Ah, ambient drone duos–they grow up so fast! It seems like just yesterday Golden Retriever was releasing limited-run missives on CD-R and cassette for the likes of Root Strata and NNA Tapes. But no, Matt Carlson and Jonathan Sielaff have been at it since 2010, entreating us to fly with them to a foggy future-past via the unexpected combination of synthesizer and bass clarinet.
Not that this is a revolutionary sound or anything–Dylan Ettinger’s 2009 LP New Age Outlaws employed similar means to a similar end–but there’s something at once melodic and methodical about Golden Retriever’s approach to ambient music. But I wonder how they record this stuff: Do they each lay down their respective instrumental tracks one at a time before digitally mixing them, or do they simply jam in unison? How much is improvised? Is the sound of an actual bass clarinet noticeably difference from that of a synthesized one? Over the course of two exciting years, Carlson and Sielaff have quietly amassed a small handful of quality abstract material that seems designed to connect with listeners on a visceral rather than intellectual level, leaving these questions blithely unanswered.
That hasn’t changed on Occupied With The Unspoken, their vinyl debut on Thrill Jockey. This is a big leap for these guys; last year’s Light Cones on Root Strata was well-received but rather constricted in its dissemination. Thrill Jockey, however, is another league entirely, having released material from such (relatively) big names as The Fiery Furnaces, The Sea and Cake, Tortoise, Oval, Mouse On Mars, and Boredoms offshoot OO|OO. Even for a chill duo like Golden Retriever, it could be said that the pressure’s on.
Opener “Serene Velocity” begins with a siren-like analog pattern that remains constant though sometimes obscured throughout the entirety of the track’s ten minutes (the standard length for all four songs on the record). Indeed, Carlson seems to provide a solidly electronic base for Sielaff to wail on his clarinet. Compared to third track “Eudaimonia,” which finds Carlson’s synth the more active player, it’s an almost jazzy way to start off this record, seemingly sending a strong message from the outset: yes, a clarinet can reach the same heights as can a synth, and yes, it will sound messy. That’s okay; rather than glacial planes of drones, the duo tie individual melodic threads together, weaving patterns that soothe as much as they might bewilder. The title represents the dichotomy on display here: slow and fast, steady and frenzied, droning and glitchy. Unlike on past releases, Carlson and Sielaff here seem willing to let each other take turns in the spotlight; even Sielaff’s eventual trilling on “Eudaimonia” is dwarfed by the surrounding squelching, Global Communication-esque electronics.
Things sometimes get a bit too disoriented, especially when both members’ respective crescendos collide rather than complement each other via harmony or dissonance. Closer “Winter Light” seems downright spacious by contrast, drawing perhaps the sharpest distinction between the organic timbre of the clarinet and the computerized rumblings of the synth that we’ve yet heard from the duo. Sielaff riffs on his clarinet like it were a saxophone, Carlson once again happy to recede into a vital yet audibly restrained background. Still, it’s a bit of a downer on which to end the record; rather than leaving us floating through the digitally manipulated clouds, it acts as a sort of comedown to a journey that hardly had time to get going in the first place (25 minutes is but a blink’s worth of time in the realm of ambient drone).
Overall, their 2010 self-titled CD remains the best starting point for new listeners, but Occupied With The Unspoken nonetheless makes for a fine addition to the Thrill Jockey catalog, certainly worthy of standing alongside the label’s other recent offerings such as Jason Urick’s I Love You. It can be difficult to talk about ambient music, but Golden Retriever makes me more content to just shut up and listen.