It’s all about the number 6. Or maybe The Conet Project. But of course there is something about number theory. And maybe The Little House on the Prairie. The theories that followed Reddit member lilcakey’s discovery of a twenty second recording on a Boards of Canada 12” in a record shop in New York City were often as extraordinarily detailed as they were outlandish. The Scottish duo’s cult fan base, hungry for new material to crypto-analyze after an eight-year gap in studio material, dove feverishly into the few clues that were offered by the surprise Record Store Day release. In a music environment where most bands take great pains to be connected to their fans, Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin had created a marketing scheme premised on eluding and tormenting anyone interested in their music. Few bands can do that successfully, and Boards of Canada do it more successfully than anybody else. Why? Because the fabric of their music is creating complex, confounding scenarios that tease the mind as much as they satisfy it. Their public image naturally extended from their sound, resulting in fans with a unique reverence for not only their music but their hermetic approach to making it.
Tomorrow's Harvest, the group’s first album since 2005’s The Campfire Headphase, is being released at a time when a focus on texture and depth is very much commonplace in the beat making world. When Boards of Canada released Twoism in 1995, their sound, while technically dance music, was entirely distinct from the bombastic clutter of drum n’ bass and jungle. They focused on creating mood and sonically representing the atmosphere of cheesy 70s American television, Canadian nature programs, and glitchy arcade games. Most guys making electronic music were clamoring for more powerful digital synthesizers but Boards of Canada were spending years looking for pieces of analog equipment that would only be used for one second of one song. This focus on obscurity and unique sound sources bled into groups like The Books and DJ Shadow but it’s only been over the last five years that swaths of amateur producers have aspired to make beats that sputter and crackle and focus on process as much as form. Tomorrow’s Harvest comes at a welcome time, then, as it’s a reminder of how much detail and patience goes into quality electronic music. It’s the duo’s most sinister and fascinating collection of songs, enrapturing the listener with dystopian soundscapes and frustrating arrangements.
While not exactly forthright, the group does not hide their admiration for 80s cinema and, in particular, cult soundtracks. Tomorrow’s Harvest starts from that perspective, as “Gemini” is meant to feel like watching the beginning of Blade Runner. Those pulsating Vangelis synths create a distinct feeling of doom, of ill-intentioned voyeurism. It sets up a cinematic sound that is more claustrophobic than expansive, and listeners that enjoy Boards of Canada for their spry, fanciful beats will likely turn back before “Reach For the Dead” hits its climax.
The brothers have said that maturity has made them more nihilistic than anything else so it is appropriate that the album’s opening segment draws on ominous tones and sterile, technically impressive drum arrangements. Vitality is nowhere to be found. “White Cyclosa,” which may reference a spider that uses the remains of its prey to create diversions, is injected with the sound of overhead helicopters and brief moments of dissonance. It’s off-putting, but it’s only a primer for “Jacquard Causeway,” maybe the most disorienting song the band has ever written. Various rhythms and melodies slide past one another haphazardly (explaining the “causeway” in the title) but they nonetheless feel intrinsically linked. The album as a whole functions similarly; dissonant parts ultimately meet one another in odd but striking amalgamation.
The requisite glitchy recording of someone reciting numbers comes on “Telepath,” signaling a section of the album that will feel more familiar for BOC fans. “Cold Earth” combines a grandiose hip-hop beat with swooning synth lines and percussion hits that sparkle and fade into the ether. It’s this touch with electronic beats that are head snapping but still bring the gravitas (see “Roygbiv” or “Julie and Candy”) that make the group’s albums approachable. The duo are often characterized as misanthropes that care little of what the public thinks of them; yet their albums are constructed to be deeply satisfying when approached from the perspective of “this is going to be a trip.” In other words, they know their audience and while Tomorrow’s Harvest delivers differently than much of their work it does so in a uniquely interesting way.
The programming that was done for this album is filled with aural oddities that lend depth to what would otherwise be straightforward beats. “Split the Infinities,” a reprise of “Reach for the Dead,” creates a sense of expansion by cluttering the edges with cymbal hits and slipping gurgling synth lines under the warped vocal sample. The snare and tom hits on “Palace Posy” don’t quite align, making for a tribal rhythm pattern underlying a spaced-out synth arrangement. And, appropriately, there are tracks filled with the kind of deep rhythms and shimmering layers that are gorgeous in a way that is shunned by the trap-laden productions of our time. “Sick Times” is as apocalyptic as the title suggests, but it also hints at a feeling of hope — like the A-bomb dome that survived the blast at Hiroshima. Similarly, “Nothing is Real” is tinged with sinister violin melodies but the general mood of the song is one of uneasy contentment.
The album closes with a string of songs that tell a story with their titles. Something like, when there is “Sundown,” “New Seeds” may “Come to Dust.” Then there is “Semena Mertvykh,” which in Russian means “Seeds of the Dead.” It’s one of the many elements of this album that morphs when seen from different angles, or turns out to mean nothing at all. The mysterious nature of Boards of Canada is at times gimmicky but it is an important facet of the band, in that it ensures listeners will pay close attention to the work. These songs, painstakingly constructed using demanding equipment, succeed at creating a cohesive sense of paranoia, fear, and awe. And that, if nothing else, is worth obsessing over. [A-]