Running Out of Space: Drexciya, Boards of Canada, and the Post 9/11 Digital Psychedelia You Haven't Processed Yet

Posted by Ryan Clarke


Part I: 20th Century Blur, Millennial Corruption

We’re still grappling with the ways September 11th 2001 changed our lives. It was the end of the myth of America, even when that myth was only for a few. This day, if you had to pick one, ended our prior perceived notion of formality and decorum. Before, western civilizations processed trauma blurrylike, akin to storytelling or hearsay.

Analog technology has a similar haze to the way histories were once understood. Such technologies were characterized by heavily physical approaches and interfaces (i.e., rotary phones, vinyl records, timestamps); meaning and memory woven into the device itself. The way these memories are perceived can conflate into and to be as real as the memories themselves; like how film shown on 120Hz refresh rates on newer televisions do not look like what film is supposed to look like and just looks a little funny. Our truths are firmly placed into the standard definition 480p/24 frames per second even if we don’t realize it consciously.

As the analog avulses into the digital, what other formative confusions of memories, truths, and histories are we not conscious of? How are we processing this rapid shift of formality in how we interact with our histories that take the form of music, movies, and with each other? We can look to the attack on the World Trade Center and its global psychological and material fallout to investigate how postmodernism psychedelia was brought to two different realms at an audio-reality inflection point and how the digital takeover transformed how we understand ourselves and our art.

Memory and narrative primarily first moved through oration, the original analog rhythmachine being our mouths. Histories deviated; time was taken to listen and remember. This process of a slow future rememory was subconsciously poured into mechanical technology like the wax cylinder and phonograph. Older histories inherently carried translational imperfection; wow, flutter, and warble nestled between each retelling-replaying. These changes granted you your own moment to hold, giving you a space to create your own truth to the tale. This conversion was far from perfect and fraught with issues in its own right, but as this process was rarely manufactured as syndication (mostly regional) —that too became its own personal history.

But the slow future gave way to a cancelled one, as Mark Fisher discusses in-depth in his writing on Hauntology:

“The slow cancellation of the future has been accompanied by a deflation of expectations. There can be few who believe that in the coming year a record as great as, say, the Stooges’ Funhouse or Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On will be released.... The feeling of belatedness, of living after the gold rush, is as omnipresent as it is disavowed. Compare the fallow terrain of the current moment with the fecundity of previous periods and you will quickly be accused of ‘nostalgia’. But the reliance of current artists on styles that were established long ago suggests that the current moment is in the grip of a formal nostalgia, of which more shortly. It is not that nothing happened in the period when the slow cancellation of the future set in. ... In the last ten to fifteen years, meanwhile, the internet and mobile telecommunications technology have altered the texture of everyday experience beyond all recognition. Yet, perhaps because of all this, there’s an increasing sense that culture has lost the ability to grasp and articulate the present. Or it could be that, in one very important sense, there is no present to grasp and articulate anymore.”

As the analog mediums of the past decompose back into carbon at the bottom of landfills, this also provides the ill-fated conclusion that we are no longer recording history. All our knowledge now stored onto rewritable read-write server farms in Wyoming. Subconsciously so much information races by us daily that there’s no realistic path towards making sense of today in the context of the last. At an abstract level, we feel this in our Twitter feeds, but also in how we engage with each other and our works. All of this has led to the societal devaluation of cultural products. Perception of history, and by extension history itself, is woven into the material as much as the text upon it. A certain pop or crackle on your vinyl record passed down from your parents may carry real significance for you. You could very well know when you’re listening to someone else’s version of “Songs in The Key of Life” LP, I know when I am.

Because analog frequencies are never the same twice, we tend to imprint personal memory in the in-betweens unconsciously, crafting a history mass-distributed amongst our own micro-communities. Those histories can fall into being our personal truths as well, with moments only a select few perceive becoming our realties. Oddly enough, much of that currency of personal truth is held in this in-between. Remembering the firewood crackle of the record or the radio hiss of diminished frequencies reaching the back seat of the car on the way home are memories that many hold dear. Have we lost the room to dream between—to touch the songs we love?

9/11 solidified the digital corruption of memory-making, where trauma could be processed and responded to in real time. We no longer have the benefit of allowing time to be felt in-between before the cold reality enters our eyes and ears. Recording has given way to streaming, the infinite non-archivable projection of the now. What was lost in this transition? For the individuals that find personal connections in cultural artifacts, the dream-suggested blur now translates to corruption of data, where mass distributed files quietly tell us that we too are just a line of code in a mass compiler.

