Praised, reclusive techno duo makes two acclaimed records and a spottier third in the public eye, which grow influential in unforeseen ways over a long hiatus, returns for epically, mysteriously marketed media event of a comeback album in 2013. And then the album itself mostly does away with the sound that they’re known for in the first place.
But enough about Daft Punk.
Whereas Daft Punk’s austere image is at least somewhat in contrast to their hyper-reverent Eurodisco, Boards of Canada’s sudden flirtations with the notion of being some kind of ambient rock stars (the first since Aphex Twin if not Eno) begin and end with the wild goose chase they sent Record Store Day patrons on.
On their woozy cult classic Music Has the Right to Children, they flirted with nonexistence itself, the music all scrapings and ghosts of notes and harsh factories of percussion with little dots of spoken samples and one-minute interludes providing the bare minimum of tunefulness and humor for such a dystopian undertaking to survive.
The follow-up Geogaddi then removed the training wheels and strove for full-on, blinding sheet metal of uncompromising sounds. It’s extraordinarily hard to listen to, even if you admire it.
Then The Campfire Headphase got kinda lazy, even though it added acoustic guitars and some live elements that sounded more desperate than interested in new ground. Then they took and long break and here we are with Tomorrow’s Harvest, which no matter what you’ve heard about their importance in what used to be called IDM or the overarching techno scene, or their warped contributions to what would later come to be inscribed “chillwave,” is not any kind of victory lap as they say. At its friendliest, you could call it more noises pointed outward.
This is very insular music, and if not for The Knife’s profoundly political Shaking the Habitual earlier this year, it might be some of the most riveting electronically treated drones heard in years. You can certainly compare the seagull-like microtones of “Jacquard Causeway” to The Knife’s creaking hell-cello “Fracking Fluid Injection,” though Boards of Canada will lose, honorably no less.
Whereas The Knife saws at the surrounding world like a creeping Lynch film scene, building moods and thoughts and even arguments, BOC’s biggest flaw is that they don’t evoke anything. Their palette’s too limited, their colors too drab. Their disinterest in variety won’t make this record debut in anyone’s Top 40. Yet Music Has the Right to Children and now Tomorrow’s Harvest, their second-most-listenable record, are some of the richest “limited” music ever made.
“Cold Earth” has an old BOC-style backbeat-with-samples, and the swirling, swelling “Split Your Infinitives” has a familiar old glow, but most of the music here is subtly (always subtly, this band is never anything else) like nothing they’ve ever done. The opener “Gemini” starts with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fanfare before a long lead string gives it the feel of a Peter Jackson film, before the Moby-like “Reach for the Dead” shoots in like light in a cave. Radar bleeps and distinct sounds take the place of the old detuned pads and melted, archival sound effects, particularly on the urgent “White Cyclosa” and the windy “Collapse.”
There’s a sense of purpose and forward motion on this record where old tracks had a feeling of circling in place until the tape eroded. If anything, it’s their war album. And yet nothing distinguishes these alienated droids so much as a crackling warmth that gives them a vinyl-ready feel almost no other electronic act can match. All that’s wrong with it is that transience makes the music feel weightless even when it’s not shapeless. Simulating forward motion is indeed progress, but it would be great if they threaded in a few elements to signify that. Without concreteness they can only get so dark; it’s hard to have a nightmare about something you can’t visualize.