Album Review: Boards of Canada hits apocalyptic nerve on ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’
Revisiting Boards of Canada’s discography—as I do several times a year—one is treated to several psilocybic doses of nostalgia, color, and universal tonality. But, many BoC fans ignore the subterranean stream of menace running beneath their surface level scenery. An apocalyptic darkness suffuses nearly every Boards release, with the duo reaching an apogee on masterwork, “Geogaddi.” That album’s track “Gyroscope” might be vortex of this shaded realm, but “Music Is Math,” “Sunshine Recorder,” “The Beach at Redpoint,” and “You Could Feel the Sky” all have it in spades. The Brothers Sandison likened “Geogaddi” to a “record for some sort of trial-by-fire, a claustrophobic, twisting journey that takes you into some pretty dark experiences before you reach the open air again.” That is a perfect description of the Dantean qualities of a particularly rough psychedelic trip; from which, as Terence McKenna taught us, something valuable can always be learned.
A similar atmosphere exists on Boards of Canada’s latest, “Tomorrow’s Harvest.” Whereas “Geogaddi” is sort of a fractalized, magic mushroom trip of bent electronic music, “Tomorrow’s Harvest” is dark and apocalyptic in an almost political and certainly science fiction way. Fans, including myself, have noticed the John Carpenter-esque synth inpsiration. But, BoC noted that they’re also into the film scores of Fabio Frizzi and John Harrison, both of whom composed scores for zombie films. (The first single off of TH is “Reach for the Dead”—make what connections you will.)
As Boards of Canada’s Michael Sandison noted in a Guardian interview, the cover of TH is a “ghost” of the San Francisco skyline. That is, you can look right through it, and notice the barren desert beneath. That alone sort of describes the visual and imaginative quality of the album—spectral and haunting, as though we’re in the future, listening to a sonic document of the years up to and including 2013.
And that is where the politics comes in, at least for me; and, one can suppose, for Boards of Canada as well. “Tomorrow’s Harvest” feels, in very dense fashion, like a record that could only be made in a world completely convulsed in economic collapse, violence, ecosystem destruction, vast income disparity, corporate-state conspiracies, terror, paranoia about all things, and the fight against systems of control by hackers and leakers.
Sandison echoes this sentiment when he says: “Being a father fills you with a healthy understanding of your own mortality, and on a bigger scale that responsibility highlights the fragility of our society, or the problems with it. We’ve become a lot more nihilistic over the years. 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.” Who would disagree after listening to “Tomorrow’s Harvest” multiple times?
More than anything, “Tomorrow’s Harveset” feels like the last album one would listen to before entropy completely overtakes Earth’s closed system, shutting the electrified lights off forever.
The album opens with “Gemini.” Look at the Zodiac and you will note that “Tomorrow’s Harvest” was released under the Gemini sign, which runs from May 20 to June 21. Gemini, of course, is a “barren sign.” That is, on an astrological level, it’s not ideal for reproduction or fertility. Ironic, considering the title of the album and Boards’ internet mindfuck with the Cosecha numbers station project (Cosecha is Spanish for “harvest” or “new seeds”). The track opens with a public television-esque sign-on, before shifting into a menacing, John Carpenter-inspired soundtrack number. Listen closely, and you will hear the static and high-end squelch of a machine, perhaps operated by an individual, trying to capture a radio signal. “Gemini” sets the tone for the entire album, and might be the single darkest thing Boards of Canada have ever written. That is, until lead single “Reach for the Dead” unfurls its dark miasma.
Where “Gemini” sounds like it’s only just penetrating through static, “Reach for the Dead” is a radio signal in full bloom. Boards makes use of that dust or static they so love to sprinkle on recordings. But here, it has the quality of atomic fallout. The zombie or biblical reference is definitely on-the-head, but this isn’t a problem. When listening to this track, imagine a few revolutions around the Earth, and the fruitfulness, the harvest, disappearing. A round satellite of the dead or dying floating through cold space awaiting the sun’s metamorphosis into a red giant.
This track is followed by “White Cyclosa,” one of the most beautiful and sad tracks in the entire Boards catalogue. Beneath the rhythmic synth arpeggiations, and the ambient synths, the sound of a helicopter. I couldn’t help but thinking of the helicopters in “Apocalypse Now,” and thinking Boards might be dropping in a little subliminal messaging to hint at the slow apocalypse triggered by modernity. Cyclosa is a type of spider, but who knows what this means in the larger picture. Just a small detail to get lost in for a moment.
“Jacquard Causeway” opens like vintage Boards, and you might be tempted to advance to the next track. Don’t. The track gradually mutates into something incredibly gorgeous as a cloud of synths settles over the song’s more skeletal elements. As Bocpages.org notes, “Jacquard” may refer to the geneticist Albert Jacquard, defended the idea of of “degrowth.” Again, we come back to the political and existential thread of the album. Degrowth has its origins in the 1970s, when post-modern thinkers such as Jean Baudrillard and Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, as part of The Club of Rome, recommended the scaling back of economies (production/consumption) to achieve ecological balance. (Shameless political plug: read Georgescu-Roegen’s ”The Entropy Law and the Economic Process.” I found the book after a few years of invoking entropy [a thermodynamical principle] when attempting to describe the causes of recession, and challenge the opinion that global economies can be sustained.)
A warped voice counts numbers and makes directives on “Telepath,” a track built of warm but almost distant ambient drones. It seems to be a nod to Boards’ Cosecha numbers station project, which was itself inspired by the Conet Project, a collection of short wave numbers station recordings, of which the duo are admitted fans.
Both “Cold Earth” and “Transmisiones Ferox” sound almost like excised “Campfire Headphase” or “Trans Canada Highway” EP tracks, retro-fitted to “Tomorrow’s Harvest’s” ominous, apocalyptic aesthetic. In this way, it functions as a bit of an acknowledgment of the direction Boards might have gone had they followed “Trans-Canada” up with a full LP. Enter “Ferox” as a search term and one of the results is the 1981 Italian film “Cannibal Ferox,” billed as “the most violent film ever made.” The film’s English title, “Let Them Die Slowly,” fits the album’s end times narrative quite nicely. That theme is sustained on “Sick Times,” a track that sounds like a vessel or synthesis for all Boards of Canada’s songs, with its hip-hop beat and supple, swirling and decaying drones.
But, Boards’ flirtation with their own past is brief. “Collapse” serves as the fulcrum of the album. It is, as Sandison notes, palindromic in structure, like the album as a whole. A cascading ribbon of a synth emerges out of delicate white noise—half-static, half-wind—into which it ultimately returns.
We are then led straight into one of album’s great highlights, “Palace Posy.” Again, it sounds as if Boards are heading down territory too familiar for a seven-year wait. But, all good things come to those who wait, for “Palace Posy” takes its time to evolve. At 2:32 it switches moods into something ebulliently psychedelic and celebratory. Whereas the rest of the album is foreboding, this track is almost light-hearted. The playfulness isn’t limited to the tune itself: “Palace Posy” might be an anagram of “apocalypse.” The title also evokes thoughts of the nursery rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie,” and the line “a pocket full of posies.” Some people associate the nursery rhyme with people carrying posies in their pockets during the Black Plague. Heartwarming, to be sure.
But, it prepares us for the darkness of “Split Your Infinities,” another album highlight. Its stuttering, dub-like beat anchors an otherwise expansive density of drones, synth arps, low-end bass, and vocals coated in static and decay. A microcosm of the album, “Split Your Infinities,” like “Reach for the Dead,” sounds like the track one might listen to as the world unravels. Apparently, the vocal is sampled from a video on FEMA concentration camps:
The FEMA plans to imprison American citizens have generated a lot of interest around the country, in locating the potential prison camps throughout the country. These may be facilities currently being used as prisons such as those you saw earlier, or prisons that are being built supposedly in the name of the war on drugs. Or, facilities that have other uses but could quickly be used to detain large numbers of people, such as this Amtrak facility in Beachgrove Indiana.
We’re standing now in the main parking lot, which doesn’t look too sinister. At this level it is a very large parking lot, fenced on all sides by fence topped by barbed wire. It also has these electronically operated turnstiles. There is also a surveillance camera just like we saw at the FEMA facility, pointing out to the parking lot, and a helicopter windsock.
All of these apparent security measures are particularly unusual here, because this is a very low-crime area and this facility is nothing but an old train repair station with nothing in it worth stealing.”
Alex Jones would love this track, or maybe accuse Boards of Canada of being New World Order co-conspirators. One never knows with that man.
Buzzing drones resurface on “Uritual.” And, after the FEMA-induced paranoia of “Split Your Infinities,” one suddenly envisions drones scouring the Earth’s surface in multiple trajectories. Maybe these machines are all that will be left after we truly undo ourselves? If “Jacquard Causeway” is the track’s palindromic counterpart, then “Uritual” is that track’s musical shadow. The former is almost hopeful when compared to the latter. But the menace is lifted temporarily on “Nothing Is Real,” which is another gentle, bucolic throwback to both “Music Has The Right To Children” and “The Campfire Headphase.” Happy in its folkish psychedelia, it is a much needed breather, especially as the listener enters the last third of the album.
“Sundown” is an exercise in minimal ambient synths. It also replicates the feeling of falling asleep in psychedelic haze, as the visions and sensory overload disintegrates into something oddly calm. Here, Boards seem to be saying goodnight to the world. The Cosecha theme reemerges on “New Seeds,” as though this underworld journey is leading to some sort of rebirth. Synths branch out in gorgeous fractals and seem to be growing in time-lapse. When viewed in the palindromic structure, you realize that it’s all leading back to the Gemini (barren sign) of the first track. Now, we can almost invoke a Joycean cyclical approach to Earth’s history, inspired by Giambattista Vico. Which also makes me wonder if Eoin and Sandison have read Walter M. Miller’s brilliant post-apocalyptic science fiction novel “A Canticle for Leibowitz”—a story about humans undoing themselves over and over again with scientific and technological knowledge.
With “Come to Dust,” which is “Reach for the Dead’s” palindromic, looking glass opposite in tone, form and title, there is a sense of finality on the horizon; though one that will only trigger yet another cycle, like “Finnegans Wake” and Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow.” As it turns out, album closer “Semena Mertvykh” is that first bit of ominous music we heard in the “Tomorrow’s Harvest” teaser video full of Lynchian static, temporarily interrupted by landscapes and bursts of washed out, pixelated light. It ends in silence. Loop it back into “Gemini,” though, and the cycle is triggered.
While Boards of Canada admits their country existence insulates them from musical trends, thereby creating their very own music-making bubble, “Tomorrow’s Harvest” is not an exercise in treading water. Their music is more vital than ever. They’ve clearly evolved their sound, while layering end times paranoia, conspiracy, life, and death drive, amongst other things, into something that can only be described as the musical equivalent of “Gravity’s Rainbow.” I say this in all seriousness. My knowledge of 20th and 21st century is far from complete. But I’ve never heard anything as thematically ambitious as “Tomorrow’s Harvest.”
It’s absolute genius.