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.
DON HOOPER/ALAMY
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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage