It has been a long wait for Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison to return: 7 years since the Trans Canada Highway EP and 8 years since The Campfire Headphase. Tomorrow’s Harvest would have been frantically anticipated without the extensive teasing that lead up to its release. But, given the Boards of Canada predilection for suspense and treasure hunts, there has been the added pleasure of a coded website, of bespoke vinyl planted in Rough Trade and in Other Music, and of a Californian desert playback session. Their publicity, like their music, is a digital window into an analogue past. Their audience loves record shop rummaging, 7-inches passed from hand-to-hand, secret messages, and stamp-addressed envelopes, and Boards of Canada know this well.
But what about the album? In many ways, the pressure is off with everyone far too emotionally committed after chasing the music around the net to do anything other enjoy what eventually arrives. But Boards of Canada are capable of great things: godfathers to a decade of electronic music inspired, with variable results, by the radio and TV sounds of the Cold War era, but remaining on a different plane themselves. They have high standards, and while 2002’s Geogaddi met them perhaps The Campfire Headphase fell short. So how does Tomorrow’s Harvest measure up?
The opening track, ‘Gemini’, sets the scene explicitly. The title can only be code – a call sign, a cover name, a field alias. An ident on brass introduces the album as though it were BBC One c.1963. Then violin wailing, far away, is interrupted by a rumbling, chugging bass electronics and synthesiser brass rolling out on a loop. This is music drifting through cosmos, a thousand light years from home, heading for distant stars and programmed to reach its destination long after the Earth has consumed itself. Just under three minutes later we know the essentials: Boards of Canada haven’t changed the template, they haven’t reinvented themselves, and they still know exactly what they are doing.
Then ‘Reach for the Dead’: keyboards in threatening formation emerging from a static fog, and roaring over the horizon, leaving destruction behind them. The video currently online has heavy overtones of nuclear tests and blast waves, suggesting neatly that the Nevada landscape is permanently tainted by The Bomb. This is deeply satisfying, classic Boards of Canada, taking pure delight in the sounds they make best.
Given the general absence of lyrics in Boards of Canada’s music, a great deal of thought goes into track titles which carry heightened levels of mystery and atmosphere. ‘Jacquard Causeway’ is a good example, haunting but oblique, and an archetypal Boards of Canada track. The entire song sounds as though it is played backwards, with detuned synths and reversed beats generating intense melancholy. Precision control is repaid in widescreen, as the track layers and opens out, making full use of an orchestra of 20th Century sounds.
If this sounds like more of the same, Tomorrow’s Harvest has subtle surprises up its sleeve too. ‘Sick Times’ suggests Eoin and Sanderson have been doing more than just listening to their sound effects library over the last decade. There a dubstep feel to the track, with dark programmed drums over rainy atmospherics, and a deep muttering vocal coming in over a stuttering phone signal. ‘Come to Dust’ has a sliding breakbeat that sounds both new and entirely natural, paired with tape loop and distorted melody. And there is a lot more good stuff on here, from the full bore rhythms of ‘Cold Earth’, ‘Nothing is Real’ and ‘New Seeds’ to sinister vignettes such as ‘Telepath’, ‘Trasmisiones Ferox’ and ‘Uritual’.
Tomorrow’s Harvest is an utterly absorbing record. Its tracks are pulled together by the theme of sudden, nuclear death and slow renewal; the sound is deep and rich varied, demanding huge cabinet speakers to do justice to its delicious qualities; and the music is varied and tempting, some tracks giving up the goods on a first listen, others demanding commitment but promising big rewards. The news is good – Boards of Canada are still out there in a class of their own.