History has always been a fraught concept, with the victors creating what gets to be remembered, but infinite digital histories are now produced, leading us with no basic understanding to even push back off of. More resources are given towards crafting new memories, much less to work on understanding older ones.

Tactical innovations and societal remolding runs parallel with the progression-digression of our culture. This dynamic is no clearer than with the introduction of the Apple iPod on October 27th, 2001, merely a month later from the more traumatic aforementioned paradigm shift. Our New Blur now arrives in the form of data corruption. We process history through infinite, insatiable, ameaning loops. Cassette hisses now take the form of missing 98-kbps waveforms. Whatever love that was found in-between waveforms is now the stark understanding that it’s only a low-resolution artifact of emptiness.

Many people dealt with this digital veil slip and collapse of the American myth by frantically forming their own or reverting to past myths. Pagans, cults, Infowars and the general spread of past myth-cum-disinformation. The great acceleration was initially touted in the 1950’s and can be generally documented with CO2 beginning its almost now-exponential curve upwards to levels borderline untenable for general human enjoyment and survival. Technology also kept pace alongside this world. Similar to this climate acceleration, we begin to reach a bit of a tipping point where no matter what we strive to accomplish, there is little to fix on what has already been done. Such an alternative tipping point was the iPod.

Source: NOAA, 2019
Source: RIAA (modified), 2018

18th-century Marxist playwright Bertoly Brecht spoke of a shift in how many of us fawn over the ‘better’ days of the past, but so often realize even as we look back, there is no frozen, cleaner past. The rapidity of change and the increase of knowledge in the modern world have forced us to see history in a new light: as a process in which the new continuously transfigures the old. Two music groups speak directly to this concept in their own ways: “the past inside the present'' and “drifting into a time of no future”, Boards of Canada and Drexciya, respectively.

These two particular groups were both in the midst of their own widely considered top-tier works, 2002’s Geogaddi and Grava 4, and were likely to have been affected by both 9/11 and the wave of paranoia, fear, and the budding seeds that became modern pathing of misinformation. Because of their widely different backgrounds, they processed this collapse in different ways. These two groups are a case study of the ways in which whiteness confronts and responds to collapse as a passive participant (and active causer), and how blackness perceives collapse in and of itself.

Both records approach the end of history; Geogaddi lending itself as an elegiac indictment of whiteness’s complicity in the multiple modern apocalypses of our time, and Grava 4 using the millennium as vessel for a new beginning for Black folk. Myths spawning into White Confusion and Black Myth Realized convene at a watershed moment for our current history.

Part II: In a Beautiful Place in the Countryfnord

"Geogaddi was kind of exorcising demons, and even after we'd set out to do a record like that, smack in the middle of working on it, 9/11 happened. I remember there were a few of us in the studio that day, and we just ended up glued to the TV for the whole day. I think the months after that pushed us into making a darker record, as I'm sure it did with a lot of bands."

Play Louder, 2005

Michael and Marcus Sandison are the members of Boards of Canada, a 1990’s electronic duo that first hit the scene with the 1996 LP, Music Has the Right to Children (MHTRTC); a playfully eerie psychedelic record that feels like walking through a childhood stomping ground at twilight as an adult. Memories cycle and rush all around you but at a decayed pace, rubbing your faded remembrances on top of your current thought-patterns of the present day. Amongst all its charm and subtle dreaminess, the last track, “One Very Important Thought”, carries a stern political message surrounding authoritarian censorship:

“Now that the show is over
And we have jointly exercised our constitutional rights
We would like to leave you with one very important thought
Sometime in the future, you may have the opportunity
To serve as a juror in a censorship case or a so-called obscenity case
It would be wise to remember that the same people
Who'd stop you from listening to Boards Of Canada
May be back next year to complain about a book, or even a TV program
If you could be told of what you can see or read
Then it follows that you can be told what to say or think
Defend your constitutionally protected rights
No one else will do it for you, thank you”

"One Very Important Thought", Boards Of Canada

From the jump, the Sandisons weren’t afraid to show their beliefs and put it on wax. 1996’s MHTRTC ended with a heeding call of the coming pestilence of censorship, something that was seemingly ahead of its time with Net Neutrality and DMCA takedowns ever-encroaching in 2021. BOC often confronts a particularly white illness; an on-the-surface playful abandonment skipping merrily alongside false nostalgia, scorching the indigenous earth in the meantime. MHTRTC does this sleight of hand predominately placing this juxtaposition of “the golden years of eurocentrism” with the haunted shadows of manifest destiny. By placing Native American namesakes and instrumentation alongside more Eurocentric concepts and textures, like in “Kaini Industries”, MHTRTC or “Ataronchronon” on their 2005 album, The Campfire Headphase, being considered by the group to be about "the fragmentation of a displaced Indian tribe". It never quite lets you forget your youthful stomping ground is also the site of utter massacre. The title "Kaini Industries" itself plays with the tension of colonial industrialization all in the name of indigenous peoples.

