Boards Of Canada have always been creepy. Beneath the playful, child-like purity of the Scotish duo’s early work there was often an element of unease. It wasn’t always obvious or even palpable, but it was there, lurking, and its presence is part of what made those early albums so powerful. Last year the horror film Sinister made ample use of the song “Gyroscope” off the band’s 2002 record Geogaddi, transforming the track’s violent drum loop into a ghostly whisper that haunts Ethan Hawke’s true-crime writer character. It’s not a particularly great movie, but it’s often terrifying partially because of spell cast by the Boards’ song. After I popped the DVD out of my laptop I had a thought: Boards Of Canada should write a horror movie soundtrack. They must’ve thought the same thing.
Given the monster movie ambiance conjured by Tomorrow’s Harvest, the band’s first new record in eight years, it’s not surprising that the pair went full-Cloverfield in the marketing department. Leaving limited edition 12-inch clues on Record Store Day, debuting videos in Tokyo, inviting people to listen to the record in the desert: this is J.J. Abrams mystery box shit dressed up for the Wire magazine crowd. It’s either annoying or brilliant depending on your temperament and tolerance for calculated obfuscation, but the much discussed roll-out does fit with the album’s sense of dread. It’s a record about fear. Fear of what exactly? Everything.
Boards Of Canada have come back at a confusing time. In their absence the duo saw its legacy reblogged into oblivion, the poignant and prickly nostalgia of Music Has The Right To Children smeared into the Lite Brite thumbsuckage of chillwave. Luckily, Tomorrow’s Harvest is neither an attempt to engage with the music of Boards’ electronic music contemporaries, nor is it some sort of gaudy, money-sucking corrective to kids these days and their damn wub wub songs. It’s an eccentric album that has very little to say about anything outside of its own limited aesthetic parameters. It’s hermetic to the point of being anti-social.
In a rare interview with the Guardian, the Mike Sandison claimed the album had “a deliberate VHS video-nasty element” to it and that cheesy, Saturday afternoon Svengoolie quality is evident from the album’s first track, “Gemini,” which opens with an unsettling fanfare that quickly morphs into a bubbling cauldron of a synth line. The Sandison brothers have always crafted music that’s meant to evoke wide open spaces, and while in the past that often meant large green fields and rolling brown hills, here their sense of space is more… well, spacey. As in outer space, and not the friendly final frontier version of space. This the space of Alien: the place where no one can hear you scream.
This descent into darkness doesn’t mean the pair has abandoned all their tools; they’re just using them to different ends here. Tomorrow’s Harvest is filled with whispered static swarms (“Reach For The Dead”), rumbling drones (“Uritual”), minimalistic robotic snaps (“Jacquard Causeway”) and clattering hip-hop indebted beats (“Cold Earth” and “Sick Times”). Moments of rambunctious, flinty percussion pop into the mix—thwacks, pitter-patters, scrapes—but they’re difficult to distinguish from the programmed beats and samples that make up most of the record. There’s always been a seamless quality to the pair’s sense of rhythm and that’s true of Harvest as well, but here the patterns are more locked in than usual, less fidgety. They’ve slowed down a bit, which allows the apocalyptic tension to build organically.
That’s not to say there aren’t moments of light amidst all the doom and gloom. “Palace Posy” is a lighter track, all clacking and thumping tribal jumps before a muddled, wheezing chant rises through the mix, like an ancient incantation farted through a modem. The best moments come when the group melds the innocent qualities of its past work with its new thematic focus. “Nothing Is Real” finds the duo at their most anxiety-ridden, but there’s a steely adult confidence to the way they express their neurosis. Where you might expect to find the song jittery and panic-ridden, it plays out like a game of existential chicken between two peaceful warriors. The synth slinks along, strings appear, Satanic voices bubble up in the mix—and then it’s gone. “New Seeds,” with its lurching synths, melancholy keyboard tones and the sounds of strings feels like the end-credits music that plays after the bloodbath is finished, once all the teenagers have been hacked up into little pieces and the monster has been shoved back into the amulet or book it came from. There’s no twist ending here—just another excellent Boards Of Canada album.