Type in tomorrowsharvest.com and you won’t find information for Boards of Canada’s fourth studio album, but instead, an online store carrying a wealth of supplies for emergency situations. Their target market? Doomsday preppers. It’s fitting then that the Scottish electronic duo, consisting of Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin, would link their latest album to something so peculiar. The album unfolds with the pace and intensity of a stoic 1970’s science fiction drama, similar to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, John Carpenter’s Dark Star, or George Miller’s Mad Max, and there’s a fuzzy nostalgic backbone to it that grounds the imagination of anyone who’s ever romanticized a dystopian future — which, in today’s market, is a weighty majority. Between blockbuster franchises like The Walking Dead or The Hunger Games to tent pole summer flair like After Earth or This is the End, in addition to all the books and documentaries about endgame scenarios, the world’s collective mind is on its elaborate loss. Rather than fearing the finish line, however, Boards of Canada have chosen to revel in its wake.
“We’ve become a lot more nihilistic over the years,” Sandison explained to The Guardian regarding Tomorrow’s Harvest. “In a way we’re really celebrating an idea of collapse rather than resisting it. It’s probably quite a bleak album, depending on your perspective.” Similar to their past three efforts, the two have littered their latest artifact with an array of keys and clues to unlock what’s essentially a broad concept album. It starts with the album cover’s establishing shot: a crisp view of a transparent San Francisco skyline from atop the long-defunct Alameda Naval Air Station. The way it’s framed warrants unfriendly feelings of isolation, grief, and malaise yet there’s also this nagging, embalming warmth to it that surfaces shortly after. This juxtaposition of feelings crafts an acute portrait of Tomorrow’s Harvest. The rest of the mind-bending knick knacks lie in the caked sounds and litany of perplexing song titles; for example, “Jacquard Causeway”, which may or may not reference geneticist Albert Jackquard, who’s argued in the past for the degrowthists, a collective of followers who aim to live life through “non-consumptive means.” Yeah, that’s the sort of depth we’re dealing with here.
Musically, Sandison and Eoin don’t stray too far from their own beaten path. The seraphic ambiance of 1998’s Music Has the Right to Children, which has seen been split into the dark (2002’s Geogaddi) and the light (2005’s The Campfire Headphase), reemerges weathered and with a newfound sense of purpose. The two ignore the clock on Harvest, allowing the presence to linger and take seconds (sometime minutes) to stir, floating about in a reflective state as if there’s no time. Granted, it’s only an hour in length, but the 17 tracks collectively can feel as long and testing as a second viewing of Koyaanisqatsi, namely because the bigger pieces are strung together by erratic vignettes, conceptual devices used in something as recent as M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming to pretty much every major film score of the last 50 years. “Telepath” tosses signals over empty terrain, as a fractured computer clenches on to life (think of HAL 9000, only voiced by John Hurt on Vicodin); “Transmisiones Ferox” stutters through a droning crackle that deafens with its alarming beat; “Uritual” stuns with flighty treble and teardrop tracings; and “Sundown” soothes with synths borrowed from The X-Files composer Mark Snow. The reason any parallels to science-fiction can be made is because of these patchy bridges.
That’s not to say the album’s main events don’t evolve its concept, either. Earlier track “Reach for the Dead” is a compression of futility and mechanized chaos, no different than Brad Fiedel’s iconic Terminator scores. It’s a vintage industrial ballad that widens the frame on the post-apocalyptic world created by Sandison and Eoin. The way the silicone percussion evaporates at the end even makes it feel like the opening credits, a pastiche that resurfaces on closing tracks “Come to Dust” and ”Semena Mertvykh”. There’s a sense that whatever action is taking place throughout Harvest finishes before the former’s end, leaving the latter as this ominous underbelly. To put into perspective, and to continue the filmic parallel, “Come to Dust” bleeds into the credits, while “Semena Mertvykh” presses on towards the very, very end, playing to an empty theater, or those still around to find out about filming locations, soundtrack choices, and whether or not animals were harmed in the film. The album’s final 25 seconds of white noise only speaks volumes about the cinematic concept.
And what works about said concept is that, much like all of Boards of Canada’s material, it’s subjective to the listener. Sandison and Eoin have crafted an emotionally-stirring, calculated epic of ambient electronica, but what you see and experience is really out of their hands. They’re aware of that, too, as Sandison suggested: ”It’s better if listeners find the narrative themselves, in the titles and the sounds.” So, whether you’re dreaming up another Snake Plissken adventure amidst the helicopters of “White Cyclosa”, dancing tribally to the post-modern percussion of “Palace Posy”, gazing towards the vacant skies of “Cold Earth”, salvaging through garbage heaps on “Jacquard Causeway”, or finding sanity in madness on “Nothing is Real”, you’re going somewhere and it’s likely that somewhere is within arm’s reach of their somewhere.
Mystery factors into much of Tomorrow’s Harvest. From the obscure viral marketing that led up to its release — the Record Store Day exclusives, barcodes, late night commercials, isolated listening party in the desert, that projection on the building in Tokyo, and the time they dropped sounds at a festival in Detroit – to the puzzling themes that lie within the album’s thick, carbonite walls, Boards of Canada have made fans believers and passersby into fans in the past two months. It’s not like they didn’t know how, either. As Eoin suggested: “It’s in human nature to pursue spiritual or fantastic things, for whatever reason, that’s why we like art and escapism, isn’t it? Humans like to feel there’s a purpose, even if there isn’t one!” Eight years later, the two remain connected to our most intimate sensibilities, and while their latest transmission isn’t the easiest to receive, upon success, it can be the most rewarding piece of science fiction in years.
If this is the end of the world, I’m inclined to agree with Michael Stipe.
Essential Tracks: ”Jacquard Causeway”, ”Cold Earth”, “Semena Mertvykh”, and “Sundown”
Feature artwork by Tim Lukowiak: