Graded on a Curve: Golden Retriever,

Extant since 2008, Golden Retriever consists of Matt Carlson on modular synthesizer and Jonathan Sielaff on bass clarinet. They offer an uncommonly approachable strain of experimentalism that’s blended with drone textures both organic and at times quite psychedelic. The duo’s fifth and latest release is Seer, and it continues to explore their sonic objectives with an unusually high ratio of success.

For many listeners raised on a steady diet of song-based musical forms, the very concept of experimental sound creation comes attached with a muddle of forbidding baggage. Amongst all this clutter are visions of aggressiveness, abstraction and abrasion, with this handful of descriptors plucked from just the first letter of the alphabet.

To be sure, a huge mess of experimental gush does resemble those remarks. Sometimes a trail is blazed far beyond the prevailing norms of its period (a la the true meaning of the term avant-garde) only to have the discomfiting edges gradually sanded down over time. For three examples, legions of ears (though absolutely not all) eventually caught up to groundbreakers Igor Stravinsky, Charles Ives, and Ornette Coleman.

As the decades have unfurled however, plenty of other instances have arisen where the challenging and indeed difficult aspects of experimentation have been retained; think Arnold Schoenberg, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Peter Brötzmann (especially circa-Machine Gun). In summation; certain musicians visit the fringe while others reside there indefinitely.

Being temporarily ahead of the curve or enduringly outré aren’t the only two options, though. As evidence, Portland, OR’s Golden Retriever fall securely into a grand tradition of serious academic electro-acoustic composition (with elements of free improvisation also informing the work), and while their oeuvre is surely abstract it would be terribly inappropriate to portray their music as abrasive or aggressive in nature.

Instead of difficult, Golden Retriever’s soundscapes are accessible and can even be suitable for relaxing, though their output does feature a built-in intensity that helps to distinguish them from the New Age or Ambient genres. But there are also some affinities; for starters, and more than on any of their prior releases, Seer cultivates an agreeable vibe that one could peg as spacey (the album’s cover design is very fitting).

Doubters might get the notion that Golden Retriever specialize in a manifestation of mellow floating extraterrestrial cheese, but happily that’s not the case, even if fleeting moments from this LP could fit pretty snuggly into a more adventurous episode of the long-running public radio program Hearts of Space. The crucial difference is that Carlson and Sielaff’s dedication to experimentation is on full display.

Opener “Petrichor” employs an 11-limit just intonation system that if experienced at a considerable level of volume will create otoacoustic emissions. Whazatt? Specifically, it’s the “generation of new resonance within the inner-ear as a rectification of two perfectly toned and opposing frequencies” as pioneered in the ‘70s and ‘80s by the late composer/installation artist Maryanne Amacher (seek out her Sound Characters (Making the Third Ear) for John Zorn’s Tzadik label to gather further enlightenment on the issue).

That’s what vinyl copies of Seer are apparently capable of when they get turned up really loud. As this review is based upon promo MP3s, I can proffer no further comment on these otoacoustic properties. Far more important anyway is the effects the album produces in more moderate situations. While its five tracks aren’t demanding of rigid attention, as Golden Retriever’s strategies unravel they also prove resistant, even at low volumes, to fading into the background.

As Seer’s most forceful piece, “Petrichor” makes this abundantly clear, loaded as it is with thick gusts of processed bass clarinet, its sustained tones promptly acquiring a massive “ocean-liner fog-horn as manipulated by La Monte Young” type quality. Carlson’s synth opens the cut, cascading outward into dual strands that contrast with Sielaff’s playing.

It’s the closest contact Seer makes with harsh textures, though it becomes obvious rather quickly that Golden Retriever lack interest in being willfully disruptive. Instead they choose to pursue depth and breadth of aural field with appreciable results; at roughly its mid-way point “Petrichor” does shift into a drifting atmosphere of expansive and yes, celestial-toned synthesizer.

This rather methodical switch points to one of the LP’s defining characteristics, namely that it was recorded and more importantly (and interestingly, given the aforementioned formative influence of free improvisation upon Golden Retriever’s material) meticulously edited across the span of two years at the Portland artists’ studio Worksound.

Seer’s extensive post-op surgery is never overtly felt, but knowledge of the practice does serve to underscore the disc’s general tidiness. To be frank this is a fairly distinctive trait in experimental terms. Gliding by very concisely is all seven minutes of the synth-altered piano/horn tandem that constitutes “Sharp Stones,” the cut inspiring not a trace of boredom as Sielaff’s treated blowing (which on occasion reminds me of a beefed-up soprano) heads into some rather weedy territory.

It’s undeniable that some might find the clarinetist’s technique a bit off-putting, but even though Sielaff does go considerably out, his execution (though not the finished sounds, which are comparatively different) reminds me of prime Pharaoh Sanders. To elaborate, it seduces the lobes and then tests the boundaries. While less Ecstatic (at least in this instance) the aura of the Search certainly remains, and it’s an atmosphere ably elevated by Carlson’s woozy yet orderly computer enhancement.

But it’s with “Archipelago” that Seer begins to settle into a consistently inviting (if no less rigorous) mode. Opening with captured birdsong mingling with church bells and horn tones that briefly bring to mind an earthy harmonium, the track slowly ascends into joyous environs before stretching into a peacefully otherworldly finale.

The air of approachability is maintained with “Flight Song,” particularly in a stunning second half that recalls the spaced-out excursions found in ‘70s Krautrock. And for that matter, the piece (and much of Seer as a whole) is nicely remindful of that great psychedelic experimentalist Terry Riley, though not once across the LP’s duration did I get the feeling of any deliberate style-cops on the part of Golden Retriever.

And speaking of duration, closer “Superposition” is significantly longer than any of its counterparts on the disc. Bluntly, the cut benefits from the additional length, highlighting how the cumulative heft of this admirably toiled-over record is slightly lessened through largely avoiding a reliably drone-like attribute; the desire to extend.

This shouldn’t infer that Golden Retriever is averse to wielding a broader scale. For instance, 2011’s Light Cones holds but two splendid tracks, both over 20 minutes long. It was on the following year’s Thrill Jockey debut Occupied with the Unspoken that the pair increasingly flaunted the tendency to edit down longer live recordings into shorter morsels of diversity.

Following as it does in the footsteps of Riley and such disparate but relatively ear-friendly artists as Laurie Spiegel and George Crumb, Carlson and Sielaff’s efforts to produce wholly legitimate experimental music of a non-confrontational and occasionally even inviting temperament is definitely worthy of respect. As is their consistency; Seer may not be Golden Retriever’s strongest effort, but it does land remarkably close to that standard, and its life-affirming sum achieves an evenness of value most pop acts only wish they could manage.


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