Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
It has been a long time since the last Boards of Canada release. Affectionately known as BOC among fans, Boards of Canada occupy a space in music reserved for a rare few cult heroes. Within this space, an entity can communicate cryptically with their fans, follow almost none of the rules of the promotional game that is music marketing, and still expect an insane amount of orders on release of their record trailing at least a half decade behind their previous release. BOC are perhaps more suited to this space than anywhere else. Figures like Daft Punk or Gorillaz have releases anticipated by a press asking “can this band still thrive in the landscape they created?” BOC’s latest release was anticipated by hordes of press, design nerds, music lovers, synth tweakers, and controllerists; most of whom were more likely wondering how long it would take them to acclimate to the new landscape BOC were creating.
If you somehow remain unaware of BOC, even after recent publicity stunts that used outlets ranging from independent record stores on Record Store Day, to “transmissions” aired during Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block to cryptically announce their new release, a brief internet crawl will reveal a band that has operated in a the same deceptively underground way while earning a devoted following. The constant in BOC’s recordings have been that they will go to elaborate lengths to source sounds, and will always be using one medium or another to mess with some other medium. Their messages come from places and feelings ranging from the nostalgic and the dystopian, and their music fascinates because through all their techniques, it finds comfortable resting places between the two. They offer the Now, the Then, and a Future that could be anything from nightmarish to utopian.
That said, Tomorrow’s Harvest has been in the works since 2006. In a (rare) recent interview with the New York Times, Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin confessed that the title “Tomorrow’s Harvest” had been assigned to the record as far back as 2006, when “The Campfire Headphase” was still a new record. The band worked on the record at the same time as doing a healthy bit of archiving of older works. The way they explain it, the processes are not so different between archiving and making new material, as they often generate loads of ideas, but then assemble them according to the conceptual intentions of the record. I imagine it is hard not to feel a bit like you are cataloging your work at all times when part of the process involves sending the new idea to an old media and then bringing it back again. For all practical purposes, this is the BOC workflow. Sounds made on some manner of nostalgic synthesizer gear are recorded to tape and then sent to a sampler, only to be resampled several times in the process. Maybe another sourced sound will be broadcast in studio over shortwave radio, or the whole song will be dumped to a VHS recorder known to have speed fluctuations. You get the idea: media and mediums are fair game for a band creating a landscape from broken transmissions in what remains far from creating pop songs and is a bit closer to chronicling and curating fleeting moments and terrifying possibilities.
As for whether or not listeners will be happy with the result that is “Tomorrow’s Harvest,” that is, as with anything, a matter of individual taste. I can only speak for myself, though many have already aired their positive or negative feelings on the matter. Personally, I am delighted with the new record. I didn’t want 13 takes on “Roygbiv,” or a second copy of “Music Has the Right to Children.” I wanted a new BOC record that I could spend a few years peeling apart, nicking production ideas off of, and using as inspiration to dive off on some kind of Sci Fi tangential fascination. I wanted to hear them do their thing, because it is the approach BOC take to what they do that makes them so interesting. I think they are even more interesting in a world where DAW/Plugin music can become tediously homogenous (It’s a “real banger” y’all.)
According to Eoin, the concept behind the album loosely revolves around popular fiction’s increasing tendency to depict events in a depopulated world. This concept generally anchored the selection of pieces for the landscape they were constructing. Upon listening, this landscape bounces between idyllic and desolate. Titles like Reach for the Dead, “Cold Earth,” “Collapse,” “Sundown,” “New Seeds” etc. certainly serve as more obvious waypoints within this. Songs like “White Cyclosa” may be less obvious in their intent. Users are already trying to interpret the latter over at bocpages.org. I feel like the best clue given from Eoin was in the same NYT interview, where he said that to some degree they were drawing on the tendency of 70s and 80s sci-fi and horror films to use inappropriately uplifting electronic tunes. It’s almost hard to do a track by track breakdown and interpret much about the record beyond what the BOC boys have explicitly stated on their own.
Despite this, I did try to write out a track by track interpretation. At one point this piece was so large from having done so, that I had a headache for trying to edit, review it, and make sure I had covered everything. The record is so dense, it is impossible for me to reach my final conclusion with any certainty. With the album taking on a palindromic structure, all revolving around track 9 (“Palace posy”,) the subject matter surrounding track 9 suggests that the build up of the first half of the record accounts for the spread of some kind of planet altering plague. “Palace Posy” is possibly referring to people having carried a posy of herbs during plagues to ward off disease during the Black Plague. My natural inclination to think metaphorically, I keep assuming this means that some false confidence of mankind, a supposed protection (palace), is the final failure (posy) in an increasingly bleak picture of mankind taking a fall. Further titles go on to illustrate (again, I think) the disillusionment setting in for those who survive as all their ordered systems collapse. Titles like “Collapse” and “Come to Dust” seemingly support this conclusion. Meanwhile, towards the end, titles like “Sundown” are eerily reminiscent of the moment at the end of 70s-80s dystopian Sci-Fi movies where the survivors reach the seemingly safe, reflective moment of their recent, tragic nightmare. Perhaps in this case the survivors overlook an empty city, or a beach de-populated, at once reminding them of the world that was and the end that is.
The conclusion for me, at the end of this record, is that I have many more listens with this one before I can start digesting, elaborating on numerology and buried meanings with the zeal of a guy who found a crop circle in his yard, or really say whether or not this is a “favorite” Boards of Canada release. I imagine it simply sits alongside an already wonderful collection of releases. I also think that the new release and the media attention to their marketing brought in a host of new listeners. I don’t know if you have to be into the process of how they do what they do, or how they think about designing a release. I certainly don’t know if new listeners will say “this is amazing and challenging,” or if they will (as so many were doing during the live streaming on YouTube) keep asking “where’s the drop?” What I do know is that I can appreciate a release specifically because it refuses to cater to that. My Facebook feed on the day of the BOC release was littered with unremarkable, EDM by numbers acts pushing unremarkable singles, but telling me they were bangers before I even listened to them. I checked a few out, found that I am clearly out of touch with what Banger means (this month,) as I didn’t hear one that I thought qualified for that description. Conversely, in interviews, the brothers Sandison and Eoin have repeatedly expressed that they don’t want to “give too much away” or influence the listener’s experience too much. What makes Boards of Canada great is that, no matter how much conceptual design is at work with what they do, they present it simply asking the listeners to engage with it, and make up their mind what they hear and where it takes them. The clues they give are such that you can easily find yourself walking around the record like a CSI agent, and interpretations are, at best, a description of how you are connecting with the material. I think through the pieces at length, not only for my amusement, but just to try and describe what makes them great to me. What makes them even more interesting is that I know in a week I will listen again and think “nah, I got it all wrong. The REALLY BIG CLUE is ______.” I want that. I want music and audio that engage me on a level of imagination like that without requiring visuals to do it. If anything, BOC are a welcome diversion in an age when the more popular focus of electronic music is to constantly keep me in a frame of mind where I am ready to cover head to toe in sunscreen, drink red bull and liquor drinks, and pump my fist while engaging in as much consumerism as possible at any given second.
I’d really like to hear what other listeners, fans and haters, think of “Tomorrow’s Harvest.” This is an album that is very well suited to alone time and headphones for an immersive experience, but I walked away really wanting to talk to people who were trying to unravel the story. Think the whole thing is a giant cop out? Wish they had revolutionized or changed their sound more? Tell me about it! On the other hand, if you haven’t heard it yet, buy it from your favorite record store, or direct from bleep.com. If none of these options grab you, the album is also available from Amazon and iTunes.