Golden Retriever, “Seer”
Golden Retriever’s 2012 record Occupied with the Unspoken opened with “Serene Velocity,” whose melancholic chord progression unfolded amid sequencers and layers of bleeps. While “Serene Velocity” itself is no straightforward pop song, it wears melody on its sleeve, and the new Golden Retriever record Seer manages to divergently venture both further into abstraction, and toward greater tonal accessibility.
The Portland duo Matt Carlson (modular synthesizer) and Jonathan Sielaff (bass clarinet) sounds on paper like it might be found in some electroacoustic warehouse art space in Brooklyn, improvising with jazz musicians and erratic mixing board operators. It seems such an assessment wouldn’t be far off – the duo mentions several pioneers of electronics in live performance (and also Mills College instructors), Alvin Curran and David Behrman as influences. And furthermore, according to Thrill Jockey, the often 25-30 minute Golden Retriever pieces in the live setting are whittled down to more manageable chunks on this and their previous LPs. Editing has become a third instrument for the band, and increasingly central on their recordings. Seer allowed the duo to pore over and refine the five new tracks for two whole years.
Yet Seer is less immediate and more subtle than its predecessor. “Sharp Stones” builds on a processed rhythmic loop of chiming, knocking sounds and clattering piano keys. The radially sputtering squawks and textural manipulation comes from a mindset of free jazz and improvisation. It’s a space out of a track, hooked back to the forefront of our minds with Sielaff’s soaring, distorted and mangled, yet somehow Lynchian clarinet. Reversed, squealing electronics morph the song into more familiar Golden Retriever sci-fi-synth wash.
More so than previously, Sielaff holds the entry key for listeners or serves as an anchor on Seer. This may be a result of Carlson’s further exploration of improvisational forms and texture and/or more frequent clarinet showcases/higher mixing of the instrument. Closer “Superposition” follows the mould of “Sharp Stones” by unhurriedly laying a bed of skittering electronic bleeps, loops, and gurgles before the seven-minute mark, when a synth tornado descends, sucking the avant impulses into hooky, Emeralds or Bitchin Bajas-esque, dense, melodic electronic pop. These moments of maximalist, warm, layered electronics are sure to please fans of Occupied with the Unspoken.
On first listen, “Flight Song” may even rival the fluttering, warm texture of “Serene Velocity.” Deep, bass clarinet-led chord changes play a prominent role in forging an emotional, human element. But “Flight Song” tempers and restrains its sparkling epic sheen, avoiding an obvious crescendo and flickering away relatively undetectable. Instead of teasing with a protracted intro, like “Sharp Stones” or “Superposition,” “Flight Song” teases with a measured climax and a trace of symphonic influence.
“Archipelago” slowly unfolds with ringing church bells, bird chirps, and warm melancholic, soundtrack-like melodica/woodwind instrument. Bubbling sequencers take over with wavering, delayed, near minimalist patterns. The combination approaches some sort of a knotted take on baroque or even neo-classical music, and certainly stands out as the biggest departure in mood on Seer. Again, Golden Retriever dives into a new harmonic playbook.
In addition to this new probe of harmonic possibilities, Seer reveals a greater interest in minimalism, ambient clattering, and the prominence of the bass clarinet. The synth acrobatics persist but find wells of inspiration in free jazz and assorted tropical textures. The duo still knows how to win over the electronic bliss seekers with all-out, kaleidoscopic electronic headrushes, but prefers to throw a wrench into these. Indeed their warehouse days and the scripture of improvisation play a major role in shaping their output, even if the studio has become the third band member.