A casual observer of the Boards of Canada (BoC) numbers station mystery might be either vaguely amused or generally disinterested. BoC fans, on the other hand, are of a different breed. Like Pynchon fans, they've read everything about the Brothers Sandison, from their interest in mathematics and cults to their fondness for psychedelia and the Incredible String Band. The type of people who know that the reversed vocal sample on "1969," a track from 2002's Geogaddi (the duo's best album, in my opinion), is a reference to David Koresh's Branch Davidian rival, Amo Bishop Roden.
To Boards fans such as myself, the Willy Wonka-esque 12” vinyl popping up here and there on Record Store Day, and the online decryption and number theories that followed, all fit the Sandison mystique. BoC are having fun, and so are the fans. In the process they've stolen a bit of Daft Punk's viral thunder, forcing us to wonder, is the biggest and weirdest musical mindfuck/rabbit hole ever created?
For those who need to be brought up to speed, here is the BoC numbers station project briefing.
On April 20, 2013, Record Store Day (and international 4/20 day), Reddit user lilcakey took a trip to Other Music in New York City. There he found a mysterious Boards of Canada 12” record with a 36 digit-key on the cover. When he played the record, pretty music burst forth, followed by six numbers, 936557, spoken in a robotic voice. Lilcakey theorized, quite rightly, that the numbers were part of a larger Easter egg, encouraging fans to help find other records and decode the overall meaning. AtalantaFugiens, an acknowledged BoC account, confirmed that the record was legit. (In the days that followed, a record identical to lilcakey's showed up in Rough Trade East in London.)
On April 22, AtalantaFugiens annotated a video of a “Julie & Candy” soundboard recording with the phrase “ONE GOT FAT.” Popping up rather humorously at 4:20 in the kaleidoscopic video (the same used in BoC's 2001 ATP performance), it was a reference to the well-known “Everything You Do Is A Balloon” fan video, patched together from a bicycle safety film starring kids wearing monkey masks. The video included the blank 36-digit key, and was later altered to read “1977 snow computing amateur footage beards synthesizer.”
Shortly thereafter, the Boards of Canada YouTube account made this video its top favorite. In the video's comment section, YouTube user hellinterface (a known BoC side project) linked to a private video titled “nuevas semillas,” which features graphics from Little House On the Prairie (red herring?). This video in turn links to a fourth video (uploaded by YouTube user tarekeys) that contained the digits 717228.
A day later, the six-number code 519225 popped up in a message broadcast on Zane Lowe's BBC Radio 1. Later that day, another message, broadcast on NPR's All Songs Considered, revealed the number 699742.
In the early hours of April 26, Twoism messageboard user DaveJ noticed that one of the forum banners had been altered with a static-like overlay. Other users found that when the .gif file was opened in a text-editing program, it revealed links to two Soundcloud files, both titled “∑” (the summation symbol). Played together, the two files reveal the fifth code, 628315. And when the Soundcloud's WAV files were uploaded to a text-editor, they revealed coding language featuring “Cosech” (the Spanish word for “harvest”), leading to speculation that the album will be titled Cosech. Others believe it's merely the name of BoC's numbers station project.
Got all that? (If not, head over to bocpages.org for a more detailed timeline.)
Many bands have been accused of dropping subliminal messages into their music—Judas Priest and the Beatles immediately come to mind. With BoC, however, subliminal messaging is elevated to fine art. They clearly delight in the various ways cryptic meanings, or lack thereof, can be imported into music. It fits their aesthetic, which is about taking raw sound and warping it until it becomes something else. With the numbers station project, BoC have taken their game to a whole new level.
The hope is that there will be some big reveal after the sixth code is discovered, like a new album announcement or title. Meanwhile, theories abound like the greatest of online conspiracies. Everything is considered. Everything is part of the puzzle. But as one Boards of Canada IRC room user, CloudDrone, noted: “Maybe what were supposed to be solving is more reflective. We figure out the essence of what drives us to desire this album so much, then (just like an eagle soaring through the sky) the album appears across the canvas of our mind.”
This is the BoC fan mind. So captivating is the duo's music and aura that the numbers mystery ascends to near-religious revelation. The fun is replaced with the search for a grand meaning.
A Boards of Canada projection that appeared across the street from Rough Trade on Record Store Day
The entire exercise calls to mind Joe K's Being or Nothingness book, which baffled a number of academics back in 2008 with its recursive language, or the mysterious Russian radio station UVB-76, which still broadcasts 25 tones per minute, 24 hour per day. And then of course there is The Conet Project, a free-music compilation of mysterious numbers station broadcasts from across the world; from the Lincolnshire Poacher on Cyprus to Cherry Ripe in Australia. There is general agreement that the Conet Project likely influenced BoC's own numbers station project. The mystery surrounding Horse_ebooks, the infamously entertaining spam account, is another point of comparison here.
See, the BoC numbers station rabbit hole quickly leads us down several other rabbit holes.
As you read this article, some fan is probably plumbing the depths of the Conet Project looking for a cypher that is unrelated to the sixth clue but part of the larger code. Others are clicking through YouTube videos for Easter eggs that may or may not be Boards of Canada alter egos, such as YouTube user Hellinterface. Still others are moving frame by frame through BoC videos to find newly-added, blink-and-you'll-miss-it messages like “ONE GOT FAT.”
With the mystery coming to its inevitable(?) endpoint, the great pleasure now is in charting various BoC fans' descent into their very own personal rabbit holes. It's like the InfoWars readers disappearing up their asses, but in a playful, psychedelic way.
One fan on the Boards of Canada IRC typed, “All hail discordia,” a reference to Principia Discordia, the founding document of Discordianism. Created by the pseudonymous individuals Malaclypse the Younger and Omar Khayam Ravenhurst, Discordianism is all about subversion. The parody religion's Operation Mindfuck would be a rather fitting description for BoC's numbers station project. They share something of the same spirit.
Another IRC user, pizzatheorem, wondered if the numbers were a breadcrumb trail leading to an actual numbers station. A Facebook user theorized that since the project is inspired by spy number stations, then perhaps a one-time pad (a decryption pad with only one use) will be required to decode the 36-digit key. An interesting theory, given that one-time pads were and still are commonly used in espionage communiques, lending the project an even more cryptic air.
One of the more mind-boggling theories comes from yet another Facebook user who wrote:
“Okay, I know this is a HUUUGE stretch, but you have to think strange when it comes to BoC.
936557 coincidentally is also a Hex code for a brownish colour. Taking it one step further, converting Hex to HSL and HSB codes respectively gives you a number that somewhat resembles a coordinate. Those codes are 14°, 25.6, 45.9 and 14°, 40.8, 57.6.
If you plug those into Google Maps, you get a place in the Philippines. That alone may not be interesting, but what is, is when you get directions from each point. The shape begins to draw out an almost perfect hexagon. I've attached the link for reference.
So far, that's my working theory. Well, it isn't really a theory, just something interesting.”
At any rate, all of this could be absolutely meaningless—a red herring to dangle in front of frothing Boards of Canada fans. There may not even be an album for all we know. If that's the case, it seems like a lot of wasted energy and the source of many headaches for Warp Records' publicity team.
Then again, the rabbit hole and its various branching tunnels have been exceptionally fun. It's definitely the weirdest musical mindfuck that I can remember.