Why Boards Of Canada Are The "Game Of Thrones" Of Electronic Music
The Scottish cult act's career has a lot in common with the fantasy phenomenon, from long gaps between albums to their uncanny ability to bring niche aesthetics to a broad audience.
Before it was the most popular non-Sopranos show in HBO history, before everyone in your Twitter feed was freaking the eff out about the Red Wedding, Game of Thrones was a book you'd find on your older brother's bookshelf in the '90s. There was nothing super-sensational about A Game of Thrones, the first volume in author George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, upon which the TV show is based. It didn't hit the best-seller lists when it was released in 1996. It appealed mostly to aficionados of the fantasy genre, who appreciated its thoughtful, frequently dark new spin on the usual staples of knights and kings and dragons and prophecies.
As the book's sequels came out — A Clash of Kings, which widened the scope, and A Storm of Swords, with the game-changing, hugely upsetting Red Wedding sequence — both the size and the intensity of the books' fandom grew. The flames were fanned by the longer-than-usual gap between the publication of Storm in 2000 and volume four, A Feast for Crows, in 2005, after several announced publication dates came and went.
Readers had to wait another six years for the fifth installment, 2011's A Dance with Dragons, at which point some of the series' characters hadn't had new material released for over a decade. By then, the cult had taken over huge swathes of pop culture and the series was seen as the pinnacle of the genre. From humble beginnings sprang a phenomenon, passed around from fan to fan saying, "you've gotta read this" — which is exactly how David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the creators of the show, found it themselves.
Today, the Scottish electronic music duo Boards of Canada release Tomorrow's Harvest, their first album in eight years. In a year stuffed with high-profile musical comebacks — Justin Timberlake, Daft Punk, David Bowie, My Bloody Valentine — this thing's as eagerly anticipated as any of the others. And if you're thinking, Wait, who are these guys? that's part of the fun. Like Game of Thrones, they've depended on word of mouth from people who are more like devotees than mere fans to become one of the most acclaimed and important acts in their world.
At every turn, BoC has cultivated an air of mystery. OK, not quite as completely as Daft Punk — there are no masks involved — but even BoC's most diehard fans took years to discover that sole members Marcus Eoin and Mike Sandison were really brothers. (Marcus dropped the last name "Sandison" in favor of his middle name to keep up the ruse.) They're no longer anonymous or invisible, but they compensate for it by making their music sound eerie and haunted instead.
Their debut full-length, 1998's Music Has the Right to Children, is laden with samples from long-forgotten educational filmstrips and synths that sound cribbed from half-remembered '70s or '80s science-fiction movies that gave you weird dreams as a little kid.
BoC's second album, Geogaddi, continued in that vein, but added a hefty dose of numerology — there are 23 tracks and the running length totals 66:06 — that all but invited listeners to approach it as a code to be cracked.
Their third and final major release before this week, 2005's The Campfire Headphase, opened up their sound to include sunnier guitars and an outdoorsy vibe, making it sound almost folky compared to their previous releases. But it's a weirdly post-apocalyptic folk, the sound of wind whistling through grass growing where no people exist anymore.
With each release, the BoC cult grew. Then, after the 2006 follow-up EP Trans-Canada Highway, they vanished.
In the interim, entire musical subgenres arose that seemed to spring directly from Boards of Canada's ideas. Chillwave emphasized vibe over structure and utilized warped sounds from early- to mid-'80s recordings to evoke a hazy nostalgia. Hauntology played up the unnerving effects that hearing snippets of obviously very old sounds in a contemporary setting can have. These are cult movements for sure, but a sign of a successful cult is inspiring offshoots and imitators.
Now BoC are back with Tomorrow's Harvest, and rather than the triumphant ecstatic comeback you might expect, it's their bleakest-sounding album to date. It's cinematic as all hell, yeah, but it draws inspiration from the dark synth soundtracks of classic late-'70s/early-'80s sci-fi/horror films like Dawn of the Dead (by John Harrison), Zombi 2 (by Fabio Frizzi) and the work of John Carpenter (Escape from New York). In the unusually candid interview with The Guardian in which the band revealed these influences, Sandison says that they've "become a lot more nihilistic over the years." It's dark material. Lead single "Reach for the Dead" sets the stage with both its title and its haunting wide-screen sound.
Other songs follow suit: "Cold Earth," "Sick Times," "Collapse," "Come to Dust." But as Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire have proven, people are willing to go along for a pretty dark ride if the view when you get there is expansive, imaginative, and powerful.
Maybe "Sundown" is the best indication of what BoC do really well — its synths sound like they were recorded in an echoey mountain range on a planet with two suns.
So yeah, like those beat-up fantasy paperbacks you find at a used bookstore, Tomorrow's Harvest delivers on the promise of its packaging. But like Game of Thrones, it can surprise you with how it tweaks the expectations of its genre. Take "Jacquard Causeway," the album's longest song. Its cyclical, stomping beat trundles along to the tune of chirpy, disconcerting keyboard flourishes for about three-fifths of its length — then, from out of nowhere, synths illuminate the gloom like sun breaking through the clouds. It's not happy, necessarily, but it makes your heart swell.
And also like Thrones, BoC know how to yank all the hope out from under you. Just when a series of four or five relatively upbeat songs in the album's back half leave you thinking you'll go out on an up note comes the closing track, "Semena Mertvykh" — a bleak, midnight-black drone that could have run during the closing credits of "The Rains of Castamere." Meanwhile, the perkiest song on the album? The one with the most buoyant beat and prettiest melody and most hopeful and happy tone? It's called "Nothing Is Real."
Is it music for music nerds? Sure. But A Song of Ice and Fire was fantasy for fantasy nerds, before the wider world caught on to its intelligence, imagination, and power. Tomorrow's Harvest is another example of how work made for aficionados can hit everyone else just as hard.