Boards of Canada: Tomorrow's Harvest – review


Part treasure hunt, part wild goose chase, Boards of Canada's pre-release campaign for their fourth album has kept certain denizens of the internet usefully occupied for weeks now. The Scottish brothers were not the first celebrated, publicity-shy electronic duo to break a long absence with a series of teases this spring – that would be Daft Punk. But BOC's release countdown certainly repaid elevated levels of geekery and perseverance, shoring up the reputations of Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin as dextrous seminators of mystery, as well as a cult band of rare beauty.

First there were the unmarked vinyl records whose numbers combined with other clues to direct fans to announcement of the album. At least one enterprising soul sold one on eBay for $5,700. Then there was a broadcast of a grainy video accompanied by hazy, impending ambient music at a busy Tokyo intersection (later revealed as the second track on Tomorrow's Harvest, Reach for the Dead).

Finally, there was a playback in an abandoned leisure park in the Californian desert, a locale chiming splendidly with BOC's guiding principles: nostalgia, remoteness, unease and, this time around at least, the prospect of a dystopian future. Their album's title, Tomorrow's Harvest, echoes that of a US "family preparedness" website selling dried food and survivalist supplies in the event of the breakdown of civilisation. The album's cover may (or may not) suggest a sunset (or a nuclear explosion) over San Francisco.

Whatever it all means, Tomorrow's Harvest does pretty much reward both the eight-year wait and the Easter egg hunt, particularly for those who would hate for BOC to acknowledge the digital advances of the day overmuch. Tomorrow's World maintains all the Boards sonic signatures of old. There are out-of-fashion breakbeats and arpeggiating synths, redolent of 70s film soundtracks. Crackly transmissions alternate with washes of amniotic analogue sound, all studded with rare vocal samples whose purpose is rarely comfort.

Five tracks in, Telepath features the album's first intelligible human interjection: a sinister vocodered voice counting down. Little snippets that could be numbers recur on Transmisiones Ferox, in keeping with BOC's preoccupation with codes and numerology. Boards of Canada's last album, 2005's The Campfire Headphase, renosed the duo's compositions closer to optimism, away from the neo-pagan dread that characterised Campfire Headphase's predecessor, Geogaddi (2002). Texturally, Tomorrow's Harvest rides some thermals of blitheness. Thirteen tracks in, Nothing Is Real is a substantial incursion of bleary sunshine, its nagging melodic motif recalling a My Bloody Valentine guitar loop.

Mostly, though, the fear is back, although not at the levels that peaked in Geogaddi, whose ambience suggested The Wicker Man with machines. The standout track is probably Jacquard Causeway, whose elegant rhythmic and melodic elements come in at angles to one another, roughing up the glide beautifully.

There are times (the excellent Cold Earth, Sick Times) when this album's dystopian bent recalls Thom Yorke's neurotic electronic side projects in spirit, if not sound – a full circle, perhaps, given the debt Radiohead's Kid A owed to Boards' 1998 debut, Music Has the Right to Children. That old album title was, of course, thrillingly polysemic: cutesy and pro-internet (music having the right to reproduce) or, alternately, carnivorous (music actually consuming our progeny). Tomorrow's Harvest is another intriguing Rorschach blot of a record from a splendidly arcane band. There are numerous patterns here, guiding interpretation. But for the most part, Tomorrow's Harvest reflects back your own take on what sort of future we are reaping.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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