Album Review: Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest

[Warp; 2013]

It’s easy to imagine the scene: 11:45 pm on December 21, 2012. In an abandoned Soviet-era bomb shelter, several shadowed figures are hunched around a dusty digital clock radio, listening for garbled broadcasts of the coming apocalypse and silently counting down the minutes until midnight passes. In the right light, you might notice Kevin Shields, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer, Justin Timberlake, David Bowie, and Otis Jackson Jr. A suffocating silence fills the room. Beads of sweat drip from Karin’s forehead; Otis bites his fingernails. To call the moment “tense” would be like calling a house fire a “mild inconvenience.” They’ve spent years planning for this moment, but they’re no less nervous now that it was about to happen. Maybe.

11:52. Kevin clears his throat but says nothing. The amused expressions of the two Frenchmen belie their anxiety; one of them has even taken off his helmet, wiping the inside with his shirtsleeve. David Bowie is napping on a dilapidated couch, having long since cemented his reputation as the ever-smirking skeptic of the bunch.

11:57. An announcer on the radio seems to shout over the static, but it’s no cause for alarm; he’s describing the scene at Times Square, where throngs of celebrants have drunkenly gathered to ring in the almost-new-year as though the ball were just about ready to drop. (Karin and Olof snicker to themselves at the Freudian implications of such a tradition.) JT suddenly remembers that he was supposed to be at the Staples Center, playing MC for the evening along with Selena Gomez. Oh well, he sighs to himself; what are they gonna do, fire him?

Finally, midnight. An anticipatory pause falls over the musicians, as though they’ve given the universe one last chance to prove the Mayans right. But the only thing they hear is the distant crackling of homemade fireworks and the excited shrieks of Russian schoolchildren up way past their bedtime.

“Well then,” says Karin, as Kevin nudges Bowie awake and Olof rummages through a messenger bag for the I Survived The End Of The World t-shirt he’d bought at the airport. “I suppose we must get on with it, then.” Kevin’s already on the phone with his boys back at Pickpocket Records, giving them the go-ahead to press copies of M B V.

As the group prepares to disperse, Otis furrows his brow. “What about Mike and Mark?” he asks, motioning towards the far corner of the room, where the brothers are tinkering with a cassette recording of the Pole Position lady: “Prepare to qual- / Pre-pre-prepare to qual- / Pre-pre-prepare to qualify / qualify / qualify.” The pair hardly seemed to have noticed the presence of anyone else in the room.

Guy-Manuel chuckles. “Oh, they’re always here.”

Otis arches an eyebrow.

“Though Lord knows how they got in without this,” he adds, twiddling the rusty copper key they’d used to enter the dank basement.

As the group walks back up the cinder block stairs, Otis gives one last look back at the two Scotsmen now rummaging through a haphazard pile of ancient Muzzy videocassettes and late-70s PSA filmstrips about the dangers of heroin addiction. Marcus is making downtempo boombox noises with his mouth; Michael is banging an old ARP 2600 with a crowbar.

“Damn. That’s nutty,” Otis says as he and the others close the metal door behind them.


Tomorrow’s Harvest would be the most hotly anticipated electronic release of any other year. After all, it’s been over a decade since the last great Boards of Canada album (Geogaddi), yet their impact on contemporary music has hardly lessened; indeed, their decayed educational film samples, warped synth lines, shellacked downtempo/IDM rhythms, and wistful half-melodies are perhaps chiefly responsible for the endlessly nostalgic chillwave and vaporwave trends, not to mention the hauntological transmissions proffered by the likes of Ghost Box Recordings. And for good reason–plenty of electronic musicians have made childlike music, but few have done so with as much poignancy or unease as the venerable Scottish duo. Too often, even the most tape- and time-warbled remembrances from the electronic underground nail the nostalgic aspect but forget how scary and mysterious the world could seem to us as children. Just where did all those anti-drug PSAs come from, anyway? And why were many of our most frightening nightmares filled not with monsters or pain but rather slightly off-kilter reflections of our daily lives? Childhood wasn’t just days at the beach and nights being read bedtime stories while Johnny Carson yammered away in the background. Even ostensibly happy moments could carry with them the sensation that something’s not quite right.

