People love videogame music; at least that’s what I’ve been lead to believe by music journalism’s appreciation of 8-bit influenced acts like Adventure and sampling stalwarts Boards of Canada. When it comes to the music that actually accompanies videogames, critics are content to wave their hands, shout “nostalgia,” and bask in the familiar comfort of Super Mario’s chirps and bleep. As someone who truly loves videogame music, it bothers me that some electronic acts receive acclaim for work that was mastered on the soundtracks of Metal Gears, Final Fantasies, and Chrono what have you’s. As someone who writes music criticism, though, I understand how difficult it can be to isolate and appreciate sounds that were meant to accompany a specific, and demanding, medium. This is why, even though I do not think Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest LP is deserving of much compositional praise, I can definitely appreciate what is essentially a videogame score – a very good videogame score – absent its accompanying visual and interactive element.
Tomorrow’s Harvest is Boards of Canada’s dirtiest and most pugilistic release to date. The album sounds at times like it could be the score for a Nova special, and at other times like it could soundtrack a demon’s wet dream. But mostly it sounds like the score to a videogame. Boards of Canada have made no effort to hide their obsession with retro, documentary-inclined tonal loops; in fact they got their name from a series of Canadian nature documentaries. With Tomorrow’s Harvest, much more so than on Music Has the Right to Children, Boards of Canada open the doors of ambient and drone to the worlds of science fiction and digital fantasy.
“Palace Posy” is a fantastic attempt at replicating the kinds of sounds you might have found on the soundtrack to Banjo Kazooie or Chrono Cross; the problem is that the track could still just be seen as a replication. There are many songs on this album, including “Palace Posy,” “Cold Earth,” and “Nothing is Real” that would have felt so at home on the Spyro the Dragon soundtrack that you can almost imagine their being accompanied by sweaty thumbs stuck to rubber joysticks and a flash of second gen polygons. This begs the question, though: if videogame composers have been making music just like this for years, why is it only now that it deserves critical recognition apart from its visual medium?
Tomorrow’s Harvest is something like an ode to that uncorruptable idea of setting a thematic presence with short, looping compositions. I would say that other than some truly inspired recording decisions, especially on the wide-panning opener “Gemini,” Tomorrow’s Harvest doesn’t have much more value as a collection of songs than the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack does. It is proof-positive, however, that an album of that genre’s compositional merit can stand alone, and can be emotionally effective even when the twists and turns of its calyptic, starched-out synth lines go unaccompanied by swords, sorceries, and emotional confrontations. Tomorrow’s Harvest is a crowd-pleaser for the psychedelic set, and won’t disappoint fans of earlier Boards of Canada releases. You should check out the soundtrack to Chrono Cross while you’re at it, though.