If you’re a fan of the types of electronic music that Warp Records has been pushing for nearly a quarter century then chances are good that today was the most exciting day in your music-listening life in…well, a long time. It was for me.
To be specific, Boards of Canada– the crown jewel of the Warp catalog– made available their first new music since the 2006 EP Trans-Canada Highway, and their first long-player since 2005’s The Campfire Headphase. To say the wait has been long is an understatement. Fewer than 15 minutes of new material was gleamed from that EP, and after that the Scottish brothers– Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin– disappeared without a trace. Their website updated over the past 7 years only a handful of times, usually to reveal– so very disappointingly– the sale of a new t-shirt. Joyfully, the puzzle which began on April 20, Record Store Day, finally came full circle (excluding an obscure listening party somewhere in the American desert, the Japanese release which occurred early a few days ago, and a worldwide “listening party” which could hardly be considered a sumptuous meal as it was broadcast over YouTube).
Maybe they’re not well known, but Boards of Canada are important. They’re the polite neighbor who rinses out every piece of glass before it goes in the recycling bin; they’re the citizen who files their taxes promptly and honestly; they’re the parent who teaches their children that the bicycle is a respectable form of transportation, that kindness is a virtue (but so is rational self-interest) and that if our generation had the right to children then so does theirs. To put it another way, they care. Their music has always been 1 part optimism and 2 parts afraid of what kind of world we’ll be left with if that optimism is lost. They’ve both channeled and addressed those fears head-on with a sound that has been universally described as nostalgic ever since their 1998 breakthrough. Influenced during the 1970s and ’80s by their time partially growing up in Canada, specifically by the works of the great NFB, this is where their unmistakable sound has always been rooted. Watch a grab-bag of NFB-produced films and you’ll start to understand. There’s an intangible beauty in the documentaries that, when aligned with BoC’s music in mind, makes perfect sense. It’s been in vogue since the early 2000s to re-create romanticized sights and sounds of the ’80s that never quite existed – it permeates film, music and even video games (see: Drive; see: Cut Copy; see: Vice City or Hotline Miami). Everyone is in it for the glamor, but BoC cut through the bullshit and paint a picture of both the excitement and anxiety of the era – but it’s also distinctly modern, not staying in one place. Theirs is the past imagined that you may actually ponder and not simply discard.
On Tomorrow’s Harvest they present their most mature vision, but one that is firmly and unmistakably the work of the same minds that created Music Has the Right to Children and especially Geogaddi. This new album has none of the childlike wonder of MHTRTC, nor is it as revelatory; but nor should it be. The people behind it are fifteen years older, and their worldview has aged accordingly. That is to say: it’s become a fair bit more dire. In 1998 BoC opined about the importance of music and film and art on the human mind. In 2002 they warned us that our children’s children might not have enough energy to go around. In 2013 they simply paint a picture of a world we’ve ruined. But they also paint a picture of the one we still have. This is vital: while Geogaddi may have concerned inevitable destruction, the occult and God-knows what else, it was still very human, and not at all hopeless; so too is Tomorrow’s Harvest. As gloomy as “Telepath” and “Sick Times” seem, “Nothing Is Real” captures the ever-hopeful pure joy of “Roygbiv” (my favourite song of all time, if you must know!), and just like that song, its respite is all too fleeting.
From purely a longtime-fan/geek perspective I find it also worth noting that BoC’s tradition of giving songs such excellent titles as Turquoise Hexagon Sun, Sunshine Recorder, You Could Feel the Sky and Chromakey Dreamcoat continues here, as I blissfully wonder what on Earth a “Jacquard Causeway” is like, what a “White Cyclosa” does and just what this sinister duo mean by “Reach for the Dead.” Speaking of that last one, here is a sample of what I’ve been talking about: [click here if video doesn’t appear below … I suck at inserting them]
If you do know Boards of Canada, then what you should know is that Harvest is best described as exactly what you’d expect a growth, or perhaps more accurately a continuation, of Geogaddi‘s sound to be. There’s really no elements of Headphase in this record, as that now sits in retrospect as more of an experiment, but certainly a worthwhile one. This harkens back to anything they made between ’95 and ’02, and I’m sure for many fans who were disappointed back in October 2005 this is an even more welcome return. To a new listener though you could truly scratch the dates off each BoC LP and Harvest would fit right alongside the others in their tradition of timelessness. And that really is why I consider Boards to be the crown jewel of the impressive– and not to mention perpetually influential– Warp stable: they are without peer (with the possible exception of the master: Richard D. James) pertaining to their music’s era-defying quality.
To me, that is why their music– and their messages, however subliminal– will last. They’ve allowed us nostalgia, but wisely they don’t settle on any one past, so it stands to reason they don’t settle on one future. In the minds that inhabit the records of Boards of Canada we may indeed have painted ourselves into a grim picture, but we also still hold the brush. Here’s hoping their next canvas isn’t 8 years away.
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