Music Reviews

Golden Retriever Rotations

(Thrill Jockey) Rating - 7/10

Golden Retriever attempt to live in harmony on Rotations. It’s all-too-desirable to assume that there’s an order to how we live, but as they try to put into perspective on their fourth full-length recording, it’s also a system that is meant to be complicated by design. The Portland instrumental duo of Jonathan Sielaff and Matt Carlson approach a concept that is impossible to completely parse in a 35-minute recording, and what piece of art could ever encompass such a large topic, but instead of focusing on the larger scale they simply contemplate upon it.

There’s a meditative cadence to Rotations that gains potency as it progresses, given that we witness an unraveling of thought. At first, there’s doubt: the tenebrous piano filigrees of Pelagic Tremor feel stifling, with hardly any respite to arrange one’s anxieties into a structured whole. It’s one of their most sophisticated pieces to date, and alongside the gentle departure of A Kind of Leaving, it marks another fitting evolution for a duo who’s well-outgrown the disciplined modular synths of German electronic music. Rotations has more in common with modern composers such as Max Richter and Nils Frahm, artists who write classical works that resonate in a concert hall while also considering the construction of the album format.

That’s not to say that Golden Retriever fully abandons the analog textures of past albums Seer or Occupied with the Unspoken. The incessant sonic patterns of Tessellation send one into full sensory overload, replete with detuned pitch bending and starry effects, the equivalent of a brain that is in full activity. The middle half of Rotations sounds more improvisational in spirit and does align with the duo’s experience working from a free jazz template, ultimately rushing toward a climactic culmination. To call it Thirty-Six Stratagems suggests it lacks some nuance, as does the album's undulated sequencing, but at least they retain an abstract appearance that communicates on many levels.

It appears as if the shift in tone fully disrupts what, at first, seemed to maneuver via a slow, gradual upsurge. But Rotations does ultimately aim for a silver lining: it’s on the album’s last two tracks, Thread of Light and Sunsight, where we really get a true sense of how they utilize a full chamber ensemble - featuring musicians of the Mousai Remix String Quartet - to give Rotations a more sweeping radiance. A descending bass clarinet is there to remind us there’s still good reason to be cautious, counterpointed with a necessary calm, a clear indication that things are starting to look up. The never-ending cycle of existence is linear, and there’s no way to stop it. But as Golden Retriever document with a careful eye, and as the blissful finale of Rotations attests, that perpetual cycle always promises a renewal of strength.