Rob Wilson reviews Boards Of Canada’s latest opus, a thing of beauty that leaves no stone unturned.
Boards of Canada
Marcus Eoin and Mike Sandison – two brothers who, when placed together in a musical environment, become Boards of Canada – have always existed as a beautiful enigma. Even from the very beginning the pair seemed to conceal themselves in complete and utter stillness and stand away from their contemporaries, speaking only through their music. This sort of detached behaviour allowed an indescribable wonder to be built and passed from mouth to mouth and, in the oddest and perhaps most physical way possible, Boards of Canada became almost mythological.
From a strictly compositional point of view Boards of Canada most commonly call upon childhood, education, war, climate, science, desolation and nostalgia to fill the spaces created by their brand of down-tempo, emotive, analogue electronic music, which recalls the sound of Cold War-era infomercials and various other educational videos from the mid-1970s. But it is the picking apart of the motives, messages and clues that the pair leave hidden beneath each layer that makes listening back to their debut, Music Has the Right to Children, and its follow-up, Geogaddi, all the more intriguing and rewarding, even after all this time. It seems the more you look into Boards of Canada, the harder they become to explain – and in true Boards of Canada style, the pair vanished from sight in 2006. But six years later, after total silence, in March 2012, something quite remarkable happened: the beginning of one of the most mysterious album promotion campaigns began. A simple question requesting truth in the rumours hovering over a new Boards of Canada album was posted on the Boards of Canada Facebook fan page, and a three letter answer from one of the least publicly active bands on the planet – “Yes” – sent a world of online music fans into delirium.
After another year of complete silence, six mysterious vinyls were delivered to six unsuspecting record stores on the now world-famous Record Store Day. Each vinyl, encased in a blank sleeve, contained exactly 22 seconds of audio from Boards of Canada and nothing more. Tremors rippled around the online community until a buzz could soon be heard loud and clear. Secret vinyl deliveries soon turned into 6-digit codes; 6-digit codes soon turned into passwords that unlocked a promotional video, and eventually the waiting period was ceased with an official announcement – Boards of Canada were back. But the teasing still continued until the night the world watched nothing but a blank screen and listened intently to a one-night-only YouTube stream.
Tomorrow’s Harvest spends a lot of time growing out of its own gaps. Lead-single ‘Reach for the Dead’ doesn’t exactly morph into something that becomes unrecognisable, but the tension that rises out of its opening chords does so very patiently. The length of each chord evokes images that Boards of Canada have actually included in the sleeve of the album itself: you look out over vast landscapes, dry plains and lonely stretches of ground as something disturbing approaches. What approaches in the form of a change in the stereo mix moves past you very slowly and remains unclear, as the slow-moving chords are replaced by an arpeggiated synth pattern and a beat that recalls Boards of Canada’s earlier work. There’s a certain difference, though – two tracks in to proceedings and already there are signs that Boards of Canada have spent a lot of time gradually darkening their outlook on the world. The theme of foreshadowing and change develops with ‘Jacquard Causeway’ – its crawling, waltzing beat becomes the only constant feature as yet more melodies grow, alternate and develop above it. One particular melody dances delicately after forcing its way through and operates as an almost polyrhythmic illusion while it collides carefully with the gaps left in the pause of each thud and clap.
Although Boards of Canada’s strong, affirmative trademark is printed across Tomorrow’s Harvest their sound hasn’t stood still over the eight years that have passed since their last major release. Although Boards of Canada have never particularly been a feel-good summertime band, third album The Campfire Headphase was certainly the closest they’ve ever come to it. Its seaside vibes generated by a widening range of instruments, that disappointed some, are still felt in small doses here but the sound of Tomorrow’s Harvest welcomes Boards of Canada’s fans back home in a much more familiar manner – even if Boards of Canada sound much bleaker and less immediately welcoming than ever before. The further into the album you go, the more horror seems to greet you, the more you feel as if you should turn back. As the album reaches its halfway point and you stumble into a small cave to shelter from ‘Cold Earth’s desolate landscapes and ‘White Cyclosa’s spying helicopters, ‘Sick Times’ arrives, completely frozen – the beat reaches your ears through a piece of thick ice as distant howling winds blow outside of the cave you’ve managed to shelter in.
But as excellent as the two brothers are at creating desperate coldness, they always cast you out into the most wonderful and glacial environments comfortably. As the horrifying, buzzing, vibrating ‘Uritual’ fades, the quite delicate ‘Nothing is Real’ and ‘Sundown’ recall the best features from The Campfire Headphase and some of the shorter incidental pieces Boards of Canada tampered with on their first two albums as tranquility is attained – after exposing you to all kinds of terrors, challenges and horror, Tomorrow’s Harvest reaches a welcome resolution where all dark in the world seems to have faded – and all that’s left is a huge empty space for you to frolic in. Although the opening synths from ‘New Seeds’ are uncomfortably plucked and perhaps slightly disorienting after experiencing such bliss, the peace is only disturbed for what feels like a second as more shining synths replace the unwelcome awakening that ‘New Seeds’ brings.
The overriding theme of the Cold War-era hangs heavy over Tomorrow’s Harvest. Even the cover art features a picture of the San Francisco skyline dissolving in sunlight taken from now defunct Cold War Naval Air Base Alameda. Album closer ‘Semena Mertvykh’ (which roughly translates from Russia to “seeds of the dead” – with yet another reference to the Cold War era) has layers and layers of synths sitting atop each other, fighting for the top space in the mix, each sounding like whining planes as links to war and politics dominate proceedings once again. Yet more foreshadowing and referencing occurs with two earlier track titles ‘New Seeds’ and ‘Reach for the Dead’ becoming one.
Boards of Canada have always done things carefully, whether it’s selecting a particular drum beat or creating an online frenzy – and Tomorrow’s Harvest is at the furthest possible point from being an exception. Although improvisation and unrehearsed accidents have created some of the greatest and most memorable moments in music history (read up on the whistled verse of Otis Redding’s ‘Dock of the Bay’), Boards of Canada never leave a stone unturned. In a recent interview with the Guardian they admitted they spent hours building a sound that only features on ‘Cold Earth’ for a split second. Unless you weren’t completely clear, Boards of Canada dedicate a lot of care, time and delicacy when it comes to creating their music – and it shows each time they release a record. Layer upon layer of spoken-word samples, synth sounds and drum beats become pieces to puzzles that take years to complete. Although Boards of Canada may not immediately strike a first-time listener as great fun, my own personal joy comes through involving myself with the music rather than superficially glancing. Dissecting their music, and the aforementioned clues and tricks, is what allows me to work out the questions I have about the band. Although everything Boards of Canada put into their music is right there in front of me and requires so little to lose myself in, it asks a lot of me to work things out. Although I can now look back at their older material and constantly confirm their intentions to myself, Tomorrow’s Harvest will keep me occupied in this respect for just as long. Although I do have questions this time around that manifest themselves as annoyances rather than general wonder, it’s this kind of trickery that keeps Boards of Canada enjoyable – and by the time I’ve worked out everything from Tomorrow’s Harvest that I think I possibly can, it will have left a sizable mark on my life.