Boards of Canada: Tomorrow's Harvest – review

(Warp)

Boards of Canada might reasonably have expected to be the only enigmatic, vastly influential techno duo returning after an eight-year hiatus with an ingenious viral marketing campaign in 2013. Obviously, Daft Punk had other ideas, but the byzantine manner of Boards of Canada's reappearance makes the Frenchmen look as if they're standing on a street corner shouting, "Get yer Daft Punk CDs here!"

In order to unlock the website revealing news of Tomorrow's Harvest, fans had to piece together a 36-digit code from six fragments embedded in radio broadcasts, Cartoon Network commercials, YouTube clips, online messageboards, cryptic vinyl releases and a projection in the art gallery opposite London's Rough Trade East. It speaks volumes about the dedication and know-how of the duo's fanbase that they were energised rather than frustrated by this multimedia scavenger hunt. The degree of obsessive analysis and theorising on the fan forum Bocpages.org/wiki would shame a Talmudic scholar.

Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin, Scottish brothers who spent part of their childhoods in Canada, affect people in peculiar ways. The mysteriously moving musical language of memory and loss they established on 1998's cyber-pastoral Music Has the Right to Children has seeped far and wide, from chillwave to the muted dubstep of Burial, from cloud rap to the "hauntological" output of the Ghost Box label, while being pretty and accessible enough to make sense in the background of Top Gear or CSI: Miami.

Fellow 70s kids might have detected echoes of certain phenomena from their own youth, such as public information films, educational documentaries, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and obscure British horror movies. But through their deployment of certain sounds – detuned analogue synths, snatches of indecipherable speech, and hazy production which sounded either sun-bleached or water-blurred – Boards of Canada managed to universalise that sensation and evoke the sound of nostalgia itself, defined by academic Svetlana Boym as "a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed."

With 2002's less benign Geogaddi, animated by an interest in religion, mathematics and numerology, the duo attracted the kind of people who spend long nights investigating the internet's more arcane precincts. However loudly the brothers protested that the decision to make the album 23 tracks and 66:06 minutes long was merely playful, fans probed it for occult messages, enticed by its backwards-masked vocals, eerie samples and mood of creeping paranoia. Through such magical thinking a cult band came to resemble a genuine cult.

This unsettling aura permeates much of Tomorrow's Harvest. Music Has the Right to Children and 2005's disappointing The Campfire Headphase were redolent of northern fields and forests, but the artwork and videos accompanying the new album situate it in the American desert, specifically the secret landscape of atom bomb tests, peyote trips, religious sects and Area 51. The duo held the first listening party in an abandoned Mojave desert waterpark with the unimprovable name of Lake Dolores.

The cute, tinny fanfare that opens the album like an ident from an early 80s regional news show is a red herring. Tomorrow's Harvest is their most cinematic and vast-sounding album yet, suggestive of barren plains and burning skies, wonder and dread, watching and being watched. White Cyclosa opens with the ominous whirr of helicopters and the angry-wasp drone of Uritual also implies surveillance, while the spidery synth patterns of the first three tracks recall the horror movies of John Carpenter and Dario Argento. The record's stealthy first half feels like roaming a ghost town in the aftermath of some unexplained calamity.

It's the kind of music that gives rise to strange notions. Boards of Canada sow a few clues as to their own intentions while leaving space for each listener's pet theories. The title of the loping, suspenseful Jacquard Causeway seemingly indicates French geneticist Albert Jacquard, a proponent of "degrowth": the idea of increasing happiness by working and consuming less. Alongside such titles as Sick Times and Collapse, it implies a concern with dwindling resources which infects the album title with apocalyptic menace akin to John Christopher's 1956 eco-horror novel The Death of Grass.

Just when you think you've got the gist, the colours grow sharper and brighter in the second half. Palace Posy might even be described as bouncy, and Nothing Is Real has the hopeful warmth of their early work, heralding a five-song final stretch so expansively gorgeous that you might wish that you too had first heard it at Lake Dolores.

To the uninitiated, Tomorrow's Harvest could seem like a low-key kind of "event" album. It obeys its own private rules and, despite giving dubstep the occasional polite nod of acknowledgement, deepens rather than broadens the duo's existing sound. Some curious listeners might wonder why Boards of Canada inspire such intense adoration; others will find the album's allusive beauty keeps triggering vivid new images and tremors of emotion months from now. Tomorrow's Harvest may not shout for your attention, but it certainly rewards it.

Contributor

Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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