The brassy, logotone-like intro to “Gemini,” the first song on Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest, signals that the duo have not lost their fascination with either retro technology or the lurking tendrils of intangible danger to which children have always seemed especially attuned (a veritable sixth sense, if you will). But before launching into a deep analog groove–the first of many–it gives way to an unexpectedly cinematic sound: that of withering, lonely strings that wouldn’t feel out of place during the opening credits of a Kubrick film. This album isn’t any more sci-fi than Geogaddi, but it feels more widescreen. Whereas their earlier works gazed inwards on memories real and imagined, Tomorrow’s Harvest surveys some dystopian landscape, perhaps the one depicted on the cover (which happens to be San Francisco, but it might as well be anywhere).

“Reach For The Dead” introduces percussion in the form of an unadorned kick drum which does its thing for about two-thirds of the song’s length before a more classic BoC rhythm breaks through–languid enough to be considered “downtempo,” but clanging and clicking and glitchy enough to usher the track into IDM territory. Regardless of how you’d classify it, Sandison and Eoin have never been as rhythmically concerned as their Warp peers like Aphex Twin or Autechre. On Tomorrow’s Harvest, they venture even further into atmospheric and imagined-soundtrack territory whether it’s the distant whirring of a helicopter on “White Cyclosa” or the guttural drones of “Collapse,” the latter of which frames its otherwise pleasant arpeggios in a more menacing and, yes, off-kilter context.

Speaking of off-kilter, “Jacquard Causeway” plods with all the precision of a seasick sailor navigating choppy waves, its piteous synth line and stuttering beat operating on slightly different but interlocking wavelengths (and tempos) to disorienting effect. Before long, those lonely strings return and smear the track with an oddly romantic gauze, like an airbrushed Terminator. Maybe this part of the movie would be some fucked montage of post-apocalyptic androids collecting human limbs, I don’t know. The strings make another noteworthy appearance on “Nothing Is Real,” during which their fluttering chords dovetail nicely with the submerged synths but also contrast sharply with the driving drums (as well as the ever-present deep droplets of bass, one BoC feature that hasn’t much changed over the years).

Indeed, there’s enough unsettling ambiguity here to connote all sorts of weird images in the listener’s mind. The garbled countdown on “Telepath,” for instance, reminds me of HAL’s dying take on “Daisy Bell,” all noble intentions and miscommunicated messages. “Cold Earth” returns us to a semblance of rhythmic structure, but even here, the robots are not alright; deep within the mix, what sounds like a child’s voice run through a Commodore 64 utters something just short of intelligible. And “Transmissions Ferox,” perhaps named after the audio effect or the 1981 Italian exploitation movie, begins with what sounds like a woman repeating “1995,” though it’s difficult to make out. Whatever she’s actually saying, between that and the cut-up monk chants of “Palace Posy,” well, I’ve a feeling we’re not in the giddy vocal samples of “Aquarius” anymore.

Tomorrow’s Harvest, in sum, is like a Boards of Canada spin on a Boards of Canada record. It’s not drastically different from their earlier works, but it’s also not cut from the same cloth. It’s slightly darker and more industrial (check out that chugging, tinny beat on “Split Your Infinities,” if you can get past the Crypt-Keeper-from-the-future vocalizations and birdsong-or-laser squelches). It’s a bit more monochromatic; the different instrumental layers feel a bit more squished together here than they did on Music Has the Right to Children or Geogaddi, which further lends itself to the album’s overall disconcerting effect. And the duo’s trademark ambient interludes take on a more sinister liveliness than they did in the past; “Uritual” sounds like the Sentinels from The Matrix returning from the grave, while “Sundown,” though somber and glacial, also has its ominous chord changes slowly bleed into each other. Finally, closing track “Semena Mertvykh” is the sound of the machines powering down, one growling drone giving way to another until we’re left with but a flicker of an echo of the noise.

Still, the biggest change is in their focus. Where Music Has the Right seemed grounded in the real world (albeit a twisted recollection of such) and Geogaddi straddled the line between Star Wars and The Sandlot, Tomorrow’s Harvest finds the duo launching their sound into Lovecraftian orbit. And it sounds terrific; between this and Exai, it’s been a surprisingly invigorating year of damaged dystopian dreams for Warp. Sci-fi fans rejoice: this particular film is certainly not based on a true story.