Golden Retriever is known for their sense of atmosphere. Their bandcamp describes it as being oceanic in its exploration, taking an “organic” approach to experimental electronic music while discovering layers equally lush and meditative in their composition. On their latest release, “Rotations,” the Portland based band uses a full chamber ensemble to accentuate their sound, finding new ways of exploring the textural world of music.
The album began when Golden Retriever received a grant from the Portland Regional Arts and Culture Council to write and perform new material. Drafting a full chamber ensemble featuring strings, woodwinds, percussion, and pipe organ, the band decide to approach the cyclical nature of life with their music, drawing on natural imagery and processes to inform their music. The outcome of these performances, which began in 2015, is “Rotations,” a collection of music both challenging and achingly beautiful in equal combination.
Perhaps it is appropriate with such cyclical compositions to start at the beginning. Final track “Sunsight” finds us exploring a meditative landscape dripping with ache and wonder. The curtain is closing on one chapter while another begins to grow quietly under the soil. There is a feeling of potency in the air as spaced-out notes strike at the piano, ringing out into a dark and mysterious night. Strings ebb and flow as horns tremble somewhere between lament and delight, welcoming some new way of being with mixtures of fear and wonder.
Returning to the beginning first track documents the darkness of the beginning. Moving into “Pelagic Tremor,” a cacophony of piano forms a dark web of sound that grows and grows, a light, plastic synth eventually emerging out of the layerd sound. A feeling of transformation is evident from the beginning, of crawling out of the darkness and into what light can be found. It’s an in-between zone, which is comparable to what “pelagic” means. A pelagic zone is any area of water that is neither near the bottom or the shore, coming from the greek word that means “open sea.” We are in an ocean of sound, not knowing where we’re drifting off to.
“A Kind of Leaving” exhibits Golden Retriever’s blend of organic and electronic instrumentation. It begins with a contemplative piano reminiscent of Harold Budd. Eventually woodwinds blow in, adding more texture than melody. Soft electronic lines flow in and out behind, bleeping and booping like some futuristic computer gently documenting the ways of the future. It’s an atmosphere with space and potency, and Golden Retriever suddenly seems like curators of unique environments, less musicians than collectors of sounds and ideas. What they’re saying, though, seems to be in some futuristic language we don’t understand quite yet.
“Tessellation” doesn’t impress with its electronic ebbs and flows, feeling more distracting than informative. It exists more in the background than anything else, vibrating across the soundscapes of some future time and place, yet not latent enough to truly fade into the walls. As we move into “Thirty-Six Stratagems,” we find that Golden Retriever is bent on collapsing the meditative atmosphere they have cultivated. Synthetic chaos spins and erupts, making for a challenging listen. It’s like a once peaceful space station imploding into the atmosphere, watching our hopes and dreams for the future fade into a dystopian nightmare.
But I am curious about Golden Retriever’s intent with all this. “Thread of Light” feels like we’re rebuilding something after the collapse. Is there always some light left for us to hold on to? It’s a good question to ask, especially on an album that feels so much like a conceptual journey. The atmosphere has been filled with a new potency, one that grows out of the ashes of chaos.
So again we return to “Sunsight,” not receiving the triumphant or disastrous end that could have taken place. Instead we find ourselves bathing in serene light, asleep in warm pools in a quiet river valley. There is no question to answer anymore. The cycle has begun again. The sun has returned.