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.
Picture: Stavros Damos
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Mark Strong Q&A: “I suspected playing a barrister was more fun than being one”

The actor talks David Bowie, studying law, and his favourite Simpsons episode.

What is your earliest memory?

Sitting in a pram in the sunshine in Myddelton Square, north London, waving at passers-by. My mum used to put me out in the street to keep me occupied, and she and various neighbours would lean on the windowsill and keep an eye on me.

Which politician, past or present, do you look up to?

Nelson Mandela stands head and shoulders above the crowd for his tolerance in the face of extreme suffering and his ability to unite a nation against all the odds.

Who was your childhood hero? And who is your adult hero?

David Bowie. His music and style were unique and he was the first to make me think about individuality and creativity. As an adult, Muhammad Ali, for the same reason – to thine own self be true.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?

My theatre knowledge is pretty good, and I particularly love the plays of Arthur Miller – but I suspect it would probably be Arsenal Football Club.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?

When Shakespeare, Marlowe and Ben Jonson were writing and performing their plays and the “Vagabond Act” of 1572 viewed travelling Elizabethan actors as such a threat that regulations were imposed. Sounds like a fun time.

What TV show could you not live without?

The Simpsons. A favourite episode has Homer at the annual Springfield Chilli Cook-Off, where he eats super-spicy chilli made with a dangerous Guatemalan pepper grown by mental patients. The pepper has a powerful hallucinogenic effect and Homer wanders off into the strangest regions of his mind to find his soulmate, accompanied by a spirit guide voiced by Johnny Cash.

Who would paint your portrait?

Lucian Freud for the warts-and-all harsh reality, or Caravaggio for the dark beauty and intensity of his style.

What’s your theme tune?

For sheer drama and danger, Montagues and Capulets from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Put it on your headphones and walk down the street and you’ll see what I mean.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

A very special man named Sydney Stolerman once told me not to become an actor, as it was unlikely it would work out. He jokes to this day that it’s a good job I didn’t follow his advice.

What’s currently bugging you?

Injustice, greed, envy and intolerance. So-called leaders interested only in themselves. People unwilling to observe the social contract.

What single thing would make your life better?

Not being able to be contacted instantly anywhere in the world through modern technology.

When were you happiest?

I was pretty content at university. I had few responsibilities and was learning something I loved and partying with people I still love. But most of all at the birth of my children. An unbeatable feeling.

If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?

I studied law so perhaps I might have made it to the Bar, though I gave up that idea when I suspected playing a barrister was probably much more fun than being one.

Are we all doomed?

Unless everyone gets serious about climate change and we stop electing world leaders who behave like paranoid teenagers, then undoubtedly. 

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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