The Anniversary

Tomorrow’s Harvest Turns 10


The United States, especially the Western United States, is so huge that it has to be hiding something. Tremendous swaths of unpopulated and inaccessible land divide its small towns, which themselves seem secretive and strange to the people in the big cities. Radar dishes glint ominously from the sides of highways, military installations always seem to be conducting cryptic operations behind their barbed-wire gates, and counties the size of European nations house the populations of English hamlets. This is a country enormous enough that nuclear tests can be performed on its soil — though not without plenty of “downwinders.”

That frightening sprawl has long fascinated electronic artists from small, densely populated European countries. English pranksters the KLF’s rave-comedown classic Chill Out took the form of a road trip through the American hinterland. France’s Daft Punk shot their cryptic sci-fi film Electroma in remote Inyo County, California, and countryman Mr. Oizo went to the Mojave Desert 10 years later to shoot Rubber. Scottish duo Boards Of Canada hosted the first listening party for their fourth and most recent album in an abandoned waterpark in the Mojave. On the sleeve, we see the San Francisco skyline as viewed from an air base in nearby Alameda: in other words, from the rest of California, so secretive, so vast.

Track titles like “Sick Times,” “New Seeds,” “Come To Dust,” and “Reach For The Dead” seem to imply something in the soil that might taint tomorrow’s harvest. Even the word “tomorrow” in the title comes off as a creepily anachronistic way to suggest the future, a relic of a Cold War attitude that saw a technologically advanced future as imminent, inevitable, and desirable. It would be both a stretch and besides the point to suggest the two Scotsmen of Boards Of Canada are making any “statement” beyond the apocalyptic dread that colors so much ambient synthesizer music. But to hear Tomorrow’s Harvest is to drive down the highways of America and understand that something is subtly sick, subtly wrong.

Released 10 years ago this Saturday in their native Scotland (and a day later into the American expanse), Tomorrow’s Harvest has been described as Boards Of Canada’s darkest album. That seems to ignore Geogaddi, with its Satanic intrigue and crying babies, but that album at least had a sense of childish joy and curiosity — maybe not quite a sense of humor, but certainly a sense of mischief. Tomorrow’s Harvest is stern and straight-faced by contrast. The most playful moment on the entire record comes in its first few seconds: a synthesized horn fanfare, like the theme of a production company at the beginning of a film. (Boards Of Canada took its moniker from the National Film Board Of Canada, one such company, known for educational films.) Then a drone fades in like a gas leak, and very little is delightful from then on out.

I wonder if a lot of the people who claim they don’t like Tomorrow’s Harvest or see it as the least of the band’s full-lengths never got past the first few tracks: a shame, but kind of understandable. Three of the first five tracks are two- to three-minute interludes, too insubstantial to stand beside anthems like “Everything You Do Is A Balloon” and “Aquarius,” too long to dismiss as ambient interludes. Another is “Reach For The Dead,” the album’s first single, a solid Boards Of Canada track but a bit chilly compared to what fans might’ve expected.

And then there’s “Jacquard Causeway.” I remember much grumbling about “Jacquard Causeway” when the album first came out. I was a college freshman, and I shared similar tastes with my friends at the time: roughly the intersection of indie acclaim and stoner-friendliness, at which Boards Of Canada sat comfortably. BoC’s prior album was The Campfire Headphase, whose “Dayvan Cowboy” got a lot of smoke-sesh play and felt like a progenitor to acts like Tycho and Odesza that were blasting out of so many tapestry-draped living rooms at the time. When Tomorrow’s Harvest dropped, enthusiasm was muted, and “Jacquard Causeway” and its steamroller-ouroboros rhythm often prompted a reach for the skip button.

True, the industrial waltz and clamorous drums of “Jacquard” exist far from Tycho’s mood board. But focus on its more abrasive elements and you might miss the way it erupts into symphonic beauty at the end, with synth strings casting grand and gorgeous chords as its twinkling melody blossoms to life. No Boards Of Canada album is as consistently gorgeous as Tomorrow’s Harvest, and its most starry-eyed moments often come close to its most challenging ones. “New Seeds” stutters along like a malfunctioning Game Boy for its first few minutes, but then that irritable clank disappears and yields to arguably the most graceful melody the duo ever composed. “Sundown” and “Semena Mertvykh” are like the final form of plangent Geogaddi interludes like “Over The Horizon Radar.”

“Nothing Is Real” is the one track on Tomorrow’s Harvest any Boards Of Canada fan can agree on. That it echoes a melodic phrase from “Roygbiv,” a mischievous and much-loved miniature from the band’s acclaimed 1998 debut Music Has The Right To Children, probably helps. It’s certainly the song here that sounds the most like what most casual fans would imagine upon hearing the name Boards Of Canada. But the snare arrives half as often as you’d expect it to, so the momentum continually starts and stops. The track fades in and out, as to imply it never begins or ends, or that it’s somehow unstuck in time. “Nothing Is Real” sounds both like an all-time Boards Of Canada banger and a distant ghost of one.

Are these subtly sinister touches a reaction against listeners who value Boards Of Canada only at their most cow-eyed? I can’t imagine the two famously press-averse brothers who make up the band can bring themselves to give much of a shit. Besides, Tomorrow’s Harvest doesn’t scan as a misanthropic gesture so much as a private one: the culmination of their obsessions with film scores, the mystery of the modern American West, and the precarity of our natural resources.

It would be easy, and probably smart from a business perspective, for Boards Of Canada to make an album of blunted pleasantries ideal for slotting between Ratatat tracks in an absent-minded blur of instrumental beat music. That album would almost certainly stand above its peers; they’re too talented and too inclined towards hermeticism to make anything truly generic. It would probably sound a lot like The Campfire Headphase, an album which initially disappointed me for its gregariousness but which as time passes sounds more like an experiment in accessibility, a one-off pop move from a duo of principled and committed weirdos.

Instead, they’ve hardly released anything at all. “Roygbiv” and “Olson,” two sub-three-minute doodles from Music Has The Right To Children, have over 50 million combined Spotify streams — the bulk of them almost certainly involuntary and processed only vaguely by the listener. They do a remix every now and then, and in 2019 they might’ve smuggled some unreleased tracks into a mix for left-field online radio station NTS, though of course they’re mum about what’s what. But for all anyone knows, they’re off in a green field, dreaming somewhere.

There’s no news of a new album, and given that they only have four full-length albums that share a lot of common thematic and stylistic ground, it’s hard to picture what one would even look like, let alone sound like. Would it be dark and unfriendly or pastoral and calm? Would it reward the algorithm or clash jarringly against it? Would the cover be the usual blue or would they settle on a different shade? Would they try some new tricks like vocals or would they stay strictly in their instrumental wheelhouse? The only answer is silence, punctuated by the sound of an alkaline wind blowing faintly and distantly from Tomorrow’s Harvest.

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