It was the late ’90s. Rave was in its death throes and audiences were ready for the next leap in sonic innovation. Artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre were already the vanguard of the new electronic. Mostly centering around pioneering label Warp Records, these groups shared certain motifs: their sounds were cerebral, rich in texture, occasionally harrowing, with lyrics and samples either absent or painstakingly distorted.
Often downtempo, or bristling with unusual time signatures, these sounds were more suited to a solitary headphone experience than the debauched chaos of a club. American music press dubbed this erstwhile genre ‘Intelligent Dance Music’ — a shoddy label that only stuck for want of a better name at the time.
Into this thorny environment came Boards of Canada. The two secretive Scottish brothers, Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin, had worked in near-anonymity since the late 1980s. In a handful of EPs, they approached the ‘IDM’ framework from a unique direction, heavy with reference to the analogue melodies and field recordings of masters like Brian Eno and Klaus Schulze. The fusion of new-school attitude with retro reverence proved explosive — the moment Warp Records dropped Music Has the Right to Children in 1998, Boards of Canada were officially on the radar.
Not so much a ‘concept album’ as a conceptual point-of-view, the award-winning Children was left unexplained by the reclusive duo. Listeners interpreted it as a trip into fragmented childhood memory: educational filmstrips and playground naps scored by hours of ’70s stock synth tones, all tainted by the shadowy terrors of looming adulthood. Even the name Boards of Canada, whose reference should be obvious to Canuck listeners, seemed to speak to this theme. Packing all those hazy growing-up years into a 70-minute runtime, Children became an instant classic of electronic music which still captivates to this day.
Boards‘ next album, 2002’s Geodaddi, expanded further on their apparent theme of childhood, but with darker, even occultish undertones (its running time is 6:66, for instance). Geodaddi was received well, winning a host of awards, despite some critics deriding its ideas as derivative of Children.
Perhaps Boards heard these critics, for Geoddaddi was followed in 2005 by The Campfire Headphase. This LP took a quite different direction — into acoustic folk. Michael Sandison, in a rare interview, described its concept as a man “losing his mind at the campfire and compressing weeks of events into a few hours”. True to the description, Headphase is full of eerie forest sounds, birdsong and jangly, time-dilated guitars. The sinister undercurrents are muted here, but “Kumbaya” it’s certainly not.
It’s been eight long years since Campfire, and seven since the last EP, 2006’s Trans Canada Highway. At long last, BoC fans have decoded the duo’s cryptic hints that a new album, Tomorrow’s Harvest, is on the way. Announced on April 20th (this year’s Record Store Day), Tomorrow’s Harvest is set for release on June 5.
On April 29th, Boards of Canada’s YouTube account released a cryptic ‘transmission’ as a preview for the piece. Judging from this distorted VHS-styled preview, it seems we can expect a grim, even apocalyptic episode from the duo this time around. BoC’s influences Eno and Schulze had their darker moments, but this one is straight-up John Carpenter.
With track titles like “Reach for the Dead”, “Cold Earth” and “Sick Times”, Tomorrow’s Harvest seems to promise a cold, windswept trip into a decidedly urban darkness. We don’t know yet where that journey will end, but Boards of Canada has already made one thing clear.
Childhood is over.
2. Reach for the Dead
3. White Cyclosa
4. Jacquard Causeway
6. Cold Earth
7. Transmisiones Ferox
8. Sick Times
10. Palace Posy
11. Split Your Infinities
13. Nothing Is Real
15. New Seeds
16. Come To Dust
17. Semena Mertvykh*
(* Russian for “Seeds of the Dead”)