Boards of Canada / Eluvium
Tomorrow's Harvest / Nightmare Ending
(Warp / Temporary Residence; 2013)
By Brent Ables | 5 July 2013
The difficulty of writing about ambient music has often been noted here on CMG. Ambient is only one of many types of instrumental music, of course, and not all its cousins share its opacity in matters verbal. One listens to a Flying Lotus record and it feels like an extremely stimulating conversation with an unpredictable friend; a Mozart sonata guides through you a finely detailed sequence of affects. These musics are, to some extent, amenable to being captured with words because they are centered around clearly definable structures and extend out into expertly delineated edges. At this purely musical level, form is content. But ambient music is premised on a rejection of this identification of form and content, instead privileging timbre, tone, and duration. It’s background music by design, which is to say that it foregrounds a certain kind of absence. Because this negative space is so prominent and our attention isn’t demanded elsewhere, we are led to focus on the virtual canvas that the tones arise from and disappear into. The basic condition of music—time—becomes the subject of the music, along with whatever transpires in our experience during that time. We fill the music with ourselves. To verbally illuminate ambient music, then, we have to allow it to illuminate us.
Given this description, I think it’s fair to stretch the term “ambient” a bit. If it has a fixed meaning, it’s not clear that Boards of Canada or Eluvium best represent it. Boards of Canada are largely beat-driven, and some of their tracks—including fan favorites like “Roygbiv” and “1969”—unfold in a unidirectional and clearly structured way. Accordingly, some have reserved the term for their drumless interludes. Eluvium’s earlier work began in the purely ambient realm, but on Copia (2007) and succeeding albums Matthew Cooper started to integrate straightforward, classically structured piano pieces into the more nebulous work. Despite sometimes nudging at the borders of the genre, however, both of these acts fundamentally work with an ambient ethos. Their music privileges repetition over change, drift over direction, timbre over melody, and works at a deeply subjective, non-representational level. They’ve also both had great success in a largely anonymous field, and—especially in the case of Boards of Canada—earned a fan base as devoted as any in contemporary music.
For all their similarities, however, the differences between the two artists are more interesting. First, look at how Cooper and the Boards brothers make use of time. The most common word that people like to apply to Music Has the Right To Children (1998), Boards of Canada’s masterpiece, is “nostalgic.” This has always felt inadequate to me, especially in a time where, thanks to the chillwave plague, nostalgia has practically become its own genre. But the basic idea is right. The great, transcendent genius of early Boards of Canada was to perfect the aural expression of anteriority: the childhood of a human or of humanity, the life that gives voice to lifeless music machines, or the stirrings of new love. On Tomorrow’s Harvest, however, Boards of Canada turn their attention to the future and filter it through a significantly darker lens. If Music Has the Right To Children was an explicit attempt to recapture innocence, Tomorrow’s Harvest—named after an online retailer specializing in survival gear and goods—is an explicit turn towards the future. Once brimming with hope and promise, Boards of Canada’s music is now heavy with resignation and dread. Tracks like “Split Your infinities” seem to be missing a center, as if they’re trying to resolve but lack an open passage. This traps the lighter tracks with less momentum within themselves, giving the whole affair a fatalistic air.
Eluvium’s music, on the other hand, doesn’t evoke longing for the past or dread for the future. It is meditative music, in that it isn’t about an experience of the present but a patient, passive dismantling of the barriers to that experience. Boards of Canada use repetition to intensify, whereas Eluvium uses repetition to relieve. As his warm, lush, endlessly overturning waves of sound accumulate, our defenses weaken, our eyes droop, and our minds surrender. Eluvium’s music is more emotional than the cerebral Boards of Canada: the careful, layered syncopation of “Jacquard Causeway” and the numerology of “Telepath” are puzzles waiting to be solved, but there’s nothing on Nightmare Ending that calls for such analysis. And the album is the better for it. Songs like (the ironically named) “Covered in Writing” and (the aptly named) “Sleeper” wash over you with such pure beauty, such unalloyed grace, that they leave no option but surrender. Each loop that runs its course brings you back to your beginning—tides coursing between the ocean of the self and the firm shore of the now.
I mentioned above that both acts have two basic types of songs. The records find them addressing these dichotomies in different ways. Instead of maintaining the alternation between beat-driven long tracks and shorter, properly ambient pieces, Boards of Canada collapse the forms into each other on Tomorrow’s Harvest. The bleak “Uritual” might have been a twenty-second cut on Geogaddi (2002), but here it’s stretched out to a foreboding two minutes and dropped right behind album pinnacle “Nothing Is Real.” By stretching these minor tracks into weighty pieces and, conversely, condensing a variety of ideas into tracks like “Reach for the Dead,” Sandison and Eoin create their most cohesive record to date. Nightmare Ending doesn’t seem as concerned with cohesion. Cooper seems as content as he ever was to let the DeBussy-esque piano pieces stand on their own and the oceanic fuzz-epics to do likewise. And they do, ably, though it’s worth noting that the best tracks on Nightmare Ending might be those which layer the synth loops on top of piano figures in the tradition of his classic “Indoor Swimming at the Space Station.”
Is it too much of a stretch to see a connection between Boards of Canada’s efforts at cumulative synthesis, on the one hand, and Eluvium’s willingness to let each track resound on its own, on the other hand, as linked to their respective temporal proclivities? Probably. But then, I warned you from the beginning that the only way to illuminate this kind of music is to let it illuminate you. This suggests the last essential truth shared by these records: even if there must be a fundamental absence in this music in order to make room for the listener, this negative space is only the mirror side of the positive space we share when listening together. The soul of these records is an empty one, but in the movement of centering the music it produces a warm glow common to the campfire headphase and the flickering shadows that fire casts into our dreams.