In his story “The Arrow of Heaven,” G.K. Chesterton has Father Brown, Catholic priest and detective, remark, “Real mystics don’t hide mysteries, they reveal them. They set a thing up in broad daylight, and when you’ve seen it it’s still a mystery. But the mystagogues hide a thing in darkness and secrecy, and when you find it, it’s a platitude.” The advertising campaign for Boards of Canada’s long awaited new release, Tomorrow’s Harvest, has been truly a thing of mystagoguery, the endpoint a foregone conclusion, each of the oblique revelations a call for attention rather than the presentation of any sort of mystery capable of maintaining a sense of fascination. But that’s advertising, and this is selling music in 2013, and if one doesn’t fabricate some sort of event (or listening parties) then everything can slip all too quickly back into the void out of which it issued. So, it was all a sham, but it was a Boards of Canada album that was coming after all, the brothers who have constituted some of the most satisfying sound koan spaces of recent memory. Expectations, then, remained high…
Any number of things already written and to-be-written about this record will take pains in comparing it to the duo’s older work, so, while I’m sure I won’t escape that activity entirely, I will occupy myself more with the question, “What can this music do?” Some of the answers to that question were suggested in Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin’s recent email interview with The Guardian, in which they said that the music is meant to evoke visuals that are part of a dystopian, or even apocalyptic narrative. Of course, there’s no sure link between music and a virtual visual component, but the cover image of a nearly translucent San Francisco on the horizon, along with the desert desolation imagery of the video for “Reach for the Dead,” provide a starting point to such an orientation.
The end of San Francisco is an easy mark. By earthquake, by fire, submerged in water? All three at once? I had a recurring dream myself of the city after a nuclear blast, smoking in my rear-view mirror as I headed up, somehow in the wrong direction, into a strangely altered version of the Marin Headlands. It can feel like the end of the earth out there on that peninsula, or gazing at its skyline across the bay, and knowing that feeling perhaps some of that sense of its beauty and fragility makes its way into the listening experience for me. In any case, the record starts of with a series of tracks that build a tension without the slightest interest in developing it. “Gemini,” “Reach for the Dead,” and “White Cyclosa” are like establishing shots of a sort, setting a tone, a mood, from which the rest of the record develops, up to the finale, or afterword, the laughingly nihilistic “Semena Mertvykh.”
I’m not going to write out a narrative trip to go along with Tomorrow’s Harvest. But sketching out the beginning of one, the hovering dread of helicopters and synthesizer arpeggios, reminds me that the fine line between an unseen oppressive force and the childlike wonder found within fuzz-lined nostalgia trips has always been at work in the BOC sound. Not knowing where one ends and the other begins, slipping through subliminal wormholes from one to the next, is what can make getting deep into their work something like exciting, a zonked, weightless excitement though, immaterial under the waves. An interlude like “Telepath” conveys that feeling well, cryptic number games recited by a man’s rust-coated voice, a warm, swirling swell of tattered ambience surrounding it. B-Horror movies this time around, and the soundtracks that accompany them, nature on the verge of obliteration as it exists through human eyes and minds, but maybe it’s just another sort of nostalgia, for a different sort of apocalypse than that that seems to be creeping rather than convulsing.
Nostalgia for the future. The future’s not what it used to be. The past inside the present. The idea of the end seems to attract all sorts, a suspension of vain efforts made in a dense fog of ambiguity, but perhaps the ideas of the end and dystopian futures imagined by those a generation ago were indeed much more dynamic than those of the present. They would submerge one in the fear/joy of alternate worlds as this world transformed, and submersion is a key Boards of Canada element. “Sick Times” recalls earlier exercises in claustrophobic space as addictive substance, although I’m not sure it matches the sly intensity of “Rue the Whirl,” “The Beach at Redpoint,” or “Everything You Do Is a Balloon” for instance. Actually, I’m most attracted to the last half of the record, which seems to get stronger as it builds toward a close, the narrative drive long lost on me, I’m afraid, as I’m in some imaginary zone on the periphery of things that can actually be recognized and recalled. “Nothing is Real,” “New Seeds,” and the ominously lurching “Come to Dust” – this is the most hypnotic section, way out, almost pinned down and paralyzed bodily, but the mind given over to waking nightmares of pristine delight.
Boards of Canada’s influence has gotten wider and wider, evident in a diverse array of music slipping between the sublime, faux poignancy, and the uncanny, and while the hype for Tomorrow’s Harvest has seemed immense (although I suspect only for those of us within or on the fringes of a certain sphere of internet interests), the mark that it leaves will be much smaller. This isn’t because it’s not a very good album—it is a very good album—but simply because there is nothing in it that offers routes that are different from those opened up by earlier BOC releases. It’s great to have a new record from them just to remind us how much better they do what they do than everyone who has taken inspiration from what they do. Landscapes flicker and are replaced, the music bears down and one stumbles out the other end in stoned serenity, on the verge of a disturbing vision that has been restrained for the time being. It’s a balancing act, a simple mystery manufactured from extreme attention to sound, a far cry from science fiction fatalism or the mystagoguery of dressing up the mundane in cryptic clothing.