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SPIN Essentials

Boards of Canada, ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’ (Warp)

Boards of Canada
SPIN Rating: 9 of 10
Release Date: June 11, 2013
Label: Warp

Right now, throughout the Atlantic Eastern Seaboard, red-eyed cicada nymphs are emerging from a 17-year hibernation to make a deafening amount of natural noise, a phenomenon informally known as “Brood II,” as though it’s some splatterhouse movie sequel. Of course, that only places the bugs on a scale somewhere between My Bloody Valentine (22 years) and Guns N’ Roses (15) in length of hiatus. And further down the scale, somewhere between Daft Punk taking eight years to randomly access their memories and the Knife taking seven to shake the habitual, falls Edinburgh’s Boards of Canada.

Yet the absence of brothers Mike and Marcus Sandison felt far longer. At least Daft Punk filled that dormant period with ‘Ye-list celebrities and box-office bombs, while the Knife had solo projects and the whole of indie synth-pop moving toward their pitch- and gender-bending ways. But since BOC fell silent after 2005’s The Campfire Headphase, entire electronic-music empires have come and gone: Napoleonic French filter house, American dance-punk/blog-house/chillwave, and Norwegian nu-disco, to name but a few. Meanwhile, U.K. dubstep emerged from its chrysalis (thanks, in part, to one of BOC’s obvious sonic progeny, Burial) and soon invaded America’s native dance-music environs, mutating into what we now know as EDM.

Such upheaval could’ve rendered them obsolete. That uncanny knack the duo had for evoking pensive nostalgia in the present moment? It’s now readily available on your smartphone, able to filter any photo into a madeleine for things past. The play of memory and music now preoccupies most modern musicians, to the point where BOC actually faced an identity crisis not unlike Daft Punk’s: In their absence, the landscape became them.

And so, when a 45-second, $5,700 12-inch emerged on Record Store Day this April, it signaled the return of a group which no longer operate according to the fluctuating whims of the music industry, and/or fans’ Pandora stations. Promotional events held in Tokyo… listening sessions that utilized an abandoned waterpark in the Mojave Desert… a one-time-only pre-release stream on YouTube… it speaks to the macro rather than the micro. Fittingly, Tomorrow’s Harvest — only the Sandisons’ fourth album in more than 20 years of music-making — hews closer to an agrarian cycle than a press cycle.

Opening with a brief fanfare that brings to mind an early Tri-Star Pictures release, the record draws more from cinema than contemporaneous electronic music. The cover art and attendant Internet imagery leading up to its release captures Terence Malick’s magic-hour light; there’s also David Lynch’s sense of dread coursing beneath the mundane; the arpeggio-heavy synths that underpin early-’80s horror-movie soundtracks; the Hammer Films catalog; and The Wicker Man itself. (It’s fitting that the marketing campaign even included a lobby card.) The warm VHS tones that infused so much of their earlier sound palette have been replaced by a widescreen scope and a brittle digitality suggestive of LaserDiscs. There’s none of Headphase‘s guitars; gone also are those dusty, hip-hop-indebted beats that made 1998 debut Music Has the Right to Children a backpacker touchstone.

Yet, it still sounds unmistakably like Boards of Canada, even if their telltale tropes are now scattered across Harvest rather than made to define each of its 17 tracks. Those incandescent, slow-cresting synths patented on Music Has the Right to Children emerge on the epic “Reach for the Dead,” but the bass-tone frequencies are deeper, the drums heavier, slow as a telltale heart. It’s nearly six minutes into the album before the beat properly drops, sharp rather than hazy. Eleven minutes go by before one of their distinct, ’70s-style, minor-key melodies emerge (on the discombobulating “Jacquard Causeway”). But that’s soon inverted by a drum pattern that lurches and loops about in waltz time: one foot in a flat, the other on a stilt. Only near the 18-minute mark does one of their patented eerie vocal samples come to the fore.

Finally, it’s 20 minutes before all those other elements that defined these guys for two generations of fans — a pan-pipe melody, a beanie-nodding beat, a disembodied vocal chopped to the point of turning subliminal — combine on “Cold Earth,” an outright classic BOC track. And from there, the album stakes out ground between the wistfulness of Children (see “Nothing Is Real”) and the post-millennial paranoia of 2002’s Geogaddi (see the thunderous toms and garbled alien transmissions of “Split Your Infinities”).

The album’s closing triad reveals a more nuanced sense of craft. “New Seeds” builds from a skittering buzz to a stout snare crack and stately melody. But whereas before they might have been content to rest on their looped laurels, nearly four minutes in, the duo add another melancholic line and elevate the track to a rarefied air. “Come to Dust” similarly intensifies its synth arpeggios until a luminous wash slowly overtakes the track at the midway point, leading into the solemn end credits of “Semena Mertvykh.”

The Campfire Headphase seemed mild when it appeared eight years ago, stuck in a mid-tempo torpor. The fallow years that followed suggested Boards of Canada’s wellspring had fallen victim to a drought. But with Tomorrow’s Harvest, the Sandisons’ return feels natural. Rather than resort to hiring disco session musicians or citing Judith Butler to add a new kink to their sound, they’ve done something even rarer in the modern era: They’ve aged with grace.