The San Francisco skyline, metallic blue, looms ahead in the distance, a photograph of a horizon that seems to be suffering an icy, cool chill. The apparition – or illusion – of civilization is the first point of contact with Tomorrow’s Harvest. It’s the first real sighting for years, an authentic, red-hot image from the mystic and seclusive Boards of Canada. San Fran has become a ghost of a city, shrouded in see-through mists that roll in off the Pacific, and the skyscrapers appear to shine an unnatural, white-bright aura. Thousands of feet above sea-level, the pristine, slender skin of glass reflects a brilliant light; a hexagon sun that blossoms on the horizon, lit by what could be the imminent aftermath of a nuclear detonation.
The tone of Tomorrow’s Harvest has once again shifted away from its three predecessors, and despite the reference and the close proximity of the word ‘tomorrow’, the atmosphere inside conveys a paranoia and tension the likes of which were present in the 1970’s – perhaps, in 2013, Boards of Canada are hinting that we haven’t progressed as much as we’d like to think. The music could’ve been the anthem for the Cold War; a future war – tomorrow’s war – or those consigned to history. The hostile, shivering synths have been left dormant, alone to harvest their thoughts, cold to the touch and soured, like an out of tune fanfare that hasn’t been seen since the 1970’s. It isn’t as long a stretch as four decades (although to those ultimate BoC fans, it may feel like it), but it’s still been eight years, a fare distance for any band.
Boards of Canada are a touchstone in electronic music. Their music has been heavily imitated, yet no one’s been able to reproduce the band’s authenticity. Some new material has been on the horizon for awhile, ever since that little black box appeared on their website a year ago, prompting more questions than it did answers.
Tomorrow’s Harvest is a spectacular return, but it is also indicative of the band’s pursuit for musical nirvana, and their passion for electronic music. Years of tireless effort and a remarkable attention to detail has yielded yet another unbelievable record that will no doubt stand the test of time. Music Has The Right To Children was released in 1998, and it still sounds amazing. The really freaky thing is this: Boards of Canada’s sound doesn’t age at all.
Eight years have passed since 2005’s beach-house, psychedelic The Campfire Headphase. Tomorrow’s Harvest couldn’t be further away from the casual tone of the coastline, despite the imagery of San Francisco; like much of their music, the image is only an illusion. BoC’s music is always relevant, and Tomorrow’s Harvest plays upon our current, extensive list of fears and anxieties in a forgotten world where everything is not as it seems.
Retro-futuristic vibes are left in the sun to dehydrate, sparkling like phosphorescent circles of light. The innocence of Music Has The Right To Children has disappeared into the dry desert of adulthood (it only lasted until the sinister Geogaddi, 2002). The tiny black box on the band’s website that came to symbolise an approaching release date has also vanished. There are no children to laugh, sing or respond to the word ‘orange’; they’ve taken refuge in the bunkers of dry, uneasy drones, the 1950’s infomercials on what to do when an explosion is imminent returning to life. Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin’s vision of the future isn’t sugar sweet; the future isn’t bright, and it definitely isn’t orange. The band’s use of cut up television advertisements and media samples have taken another route, but the subliminal messages are still here. Boards of Canada have always adjusted and evolved over the years. Every release delves into a new world, a new atmosphere that is progressively different than the last, thematic in sound and designed to perfection. There’s also something cryptic in their message, highlighted by a short advertising campaign veiled in so much secrecy, speculation and anticipation that Daft Punk would’ve been impressed. Music isn’t just math, it’s magic.
Tomorrow’s Harvest is both the faded sound of the late 70’s and the sound of the future. Boards of Canada are experts at suggestion; subliminal messages are encoded throughout their music (Tomorrow’s Harvest is a treasure hunt.) Secret gems enhance the listening experience while creating new visual pathways in the mind. Tomorrow’s Harvest drives down the deserted stretches of road looking for a lost civilisation; the deserts are calling the people, the only areas unaffected by no-go zones.
‘Gemini’ starts off with a melodic synth, like something found on an old, crinkled VHS tape (used and replayed as much as this album will be), ends the eight-year hiatus, and the visual images descend over your imagination in spectacular colours, one on top of another as if they were Tetris blocks on an old Game Boy screen (ok, forget that the screen was black and white – this is the improved colour version); they’re aplenty, and it isn’t long before they’re soaring like an eagle in your mind.
