Hey, wait a minute! I thought the new Boards of Canada album wasn’t coming out until June! Were they trying to put one over all of us here, taking on the name Northcape and making an album that sounded almost exactly like…
Anyway, I’ve always had a little trouble reviewing electronic. Part of it is because I haven’t been listening to it as long as I have other genres – I only became a fan about two years ago, where I’ve enjoyed rock and jazz since I was very young and hip hop to some degree since high school – but part of it is because the sort of electronic I lean toward, which this fits in line with quite well, tends to be on the abstract side of things. It’s easy for me to really like Aphex Twin and Autechtre and their ilk, but it’s hard for me to put words around the two groups, because I’m basically trying to rationalize impressionism. Northcape fit under the same general genre, but I’m gonna give it a go anyway.
Winding back to my original point, they sound a lot like Boards of Canada, and unfortunately, that’s a little to their detriment. After all, when you’re an electronic group who sounds that much like them, you’ve set the bar very high for yourself. And they use the same blend of dreamy synthesizers and droning electric guitars (although they’re more inclined to them than Boards of Canada are), the beats are set somewhere between electronic and trip hop, the tempos are slow to medium, often slowing down in the middle of a song, and the general feel of it is very chill. And unfortunately, they don’t live up to the standard they set themselves to.
There is an upside to it, though: Exploration and Ascent is such a careful study of such an enjoyable group that it can’t help but be enjoyable itself. I particularly enjoy “The First Crossing of the Watershed,” which unfolds quite nicely over the course of its eight minute length – like a lot of good electronic, it’s based on a series of simple, interlacing melodies that are allowed to build on and play off of each other. Meanwhile, “Arrive Ruttledge Col” nails the dreaminess, and their sci-fi synths – which they use a lot more heavily than Boards of Canada do – come off quite nicely on “Trailhead” and “Potentilla.” It’s also quite warm and relaxing, and nicely ethereal – in other words, the sort of album that does sound quite good while it’s playing.
And hey – at the end of the day, it certainly wouldn’t be a bad way to get into this general style of electronic music. I’ll grant that it would be a bit of an odd starting point, but if you so happen to be curious about the whole “ambient techno” thing, it’s certainly quite representative and well-executed. It’s just that other groups, most notably Boards of Canada, do cast a long shadow over them.