The fruits of ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’
by NJ McGarrigle
Perhaps the clue is in the title.
If I had a pound for every Boards of Canada fan bemoaning how their new album is a let down after only a few listens, then I would have £3.50 exactly (the fifty pence comes from someone who told me they “half like them”).
Here are the main complaints I have heard:
- BOC have not moved on/progressed; they sound the same as they did in 1998.
- Other musicians have now copied their sounds so much that they no longer have the same impact or freshness they once did.
- The album was an anti-climax after taking eight years to make.
I first listened to the album when BOC streamed it live on the Internet for its world premier. Treating the occasion with just cause, I turned off my phone, plugged in the long lead of my Sennheisers into the laptop, lay back in bed and closed my eyes.
On the first run through I thought it was a very good album – and that it got better as it went along with each track. I knew I would buy it, but not for a few weeks, just to give myself that little bit of space between myself and one of my favourite bands.
Fortunately, I have great friends who love music as much as I do. More fortunately, my birthday fell a couple of weeks within the release date of ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’. And there it was. My mate Mark presented the shiny new vinyl as we sipped a cold beer on his roof garden, the evening sun warming our backs. It was a fantastic present and I studied the LP’s entrancing artwork: an invisible city; some sort of ghost town. Sipping our beers, we wondered where the skyline was on the front cover. My other friend, Simone – worldly, smart, and who has travelled more miles of this globe than I can even conceive in my mind – nailed it: San Francisco. I held San Francisco in my hands.
We did not play ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’. Mark – who had been listening to it incessantly since its release – cued up some Louis Armstrong instead. His musical instinct made him realise I would want to go away and listen to it down some rabbit hole, with only my headphones and perhaps a glass of malt. Yet I don’t sketch this scene to be precious or prissy about BOC – which, sadly, seems to be the default position of a lot of fans. (Someone remarked to me recently that they thought BOC fans would be fairly clued in people, until they started reading the forums and comments sections on the Internet. Alas, web warriors will never change – they will always need to be outraged over something).
It is easy for me to say that I was happy to hold ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ in my hands; BOC’s back catalogue being relatively skimpy, and it also meant they had not withdrawn into some self-imposed exile, like that former high king of electronica Richard D. James. The thought of new BOC music put a smile on my face.
In the intervening weeks, I have listened to ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ a lot, but not every day (and it does not feel like an album that you will spin back-to-back, such is its density and length). That first time I listened to it on the web I thought it a very good album – now I believe it to be an excellent album.
At times it is plain, intense, vigorous and splendid. There are moments in the album where BOC seem to empty the space of the music, to let the listener inhabit it. And this is where we, the listeners, come in. When someone does something to a high standard consistently for years, for some reason we either take it for granted or worse, become suspicious of it. We no longer see the peaks, never mind any troughs. Examples that spring readily to mind would be the Spanish national soccer team, the writing of John Updike or Wes Anderson’s films. For some reason we begin to question the very thing we love, distrust it even.
This same critical perspective is now being applied to BOC. Brothers Marcus Eoin and Michael Sandison have made us love them so much that we almost feel betrayed if they make a bad record. But surely art is about the creative process and the artist will not get it right all the time. In my case, this means ‘Geogaddi’, which is a BOC album that still will not strike home with me after all these years, no matter how many times I listen to it, despite it containing moments of brilliance.
Perversely, ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ feels like a close cousin of ‘Geogaddi’ – it has that same dark spirit, its concept more cinematic to usual BOC material. From beginning to end it feels filmic; a soundtrack to a screenplay that will never get financed. Yet ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ still has classic BOC running through it: ‘Telepath’, ‘Cold Earth’, ‘Nothing is Real’ – soft analogue synth waves, distorted vocal samples and great beats. Oh, the beats. How we sometimes forget the BOC beats!
Which leads me nicely to the crux of this essay: no one (even now) makes music like BOC. Many imitate, some wear open references on their sleeves (Kelpe, Bibio) but they still cannot come near them. They don’t have that little bit of moon dust the two brothers sprinkle on their records. Consider how ‘New Seeds’ segues into ‘Come To Dust’ (which is a reprise of the ‘single’ ‘Reach For the Dead’) in a fitting denouement to the album, before it departs with the final piece ‘Semena Mertvyhkh’, which feels like some dark spectre arriving to cover the tracks made by the brothers in the previous 16 tunes.
‘Jacquard Causeway’ is probably the standout track. But the album has great balance too and it is welcome to see the duo give a little more legs to tracks, which before, they would have sketched in and out quickly (‘White Cyclosa’, ‘Transmisiones Ferox’).
BOC’s starting point, ‘Music Has The Right To Children’ and where they stand now are my favourite works – which is quite an achievement for any musician if you think about it.
As for those complaints that I have heard and which I referred to at the start of the piece, well I have heard the same accusations being made to one of my other favourite bands, Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
But to say BOC or GYBE! have not progressed their sound or have less impact nowadays is akin to saying the same about the Beatles after 1962, because everyone else began using guitars, or that the Beach Boys did not evolve from their first album to their last because they were still using harmonies.
Why should musicians give up sounds they helped create just because everyone else is trying to do the same? Why would BOC give up the ground they have broken to allow others claim the spoils?
BOC have progressed – they have got better with every record and the “eight years in the making” tag is a weight unfairly placed on the album’s shoulders – it is too easy a stick with which to knock ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’. What does it matter? Boards of Canada are two brothers who make fantastic music, no more and no less – and ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ is another great album to add to their canon.