Instant classic ‘Reach For The Dead’ pounds a beautiful uncertainty into the atmosphere, arpeggios that cycle in the air, surrounded by an almost break-beat styled rhythm. ‘White Cyclosa’ deepens the sense of isolation and alarm, emitting red, eerie synths that pulsate and quiver a repetitive warning. You pick up new subtleties in the sound, ones that can’t possibly have been there the last time you listened.
‘Jacquard Causeway’ is unlike anything you would’ve heard before, as the music sucks in the humid air with every rotation, inhaling the atmosphere; the music is very much alive. Structures are built extensively inside the track, rhythm over rhythm is laid, beat by beat, like a stone temple for a paranoid world. Their long standing use of numerology can be seen in ‘Telepath’, where an alien voice creeps into the signal – ‘testing, testing 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 9, 10′. The repetition of the number 9 upholds an eerie mirror to ‘Gyroscope’, an equally freaky track from the equally freaky Geogaddi.
Out here, all the road signs lead to nowhere.
It isn’t until the early gloom lifts, like a fog-covered San Francisco bay that once housed a campfire beach party, that we first encounter the ‘classic’ BoC sound – in ‘Cold Earth’ – where the vague, nostalgic melody has, up to this point, taken refuge. Even the early beats feel constrained, bloated and heavy – the hip hop styled beats so once widespread have almost evaporated, but they do return for ‘Sick Times’.
An alien, unnatural light shines down on the melodies, the sun itself a victim of the nuclear fever. Scanning synths beam back static interrupted signals from beyond, broadcast to a once patriotic, now lonely nation that is devoid of its original population. Ghost towns pass the rear-view mirror. Blocks of beats (music is math, remember?) dominate the rhythms in constructions that are easy to latch onto. In reality, while it’s true that math is at the core of music’s DNA, at least looking at it from a rhythmic point of view and in the very architecture of music, it still only reflects a small percentage of the entire musical experience. Soul is king, and this is why Boards of Canada have many imitators but never any successors.
There is an early absence of melody, but melodic fragments do begin to emerge as the sun returns to the sky. ‘Palace Posy’ is another amazing trip that warms up towards the end with a repetitive melody, inducing an instantly lovable dream wrapped in a swirling tidal wave, as a million colours coil into an infinite spiral; a gyroscope for the inner eye. The tempo is still slow, trudging through the music like a turbulent world stuck in perpetual crises.
It’s not all dark though; the dust settles over the city, and the lighter synths arrive at daybreak. ‘Split Your Infinities’ carries an indistinct hum, an alien buzz, chirruping on the airwaves; or it could be the sound of a cut up, futuristic machine or a robot (without a vocoder in sight) that has warped beyond recognition, giving a sense of dislocation, but it is subtle. You can feel it in the air. The revolving synth line of ‘Uritual’ hints at a dark intent, with fading cries echoing into the dark night, like those of stone-washed sirens that are losing their capabilities, drained of their life and depleted of their energy. ‘Nothing Is Real’ is another awesome track, a chilled afternoon that lifts the fog, sends the survivors out into the sunshine and revels in a greater clarity – emotionally and musically – cruising in slow-motion down deserted bays against the mirage of a mushroom cloud. You can really connect with this. It’s not really a track; it’s a journey that’ll give you repetitive strain injury from hitting replay. It’s soulful. It’s so open. It’s so beautiful. ‘Sundown’ is perfectly placed alongside, eroding the synths in the corrosive, evening heat, only to leave swirling sandpits in the mind. The last 20 minutes are the best, building towards a real climax.
As if to underline the creepy atmosphere, Tomorrow’s Harvest ends on a note that feels strangely – and, I’m sure, intentionally – unresolved. It’s foreboding, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful. You thought the light had come, but it was a false dawn; an illusion the result of the musical chemicals. While the atmosphere is chilly, even at times isolated, it still retains the vintage analogue warmth and nostalgic charm we all love, just under the surface.Tomorrow’s Harvest is classic Boards of Canada. As the class of 98’, now all grown-up, would echo -‘yeah, that’s right’.
– James Catchpole for Fluid Radio