In which the Scottish ambient pioneers, returning after an eight-year hiatus, embark on a dramatic new brostep direction, with cameos from the bawdy likes of Pitbull, Taio Cruz and Nero. Just kidding. Boards of Canada’s last album, the influential ‘Campfire Headphase’ may have been released in 2005 but during Monday (3 June) night’s live stream event, showcasing their hotly anticipated new record ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’, it was as if they’d never been away – their knack for warm, fiercely hypnotic electronic symphonies undimmed by the near-decade since we last heard from them.
Arriving just as hype mellows for another returning enigmatic electronic duo, Daft Punk, who also spent eight years in the wilderness prior to last month’s universe-straddling ‘Random Access Memories’, the pair – brothers Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin – show on ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ exactly why their unexpected leap back into action got the internet in such a spin (having put out a covert Record Store Day 12”, fans scurried into action uncovering clues left by the band online to reveal details of the album, before crashing Twitter on Monday during the one-time-only live stream). A restrained follow-up, on first listen it’s both the Boards of Canada fans know and love, and full of subtle lurches into the future of a band many had resigned to the past, unlikely to ever record another album. But record another album they did – and here are our first impressions.
A grand cinematic swell of brass and we’re away. Suddenly the faded album artwork of a light-bleached Californian skyline is beginning to look a lot less retro-Instagram-filter and a lot more like an atom bomb explosion as the track unfolds into the sort of dystopian noises that’d soundtrack a nightmare set in a haunted ’80s cineplex.
One fans have had time to get to know already, having been posted online a few weeks ago. Trademark drones build, skirmishing rattles of trip-hop percussion lurk in the backdrop and by the time its arpeggiated keyboard hook enters the fray, such is its profound, existential crisis-invoking sound you’ll be reaching for the Yellow Pages and the number of a local psychiatrist, never mind the dead.
No beats this time, only coruscating drones weaved around subtle, almost invisible melodies, distorting and contorting like a horror film score on a well-worn VHS cassette, twisting darker and darker. Imagine performing a movie about a world-weary pastor who has to perform exorcisms on a spooky basement full of possessed analogue synths and you’re on the right track.
Some low end rumbles and all of a sudden we’re in the midst of an intense, rabid composition that listen to loud enough and you’ll feel shake your ribcage. Snaking around its disorientating off-kilter snare pattern are reminders of the pair’s lo-fi roots: airy atmospherics, hissing vintage keys and the oscillating terror.
Vocals! But not the kind you’re thinking of, unless you particularly had in mind broken robots being melted down for scrap. A speech sample is stretched to breaking point, its words indecipherable and unsettling. Brrrr.
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Forget the title, this is as warm as a bask in the Mojave Desert sun. It’s a moment of both vintage and new age Boards of Canada, where the sounds of their sumptuous 1998 debut ‘Music Has The Right Children’ collide with more modern tones, most notably the dubstep shades to its bellowing beat. A faint narrative is beginning to be glimpsed, too – garbled radio transmissions here continue to set a post-apocalyptic shadow over the album.
More throbbing bass work, underlined by shimmering atmospherics. The sonic detail on this record is honestly so astonishing you’re going to want to buy a new speaker system, and maybe even a secluded underwater chamber away from all humanity to indulge it all in.
EDM mainstay Burial owes much of his austere, minimalist sound to Boards of Canada, so perhaps this is the Scottish pair nodding back to the elusive producer, borrowing a bass line right out of the ‘Untrue’ school of melancholia-ridden groovin’.
More swirling synths, with a simmering layer of malevolent noise bubbling away underneath. One of the less distinguished moments on first listen, but then again some of the duo’s most compelling work takes a few listens to worm its way under your skin.
Plenty of acts have presented themselves as heirs to the Boards of Canada’s ambient specialists throne in the years since ‘The Campfire Headphase’, but tracks like the hip-hop-tinted ‘Palace Posy’ paint the difference between the brothers and the likes of fellow analogue synth experimenters Oneohtrix Point Never and Emeralds in clear light. It’s the breadth and imagination of tracks like this, all scrambled vocodor noises, orchestral touches and louche rhythms, that make ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ sound like a rich, expansive dystopian playground you’ll want to explore again and again.
Hi-hats tick over a wash of sad synth chords, before more vocals drift faintly into earshot, lost in a blizzard of noise. This time, after spending so much of the record admiring its remarkable creative spark, it’s your imagination getting a workout as you wonder who these voices are, and what catastrophe they’re transmitting from.
A short interlude maze of droning buzzes and waspy high-pitched whines. Not recommended for apiphobics (people with fear of bees, duh).
A boom-bap beat and more washy, mesmerising keys, with some of the record’s most memorable melodies amidst its mind-melting psychedelic patter. Its title and eerie disquiet suggest bomb shelter hysteria, the kind of cabin fever freak-out where you lose sense of reality and question the very shape of existence. Not something you’ll encounter on the Beady Eye album, that.
A gauzy parachute glide back down to earth from the shimmering sci-fi sonics of ‘Nothing Is Real’, ‘Sundown’ is one of the album’s most perfectly titled songs – it feels like the closing of something, a relief. But with three tracks to come, there’s more to explore yet…
Stuttering keyboards and long yawns of hushed noise amble along until bright melodic chimes present themselves near the end. We’re at the business end of the album and the brothers’ story – whatever that is precisely – but there’s no hurry here.
A rock drum sample is dragged by the scruff of its neck into dubstep territory, threatening to combust at any point. Instead, it keeps the course, guiding this track into an epic finish that includes choral vocals and poignant electronic echoes.
A bittersweet climax, colliding major and minor keyboard chords, brings closure to the ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ story. Semena Myrtvykh is Russian for “seeds of the dead” (cheers Google) and maybe it’s the woozy euphoria of having made it through such an intense listen talking, but there’s a real sense of renewal as the record fades into denemoument – that from something thought dead, life can spring again. Something the brothers behind Boards of Canada, returning at last, could tell you a thing or two about.