Their subsequent release also delves into other various forms of reverse hallucinatory psychedelia, condensing a cherished past untrue for many and at the same time drowning out a history wailing through the static and fog. Their next release, In A Beautiful Place Out in the Country (Warp Records, 2000) confronts and critiques bizarre white ideation quite often seen in cults, subliminal messaging, and other forms of white darkness that pervades through their own people. Throughout their discography these white perversions are well on display: In a Beautiful Place… looks at Branch Davidians and the 1993 Waco, Texas Incident, Tomorrow’s Harvest (Warp Records, 2013) deals with bunker dwellers, FEMAinternment camps and climate deniers blindly staring in the face of environmental collapse. I wouldn’t be surprised if Qanon and 5G were subtle background subjects of their next album. The horribly derailed roots of religious utopianism in the millennium continue to find cold solid earth in our present day.

Visual connection to Branch Davidians in the CD case of IABOITC and their leader David Koresh

Interviewer: Is there a basic idea that connects your debut album, “Music Has The Right To Children”, the EP “In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country” and “Geogaddi”?
Mike Sandison: We want the records to be like a journey that takes you step by step away from the real world. I think with “Geogaddi” we are moving further towards the dream world. You could imagine that on this record we are restarting a damaged human brain and indiscriminately triggering fragmentary memories of music and sounds as it drifts away and begins to dream.

BOC Pages

Geogaddi (2002, Warp Records) approaches another sort of disillusionment through the cultural subsumption of Native American spirituality via the lense of Europeans afraid about the fear-truth of the world becoming clearer in the Information Age. Loosely based off of Kraftwerk’s 1975 album, Radioactivity, Geogaddi finds a reinterpretation of nuclear dread through the fears of globalization and capitalism by looking at the memories of a dreamed childhood becoming tainted into an eerie paranoia.

The meaning of Geogaddi can lead to some possible understandings as well, “geo” (earth), “gad” (to run wild, to be uncontrolled), and “Di” (two, twice, double). Another interpretation can also be found in the first spoken lyrics of the album, “the past inside the present”. These ideas could be imagined as a subverted recursion of when it was simpler to dream and have nightmares. We stand in front of a cancelled future, where now all we can do is look back and watch our former handle of the truth decay. Over time, this sad understanding permeates into all of BOC’s work. I wonder if listeners have caught up to this impressively solemn indictment of colonialist late-stage capitalism and by relation, whiteness. To wistfully romanticize the passage of time instead of recognizing complicitness with its decay. Geogaddi, essentially, is a work about the relationship between man and spirituality, the supernatural and the pragmatic, nature and technology. Geogaddi is used as a tool to criticize human behavior. Using Native American instrumentation throughout, it shows an example of the subtle sins of whiteness by creating myths on land not their own. The samples become their own deeper strata of time, and in turn truth. To hear the time upwell through the music itself is its own sinister form of cassette hiss, forcing us to deal with the trauma that occurred for us to properly process the present. And not so unlike earlier works like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, these buried myths rarely find a peaceable returnal.

Interviewer: There are certainly some very clear messages in your recent work, how would you describe the message conveyed in “Energy Warning”?
Sandison: It is effectively sounding a warning as to the depletion of natural energy resources. The message is, however, usually secondary to the musical concept. Another example is in “1969”, it is a manifestation of the era of innocence, love, and peace that was at the heart of the era, but it was also laced with the various fears going into the future such as the Cold War and nuclear threats and I thought about conveying a kind of strong additive sensation of neurosis that has been popularized in our culture since the 1970’s Government publicity movies etc. Electromagnetic. There was a sense of helplessness for the future generation.

Buzz Magazine, May 2002

As spoken to earlier, we are no longer recording history, the tape is full, there is no more memory to hold. The law of diminishing returns is something BOC deals in spades. As you listen and look back, the veil begins to rise and shows a wall of impenetrable incomprehensible noise. The unreachable dreams of a past that never existed infests the reality of the present, constantly reminding you that said past is something truly unobtainable. At some point, you have to wake up. This lack of home to return can feel off-putting but it is ever present in their work.

