The best part of eight years is a long time to wait for anything, let alone a new album from a favourite artist. For obsessive fans of a band that largely declines to engage with them it can be excruciating. And if you're a fanatic of such a band with a history of keeping things mysterious and cryptic the sense that you're being fucked with can start to become the default setting for anything that looks like news.
Trolls aside there was even strong signals from BOC's own forum representative, MDG, in 2009 that things could happen soon but were then held up by things "outwith the band's control". All very soap opera for the hard-core tip of the iceberg and just bemusing for a much larger constituent hidden from view, patiently biding their time. Thus, when the first clue in a series of teasers appeared on Record Store Day there were those die-hards quick to debunk another prank by some student. Despite the growing rumours over previous weeks from credible sources it was just too much to hope for some, it seemed. Yet the forensic machine, assembled in the balmy (and barmy) heat of summer 2006 to decipher the Red Moon party invite incident (don’t ask), oiled and tuned over the years of barely measurable signal to noise, whirred into action and played the game set by Warp and the band themselves. That first snippet off a record destined to raise $5700 dollars on eBay revealed the signature sound was intact. Number stations were referenced (just like on Geogaddi's Gyroscope) and the unmistakably plaintive keyboard sent out a clarion fanfare to the faithful. The rest of the numbers came in a confusing barrage of unannounced Zane Lowe appearances, Soundcloud audio engineering tricks and YouTube comments. "This is a conversation" intoned a new member to on fan forum Twoism. Clearly an insider, they were posting hints to a clue hidden in the file properties of banner-art on the site.
Eventually a date was revealed and pre-orders went in. It was really happening. Not just a new album but a big warm hug from Mike and Marcus to their devoted followers after a long, quiet wait. Not that the Sandison brothers' influence was undimmed in this apparent hiatus. The 'sounds of a future that might have been' was being dreamt up and sent back to the past through vintage gear and modern recreations of the saturated and analogue in increasing numbers. From the hypnogogic to the hauntological the woozy and the unsettling were everywhere. Could the Boards (as they are never called) have been out manoeuvred by those more nimble operators? Endless committee meetings trying to work out a way through the minefield? After all the production of a Boards of Canada album involves almost infinite care and attention. How easy would it be for someone to just come too close for comfort with something that hasn't had to gestate with a week spent on just a hi-hat sound?
At first listen it's clear that they haven't fallen into this trap. But at first listen it's tempting to conclude that they haven't really tried to go beyond the aesthetic laid down previously at all. No radical departures into pop or (as every second reviewer insists on referencing) dub-step. Further listening draws out the new though. The Campfire Headphase didn't please everyone with its guitars and sunset, windows-down road-trip vibe. So, whilst sharing that record's progression of their sound, Tomorrow's Harvest dispenses with the acoustic and places the synths back centre stage. It's deeper and darker than TCH but less out-and-out psychedelic than Geogaddi. A grown up counter-part to Music Has The Right To Children, perhaps.
The opener, Gemini, literally sets the scene with a short opening logo, the like of which we're heard from then before, and high sustained strings. Instantly you're listening to a soundtrack. It could even be from the opening exposition scenes of Blade Runner. The notes are almost identical, but it sounds cheaper; not lush. That’s a signifier. If you're looking at the album artwork, you're thinking: long shot; dawn; shimmering desert. We're firmly in the realm of the dystopian and the sci-fi. As the track runs we bump into and through a jumbled overture of buzzes and tones. A throbbing strings ensemble takes up with an arpeggiated synth before going it alone and fading out. We’re off.
Reach For The Dead takes on a familiarly epic quality to Seven Forty Seven, BOCs last new work (although it had originally debuted in lighter form on a new defunct website of theirs) on the Warp20 compilation. Long, slowly developing pads and arpeggiator synths build up till a familiar kind of beat kicks in. A voice mutters "Listen" in the background and the whole thing takes off; only to circle back in on the beat and opening thrum leaving you thinking it could have been a whole side, not less than five minutes. This is deliberate. White Cyclosa has more arpeggio synths, helicopters circling and trademark moody pads and keys. It feels reflective and the soundtrack concept is reasserted. People throw out John Carpenter a lot when this arpeggio thing comes up, but that’s not who it sounds like to me. It doesn’t even sound like their unreleased, ‘old tunes’ explorations of this technique.
Jacquard Causeway is, on paper, classic BOC. It could be on Twoism, it seems. But the overall effect is fresh and when the strings come in two-thirds through there's a fuller, dare I say, shinier finish. Telepath and Cold Earth also could have come out of the vaults and break no new ground. The melody on CE in particular feels instantly familiar and is a lift up, after a few darker numbers. It feels like faint praise but it's a favourite straight away and removes any nagging feelings of doubt that might be creeping in. Transmisiones Ferox pulls itself out of a noisy hole and has a translucent, almost glassy, feel before returning whence it came. Sick Times starts with BIG float-y chords. Like being sat on by a cloud who's about to cry. The beats are back on this one and there's even a bit of chopped up vocal. Collapse is a shorter fill-in which leaves you utterly unprepared for Palace Posy.
Suddenly it's started; almost digital synth stabs, until you remember what clean, late-period analogue sounds like. A lumpy beat and bass-line are redolent of one of those dubby Aphex tracks that pop-up through his catalogue. It has a more familiar ending with swirling chords and choppy singing. This feels very different from where you were a couple of tracks ago. Split Your Infinities is back to the strings and arpeggiator before developing into ghostly voices, scuffed up rhythms and ending on a shimmering whooshing fade-out. Urital is the most unsettling yet. A monotone synth buzzes round a jam-jar whilst some simple (SH-101) figures loop round each other. The tension is released in fine style by Nothing Is Real. A sort of Roygbiv reprise with its’ whistling (whistle-able?) top-line, ‘bow’ming two-note bass and soft piano chops underneath. The motif never develops and remains stuck in a three-bar loop, being overtaken by a creepy voice and string pads. This track feels like a freshening breeze after the previous pieces.
These out of place moments are common in soundtrack records and often only make sense if you know the film. Sundown is just chords, great chords; and then New Seeds pulls off another transition into something new. A choppy loop which could be guitars, but probably aren't, lay down a sort of punk/new wave bed which is then left to do its thing for chords and pads to develop over for nearly four minutes before taking a left turn and into a more conventional kind of tune with electric piano. At the last we hear that fanfare from the teaser canpaign again. Come to Dust keeps things going with deep poly-synth chords spelling out the progression for a beat and its complimentary melody. Arp’s are back. And the strings. And it all swings along until filtering away into something else. That was your dénouement or epilogue and Semena Mertvkyh is your end titles, which put me in mind of quieter passages on Klaus Doldinger's Das Boot OST but could be from any number of video nasty’s closing credits.
This fan-boi is satisfied. BOC aren’t going to make it easy for you and if you don’t really know their catalogue I can imagine it being a daunting first listen. Equally you might wonder where the complexity and details are first time out. There’s no disappointment waiting though. This is a Boards Of Canada album worthy of the name. The tunes shine through, the beats crunch and boom, the creepiness pervades, the hopefulness, the sadness, the sounds, the sights and the magic are all there waiting. Just, try and turn out something a bit sooner next time, eh fellas?