A long gestation period between albums can mean one of two things. It can be a signal that the artists are really crafting their work, putting their all into making it their best music yet. Portishead’s Third springs to mind; maybe Scott Walker’s recent albums as well. Alternatively, it is a manifestation of Guns ’n’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy-style turmoil — the ultimate of damp squibs.
So the past eight years as a Boards of Canada fan has meant increasingly nervous anticipation. Since 2005’s The Campfire Headphase, and its accompanying EP Trans Canada Highway, nary a peep had been heard out of the reclusive Edinburgh duo. We were told to wait patiently.
I wondered if it would be worth the wait. After all, the three and a half year gap between Geogaddi (their magnum opus) and The Campfire Headphase felt long enough. And it was a disappointment.
Sure, it was an interesting progression of their sound. Sun-saturated, multi-layered, but at the same time bland. It lacked that Boards of Canada twist of dark weirdness. It was just too benign. It just felt too much like it would be right at home as the soundtrack at a turn-of-the-millennium dinner party.
After that, eight years is a long time to wait.
Then, one day, out of nowhere, some guy found a mysterious 12″ in a record shop with some cryptic clues on the sleeve, and he told the internet. The audio of the record sounded like a numbers station message containing six random digits. Then more clues emerged (some of which were astonishingly convoluted) leading to more numbers station messages. For the following couple of weeks, I was hooked on following the developing story across the fansites.
I had to admire the team behind this marketing campaign. They certainly knew how to push a Boards of Canada fan’s buttons. The anticipation had been built expertly.
Alongside the fact that we had heard anything from Boards of Canada at all, this intrigue was a good sign. Obscure references, hidden messages and nods to the cold war were what made the group’s earlier work tick. They were conspicuously missing from The Campfire Headphase.
But fun though it would be for these elements to be reintroduced to Boards of Canada’s work, we wouldn’t want them just retreading old ground.
Those fears are allayed in the very first few seconds of Tomorrow’s Harvest. The album is introduced by a tinny, 1980s TV ident-style fanfare. This fits exactly with Boards of Canada’s aesthetic — references to public information films, snatches of classic jingles intermingling with the rest of a track. But never in this manner, as a standalone event at the start.
In fact, this is the sort of thing that artists on the Ghost Box record label have been doing in the past few years. Boards of Canada’s adoption of the ident feels like a very overt nod to them. VHS Head may well have been an influence on this album as well.
This is Boards of Canada as we know and love them, but refreshed and modernised (that is, if music that clearly cultivates a sound firmly rooted in the cold war era can be called “modern” in any way).
Following the jaunty introductory ident, first track Gemini begins. A high-pitched synth string emerges, sounding like the soundtrack to a vintage science fiction B-movie. It evokes the paranoid period perfectly.
Boards of Canada are said to go to great lengths to get the sound just right. While it may mean a long wait for the music to be released, it certainly results in a polished product. Their music can evoke past decades like no-one else’s.
Looking at the album artwork and reading the track titles while listening to the opening track deepen the sense of dystopia. The cover is a washed-out cityscape that looks like it could be post-apocalyptic. The sun shines brightly… almost too brightly.
Track titles like Cold Earth, Sick Times and Collapse hint at further darkness to come. There is a bit of Russian in there, hinting further at cold war influences. Palace Posy sounds like it might be more upbeat — until you realise it is an anagram of ‘apocalypse’.
This mixture of the sunny and the dark is what Boards of Canada has down to a tee.
The second track, Reach For The Dead, was released as a teaser ahead of the rest of the album. It was the lightning rod for my initial disappointment (“so it is a Chinese Democracy,” thought I). But in time I have come to adore its slowly building brooding.
Another stand-out track is Jacquard Causeway. Its slow tempo, swooping beats, and increasingly multi-layered synth lines are hypnotic. It brings to mind some of Boards of Canada’s early highlights. There are elements from tracks like June 9th, Zoetrope and Gyroscope. But far from retreading old ground, it is something new, unique and fascinating. Again, it’s the Boards of Canada of old, but somehow avoiding being a rehash or a watered-down self-parody (which was part of the problem with The Campfire Headphase).
The dark theme of the album continues for the first half. But things begin to take a lighter turn in the second half. Palace Posy may be an anagram of ‘apocalypse’, and it sounds dissonant and slightly wrong, but it nonetheless represents the first solid chink of light in the whole album, over halfway through.
The best melodic moment comes a bit later with Nothing Is Real. Again, it sounds uneasy, but the basis of it is a lush riff that could have been at home on Boards of Canada’s first full-length, Music Has the Right to Children.
Before long, the album returns to darker territory. Closing track Semena Mertvykh feels like an epilogue telling the listener about some unspeakable doom.
In their few interviews, Boards of Canada have hinted at many hidden messages and an underlying theme of the album. This was missing from The Campfire Headphase, and was one of the things that made Geogaddi great. On top of the music, there was layer upon layer of hidden meanings waiting to be unlocked by fans for years to come.
Tomorrow’s Harvest already feels like one of Boards of Canada’s best albums. It might become even greater over time.