The lack of safety is also written into their melodies when approached from a theory perspective as well. Their horizontal song structure lets ideas flash passed you, never to be heard again. Suspended chords, alternating perfect fifths with no key center that don’t resolve, tritones (“diabolus” in music, translated to “devil in music” that many attribute to the skin-crawling feeling some music can bring) is all there. Textures and use of delay suggest the music was crafted using dilapidated machinery, this effect produces hauntological layers on top of the melodies and might be the closest way music can give us that feeling of eerie remembrance. These textures: grain, static, decay, dirt, and grime, is how we look back at and walk forward to simultaneously. This produces two representations of time at the same time; what’s in front of us and what we remember this once felt like.

Adam Harper deftly speaks to these concepts in a blog post from 2006:

“Boards of Canada wrestle with the fraught utopianism of counterculture, psychedelia and the natural world, but do so – with an elegantly seamless paradoxicality – in the context of a childhood characterized by a synthesized, scientific and technological modernism and the taming and classification of the natural world through photography, field trips and television programs. Their project is a bizarre sort of nature documentary in itself, one that confuses and mystifies rather than explains and educates, its cameras and microphones pointed inwards at the mind, watching it as it receives and evaluates information about the world outside. The ghost in Boards of Canada’s decaying machinery is humanity, born of and separated from the natural world, and who in turn has many ghosts of its own.”

And it's these postmodern ghosts, both white and indigenous, that haunts the levers of power in this modern post-nature world.

Part III: Astronomical Guideposts

Drexciya approached this hauntological collapse by reconfiguring past myth into a reclaimed tool, materializing the stories given to us by our ancestors. To not pervert but to remove memory from the realm of future decay.

History has an odd way of being conflated alongside memory. That’s how “historicized” subjects are slyly placed in our memory for something to then later be described as fact. Think Christopher Columbus and the like, considering “history”, but altogether false. Grava 4 (2002, Tresor) was the end point of merely being interpreted, but for old interpretations of histories to be repurposed and actualized. After a decade of building Diasporic text as destructed myth, James Stinson and Gerald Donald decided to materialize their Black Atlantic afrofuture into the present reality.

Drexciya lies in the edges of the now well-discussed and solidified sensibilities of Afrofuturism. Connecting Sun Ra’s Alter-destiny, Kraftwerk’s sonic automation, and Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, Drexciya proposes the delineation of pre and post-modernity’s ending-beginning with the Middle Passage. The ends of society being a recursion, not reversion, of blackness’ role in the ends of time.

Detroit’s post-1968 industrial collapse is the context for identifying Black people’s role in the man-machine dynamics towards a path forward. This melding of identity into not just the idea of Drexicya but to actively search for a lack of identity is powerful in its own rite. Although BOC is known to be reclusive, they truly have nothing on the duo that makes Drexciya, James Stinson and Gerald Donald, only having a handful of images of them and even fewer recorded interviews available to explore. Any gleams of their themes and understanding are bound to be blurred, tending towards the impossible. Their last record while both members were still alive (Stinson passed away the same year as the release), Grava 4, seems to leave the most clues to the greater meaning and purpose of Drexciya.

Grava 4 landed in June 2002 and for a group to be so concerned with the timeline of history, 2001 must’ve after affected them in some way. I believe it pushed for them to approach their story to be re-interpreted as objective, not one to be fantastically romanticized. If we can agree that history is no longer being recorded due to how accelerated we have information thrown at as daily, can it be reclaimed? Grava 4 purposes this through in its 56-minute run time. Starting with its first song, “Cascading Celestial Giants'', it immediately reads as being especially different from the underwater atmosphere of their past records.

During it’s 9 tracks, we begin kickstarting a path into the outer galaxies, far from any earthen gravity and worries. It gets explicitly cosmic with the album cover itself being a star-chart to arrive at the home planet of where Drexiciyans came from, Ociya Syndor. You can even plot the course to arrive at the Drexciyan star yourself as they actually registered a star in the sky if you ever feel the need to find your path home. This transcendence of story and supplantation of an alternate reality solidifies how blackness approaches collapse and rebirths simultaneously; that to be black is to haunt— as Aria Dean speaks to in her blacceration piece. That we are both the target and center of the apocalypse. Grava 4 could be interpreted as a tone poem of Suprapan Africanism; to return to where we came from is to turn away from that which has brought us harm, this planet, and return to our own.

