively lacerating guitar lick–may tempt you into wishing for a 12″ cut, but unlike CERTAIN SONGS it feels fairly satisfying in its unusual running time. It’s kind of comical in itself, […]

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