Boards of Canada - Tomorrow's Harvest
Tomorrow’s Harvest starts with a trumpet, a fanfare-like sound that announces the entrance of electronic royalty. I think Boards of Canada know how important this release is. I think behind the smoke and mirrors, the hidden codes, the enveloping secrecy they are well aware that they didn’t just help define a genre, they shaped and moulded it. Electronic music could never be the same after Music Has the Right to Children. Universally applauded, it bucked the trend of synthetic sounds that were becoming the norm through acts like The Chemical Brothers, Moby, Daft Punk and Autechre by utilising analogue recording equipment and techniques to achieve a unique sound. This sound became legendary, not only for the uniqueness they achieved but the savant levels of attention to detail that clearly went in to each individual sound. I say sound, not song, because picking apart a Boards Of Canada track is like picking apart the back catalogue of every other artist. They love filling empty spaces.
Boards of Canada are critical darlings, this much we can be sure of. What is of a higher rarity is that every single piece of music they have released has been near on perfect. There is not a skippable track on any of their major releases. In fact I am inclined to award perfect 10’s across the board (excuse the pun). This has not come without effort of course; they are poster boys for the mantra you get out what you put in. Thankfully, we are the ones who benefit. At first listen their back catalogue may seem intimidating; it might feel cold, industrial, hard-edged. As you progress through the listening process each song settles calmly under your skin, they infect you and, like all good music, become fixtures in your mind. The calm disposition of “Julie and Candy” that lends itself perfectly to a brisk autumn morning walking to work, the mournful procession of “Slow This Bird Down” that sits glumly with you as you battle insomnia, the playful yet slightly disturbing “Turquoise Hexagon Sun” that tickles the back of your mind as you watch a blood red sun setting over snow. Every song has more than just a story attached to it. It has a mood and an emotion as well as an everyday action. How they’ve managed this is impossible to say for us mere mortals, and their secrecy only confirms their genius.
Tomorrow’s Harvest sits uncomfortably upon first listen. They regularly touch base with their previous work, sounds sneak in to the headlights for moments of recognition that have both you and them paralysed for those precious fight or flee seconds, before they scamper off in to the night, just a memory of 2 big bright eyes in the desolate landscape. The start of “White Cyclosa”, for example, introduces a wailing synth that sounds as hopeless and singular as a lighthouse in the middle of the desert. “Cold Earth” threatens to break in to Geogaddi levels of mania yet never seems to crest the hill, content to wander around just below the summit. “Nothing Is Real” has a forlorn fluttery noise that is pure Campfire Headphase, yet it billows around and falls flat without its traditional percussion sparring partner to back it up. All of these sounds create a slow building longing as you remember the past, almost lamenting the artists for their lack of understanding. These past 3 LPs and all of the EPs meant something to me. They are figureheads in my life, emotional touch points to be re-explored during tough times. Tomorrow’s Harvest was meant to be another one.
Then things start to click in to place. Those encounters with previous emotions become building blocks on which something lusher, more free-form can develop and grow. It’s an entirely new process. Whereas before emotions and moods were punctuated with big, sure-minded hammer blows, now they are cultivated from the ground up, exposed to harsh sunlight. They either flower or wilt. “Gemini” is such an anti-climatic affair you’re forgiven for being let down before you’ve even begun. Those trumpets promise something that isn’t delivered, and “Reach For The Dead” meanders about aimlessly until we’re treated to the first flowering experience, at 3:40 we finally poke through the soil and bask. The rising strings are pulsed from underneath by twitches and snatches of sound.
Density has always been a key element of a BOC song. They’ve been taught to fear empty spaces, to fill voids with ticks and scratches and disembodied voices warped beyond recognition. They’ve even been accused of inserting subliminal messages in to their music, with what aim no-one is sure. Tomorrow’s Harvest is more about embracing open spaces, of casting off that fear and agoraphobic need to inhabit. Like all anxieties and ingrained behaviour, it’s a hard beast to shake. “Jacquard Causeway” pairs a slow droning bump with so many different sounds if you listen to it in a decent pair of headphones your brain starts to overload if you try and analyse everything attacking your ears at once. The same is true of “Palace Posy”. This is their most Autechre-sounding song ever, and it’s the weakest on the record, a stop-start affair that moves with all the grace of a baby giraffe, but does open up with sampled, skewed African style vocals towards the end to give it an almost tribal feel.
These moments of open space are starkly outlined because they’ve been so few and far between in past endeavours. Or maybe it is because previously they always felt planned, as if every song had a timetable that BOC stuck to with the strength of industrial glue. “Sherbet Head” came directly after “84’ Pontiac Dream”, a wonderfully developed sound that gracefully loped through the woods, propped up by flutters and spectres of noise that flew in an and out with the speed that thoughts do. In comparison, “Collapse” feels less purposeful, the pin prick rolling noises feel as if they are building to a point that they can never achieve, and the surrounding noise is just white, a blank sound that lends nothing of substance except an uneasy feeling of loneliness and isolation. “Reach For The Dead” is so cold at first you almost feel scorned. It opens up beautifully in to a steady beat but for the first few minutes things are rough, uncomfortable. If you were waiting for the final track for satisfaction, all we receive (as always from BOC) is more uncertainty. More hazy messages, foggy figures lurking just on the peripheral, observing.
The thing that is most striking about Tomorrow’s Harvest is the fun is gone. Yes they are a very technical group, who pride themselves on perfection, something they have undoubtedly achieved over their career. But more so than that, so much more importantly than that, they were human in that they displayed and explored and offered the full gamut of emotions. They were delightful at times, on ”Dandelion” the voiceover was strangely hypnotising, washing away all trace of evil thoughts. On ”From One Source All Things Depend” it is playful, with children discussing God and his existence. We see little of that here. The closest we get is protection, such as on “Palace Posy” when the big fat synths protect our ears from the harshness of the electronics, or “New Seeds” which preaches a message of hope rather than happiness. They feel organic and human, but some emotions stay locked up in that secretive place none of us will ever visit.
7.5/10 Tomorrow’s Harvest is like a summer in Antarctica. It’s a dystopian world set in ice and snow, a cold, frosty place where organic contact is minimal and happiness and comfort are markers or camps that must be travelled to through harsh unforgiving terrain. But it is light, everything is white. The darkness comes from within rather than being pushed upon you in the manner Autechre or The Knife would utilise. The itch still remains though, just tickling the back of your critical mind. Was this all intentional, or was it a slip of the finger from a tired old surgeon? BOC are, in my opinion, the greatest exponents of electronic music. Tomorrow’s Harvest then is the slightest of let downs.