In the music theory department, Drexicya approaches their objective of trauma transcendence through one main method used in most of their songs, oscillator cross modulation. An obscure feature in 1980 Japanese synthesizers like the early Ronald line of synths. Mick Harvey explains this process in “Harnessed the storm: rereading Drexciya with The Black Atlantic”:

“To increase the tonal range, companies began to allow complex modulation routings between different oscillators, which could create strange, complex, and unpredictable new tonalities. This method of synthesis had been possible since the earliest days of synthesizer music, but often had been used in a somewhat haphazard fashion, resulting in random, chaotic, or noisy sound effects. Examples might be found on early BBC Radiophonic Workshop records.
The Drexciyan genius can be found in their singular and virtuosic mastery of this method. The chaotic, erratic, and clangorous tones that this synthesis technique produced are brought, in a high-wire act, within precise and subtle control. Harmonics sear across the entire pitch range with a caustic tonality that tears at the ear. And yet, simple melodic figures, controlled with deftness and subtlety, reveal hidden accents, inflections, and complexities that could not otherwise be discerned. The effect is for a bubbling, drifting chaos to be given an extremely high degree of articulation. The repetition of a melodic figure over the space of a 6-minute track allows for deft tonal shifts that drift up momentarily, threaten to violently overwhelm the piece, but are somehow kept within a narrow range of control.”

Like waves, they showcase the volatility of controlling or containing so much trauma within a repetitive motif. This is seen in funk, jazz, running victory laps in gospel, etc. Such a process wasn’t the intent of the original engineers of these early synthesizers, another showcase of blackness’ retrofitting and elevation of found material, not unlike oxtails, crawfish, turkey necks, etc.

Grava 4 showed that when faced with true darkness, you can create your home already made from collapse while knowing all too well that utopia isn’t real and to face the daily tide of adversity amongst your community is where we find our strength. The deftness through which Drexicya accomplished this by providing such a final left turn in their mission is undeniable. It reads like an entire post-history. Starting from the ash of a drowned past to rise into the fiery stratosphere. The sonic fiction of Drexciya is truly written by each listener, allowing enough in-between to create your own histories alongside their format. I’ll intentionally leave this interpretation a little open for your own to continue and let with this quote from their 1997 release, The Quest, speak:

“Are Drexciyans water-breathing, aquatically mutated descendants of those unfortunate victims of human greed? Have they been spared by God to teach us or terrorize us? Did they migrate from the Gulf of Mexico to the Mississippi River basin and on to the Great Lakes of Michigan? Do they walk among us? Are they more advanced than us and why do they make their strange music? What is their quest? These are many of the questions that you don’t know and never will.”

The Unknown Writer, 1997

These two albums arrived around the same time, and both speak to a collapse we all felt but from different planes of reality. Geogaddi examined the psychological homelessness whiteness is accosted by in moments of turmoil. Those who have been historically and socially coddled turn towards perverted, painful utopias when a speckle of truth of how everyone else lives is shown. For their progenitors, the embodiment of this idea was the nuclear age— for the Sandisons, it seems investigated in the death of analog and the introduction of cultural immediacy. The transfer of personal truths molded into a cold lifeless mass distribution with a digital sheen, forcing us to process our narratives and traumas in real time. The seeds of the current Twitch generation, processing trauma in real time as it’s immediately streamed to our phones.

Although the BPM is faster, Grava 4 approaches this particular end of the world as a moment to pause on its own interiority. It takes an atmospheric step back to realign our fears as a much smaller one. As we cannot control temporality, Stinson and Donald engage with history and spatiality in a malleable sense, not to get lost by, but to find a come down from the colonial allochthonous psychedelia we’ve been forced to endure for the past 400 years. Grava 4, techno, and Drexciya as a whole seemingly strive towards a rearrangement of history by inducing atonality, nonlinearity that counter western thought and notation. This should be seen as its own form of resistance, not of representation but of shroud and secrecy. Much of what is going on in Grava 4 is more so felt than recorded and what cannot be contained carries the dual ability to not be commodified.

Both approach the end of history as an elegy; one as indictment and as a new beginning. As we know all too well today, these ends are both very real and it’s up to us to plot our path back to Earth. It’s your choice which path to take.

"All the records we’ve made give you clues, how to tap into your inner selves. We bring you right to that door and give you the key. We’re doing what we’re able to, dropping messages from day one without getting too deep and scaring people off. We can only hope that people will pick up on what we’re doing.”

James Stinson, 2002

A selective chronologist, R.C. Clarke notices the passage of time through both an ethnomusicological lens as a co-editor at Dweller Electronics and oceanographically as Ph.D student in Coastal Geological Sciences in New Orleans, Louisiana. Find him on twitter.