Returning after almost an eight-year absence, Boards of Canada release an album that is an excellent springboard for new initiates as well as giving longtime fans an album worthy of their previous artistic peaks.
Going back to their 1998 debut Music Has the Right to Children, Boards of Canada have always been rooted in the familiar, albeit in small chunks to prevent pigeonholing their sound. Their albums have been incredibly dense works. Even though they haven't released a full-length album in more than seven years, it takes about that long to digest a work like 2002's Geogaddi. But few bands have been able to make the complex so utterly inviting.
Tomorrow's Harvest continues that tradition of complexity and accessibility. In the leadoff track "Gemini", you hear a blurb that could pass as the introductory sound of an educational tape/DVD you were forced to watch in junior high. After that, you hear some strings that you swear were on the introduction of Pulp's 1993 song "Lip Gloss".
... and that is just in the first ten seconds. Listeners have about 3,900 more seconds to sort through in Tomorrow's Harvest.
Such scrutiny shouldn't be employed on the first listens of Tomorrow's Harvest. Its 17 songs can be intimidating on first listen, but with the exception of "Jacquard Causeway" and "New Seeds", the tracks run around the three-to-four minute mark. In a rare interview with The Guardian, Michael Sandison said he and his brother Marcus Eoin tried to make each track distinctive and recorded most of the album by doing quick jams.
While that method may not initially seem like the recipe for a cohesive album, Tomorrow's Harvest has a definitive "side one" and "side two" aesthetic. The first half employs almost a claustrophobic feel. A respirator-like sound greets the listener in the opening seconds of "Reach for the Dead". The distorted voice that counts up on "Telepath" harkens back to the repeated "rocket launch" sequences on the Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. The following track "Cold Earth" lives up to its name with its icy percussion.
However, "Palace Posy" begins to turn things into a sunnier direction. A low throb that sounds like loose strings on an upright bass slide right against a warm, repeated keyboard melody. It's the aural equivalent of breathing room. On "Nothing Is Real", a pattering percussive beat lightly taps against a shimmering string (or string-like) arrangement before the bird chirps arrive. It's the aural equivalent of a warm summer evening after a rain storm.
With nearly an hour of buildup, Tomorrow's Harvest ends with the calm and slightly ominous "Semena Mertvykh". It's not exactly the closer you'd expect from an album nearly eight years in the making, but it's a great summary of the entire album. Tomorrow's Harvest wasn't born out of huge infighting, previous high-profile artistic failures or an overwhelming push to release a new statement. Rather, it sounds like an extremely well-produced album that took about eight years of slow studio cooking to produce.
Boards of Canada famously made fans work for Tomorrow's Harvest. Not satisfied with just sneaking a few USB-embedded clues around ala Nine Inch Nails' promotion for Year Zero, fans had to track down codes via the web (YouTube), on television (Cartoon Network), and in some cases, actual physical vinyl releases. But now that Tomorrow's Harvest is available with the click of a mouse, it'll be up to the listener as to how much work he or she wants to invest.
Of all the bands that have come back from a lengthy absence this year (see Daft Punk, My Bloody Valentine, and at least in a live setting, Neutral Milk Hotel), Boards of Canada gain an edge by releasing a work that can comfortably be mentioned with their previous artistic heights. Though demanding repeated listens, Tomorrow's Harvest distinguishes itself by making intense commitment (e.g. What's the better way to enjoy it, headphones or stereo, broken-up "side" listens on vinyl vs. one full immersive CD spin?) a welcome task for the summer of 2013.