The apocalypse never sounded so good: a journey with Boards of Canada

On listening to the Scottish duo's new album "Tomorrow's Harvest".

My first proper listen to Tomorrow's Harvest, the new album by Scottish electronic music duo Boards Of Canada, was carefully planned. I decided to walk west along Brighton seafront from the mesmerisingly gaudy Palace Pier to the brutalist structure of the marina, pressing play on my iPod only once I was well clear of the crowds. This stretch of coastline is home to Volk's Electric Railway - a family favourite - and a few bars, but even on a swelteringly hot day such as this I knew it would be near-deserted compared to the central stretch of beach.

This solo listening party was in stark contrast to the high-profile gathering in the wide open spaces of the Mojave Desert, where Warp Records treated a gaggle of fanatics to a preview of the new album. I'd always considered brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin's hazy, vaguely menacing music a private pleasure. Watching a live video stream of the Mojave gathering, I couldn't help thinking it would have been a more effective statement for Warp to simply blast the new album out into the empty desert landscape. This would have been more consistent with the album's pervasive theme of catastrophe and depopulation, not to mention Neil Krug's eerie promotional video, also shot in the Mojave.

The further I walked along Brighton's Marine Parade, the more I was drawn into the music. The buzzing drones and spiralling arpeggios of "Gemini", "White Cyclosa" and "Reach For The Dead" were matched in intensity by the heat that caused the air to buckle and warp in the distance. The album's title and sleeve photography had already brought to mind the desert-bound dystopias of 70s sci-fi cinema such as Phase IV, Capricorn One and The Andromeda Strain. By the time I reached the marina, a concrete behemoth situated just ahead of a building site and a patch of incongruous scrubland looking out to sea, I felt as though I had voluntarily snagged myself in a similar sun-kissed apocalypse.

Eoin and Sandison instill a sense of unease not through the stereotypically "dark" sounds favoured by many current electronic acts but with a carefully maintained ambivalence. Their visual aesthetic is based around light and colour. Their melodies are frequently beautiful but subverted by deliberately damaged textures, such as tape crackle or electronic interference. Both bright and mournful, Tomorrow's Harvest speaks to survivalist fantasy of being the last on earth, while its scuffed sounds wordlessly evoke an impending collapse. As I sat looking seaward to the decaying strains of closing track "Semena Mertvykh", I found myself suspended between terrifying freedom and thrilling dread.

Tomorrow's Harvest has been the subject of a protracted and inventive promotional campaign involving codes, teaser videos, rumours and conjecture. It may therefore surprise those new to the duo's music to find that the album provides ample opportunity for immersion in smaller, yet more profound, ways. A consummate work of sonic fiction, its engrossing endtime narrative is best experienced at a distance from the polyphonic frenzy of the internet and the music press - perhaps even from the rest of humankind.

Joseph Stannard is chief programmer of Brighton's The Outer Church. A compilation album featuring 28 artists including Pye Corner Audio, Grumbling Fur and Hacker Farm is released on 5 August by Front & Follow. Pre-order here.
Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin, aka Boards of Canada.
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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear