(New Album Review) Golden Retriever- Seer

Seer, by Portland’s own mainstays Golden Retriever, may be the most interesting electro-acoustic release of the year. A synthesizer (Matt Carlson) and bass clarinet (Jonathan Sielaff ) duo, Golden Retriever are a good example of this interesting wave of experimental artists who play around with the fine line between organic and electronic. Though I guess I might poetically describe them as “minimalist”, their music would be better described as maximalist as there is always something going on in their music and it can get pretty harsh, featuring unexpected extremes in volume. This is largely due to the intensity of Sielaff’s playing as well as his experiments with modulating in tandem with Carlson– with his technical skill and with the help of their equipment, he is able to turn the bass clarinet into something harsh, booming, and very alien yet nonetheless sounding markedly similar to a guitar solo by Robert Fripp.

Though I can already think of two bands in Portland alone (Moongriffin and Grammies) that have this kind of wind instrument/synthesizer duo setup, Golden Retriever’s style is very distinctive. I randomly name-dropped Robert Fripp two sentences ago, and for good reason– in a way, this music is very similar to art rock. Golden Retriever are stately, wrapped in subtle mystery– a bugle call sounding from a seeming abyss. They make electronic music that seems very strongly influenced by jazz and classical Western art music– there is some droning, but the figures that Sielaff plays wander around and get much more complex.

Seer is the fourth album of Golden Retriever’s that I’ve heard to date. For a long time, my opinion of them was sort of just pleasantly neutral, perhaps because I hadn’t looked too much into them; you have to understand that I often feel that music can be good without exciting me that much. When I saw that this album was getting a noticeable amount of critical attention, I became curious and, after having listened to Seer, for this week I think I’ll spend a little time re-visiting them and looking for older albums of theirs I have up to now had on my listening backlog. To say the least, the new album seems as though it’s the best so far, though Light Cones was noticeably good too.

Golden Retriever’s earlier works have alternated between extended pieces of about 15 to 25 minutes, and shorter pieces under the 10 minute mark. Their albums have never been too lengthy, eschewing the “endurance listening” manifesto of so many other experimental groups. Seer is 40 minutes made up of five medium-length pieces, four under the 10-minute mark and one just under the 15. The album is thusly concise and sweet– and what’s more, it’s positively entrancing and has the potential to win many new fans. The album takes you on a journey: it starts out with the droning textures of “Petrichor”, abruptly shifts into the harsh blowing on “Sharp Stones”, swings back into the bubbly “Archipelago”, seems to find a middle ground between woodwind and synth on “Flight Song”, and then concludes very elegantly on the flowing, elliptical “Superposition”. “Flight Song” might be the signature Golden Retriever track– Sielaff’s lovely melody floats casually over the bed of chirping synths. This whole duality between the organic and the digital is exemplified very well by Golden Retriever (though many other groups pursue these ends well) as it is often hard to tell what you are hearing, yet it all bleeds together into their entrancing vision. It’s just a really good record, very well-rounded, and one can tell that they enjoyed making it. Seer is one of the best releases of the year in any genre. For any Portlanders reading my blog, I hope you can  see them tonight at Holocene at 8:30!

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