The remainder of this week and some of next is dedicated to Sean Conrad and his music world. As long-time readers will remember, Conrad is the man behind both the Ashan, gkfoes vjgoaf, Orra and River Spirit Dragon projects and the Inner Islands label, the Oakland label at the forefront of the New New Age. Today we are looking at Arden Tapes, his newest release as Channelers, which appears to be his main project these days. This, along with a new album from softest, is part of a summer digital-only batch that everyone should grab immediately, if they haven't already. Per usual, I say way too much below about the music, so let me just say upfront that this is a beautiful, contemplative album of solo guitar explorations. These are not fiery pyrotechnic jams, but slowly unfolding meditations, where the smallest chord change provides an enormous impact. Highly, highly recommended, grab a copy now for the insanely cheap price of $3. Like, seriously, 3 bucks, let's do this!
There are moments where I feel like the universe gives me exactly what I need when I need it and Arden Tapes is a perfect example of this phenomenon. As I have gone through a rough stretch and anxiety levels have risen to threat level red recently, this 15-song album appears and re-centers me. I forget sometimes the power of music, how it demands that we be present, the way it brings us to appreciate the tiniest gestures, how it can remind us that a single person can create something beautiful from nothing. Sean's music, in particular, brings these concepts to the fore, while also helping us envision new inner and outer spaces.
Sean informs us about the album emerged out of a "taking time to feel my song of the moment. a brief practice largely explored through the first months of the year." As always, he captures perfectly and succinctly his work, as this 15-track album features Conrad unaccompanied, playing his guitar to create a stripped-to-the-core ambient folk music. I think there is something inherent in solo guitar that evokes practice and spontaneity, an artist alone sketching out ideas and working on technique; while this album evokes that, it doesn't feel rough like a demo or unfocused like a jam session. It feels like each track sits on the border between planned and spontaneous, like there was a map for the hike, but an openness to explore the unexpected trail or sight. I don't have any immediate reference points, which has been a wake-up call that I need to step up my solo guitar work. While Robbie Basho comes to mind, Arden Tapes feels more peaceful and measured, less cascading notes and more ripples in still water.
"night brings a new energy" captures this dynamic well, as it unfolds so patiently and minimally that it feels like you are hearing the effects of each musical gesture as they expand outward and grow fainter. There are these beautiful moments, like right around the 1-minute mark, where the border between sound and silence is erased. There is also a lovely textural dynamic at play, as fuzzier, more resonant chords are played off against sharp notes, evoking that general sense of nighttime haze and our strengthened awareness of all the things moving in that darkness. Normally with Conrad's music, nature and the natural world never feels far off. This release, though, more than anything else I have heard from him, suggests a distance, a remove. This album, like Forest Moon's A Northern Star A Perfect Stone, evokes images of retreat, home, sanctuary; stems from the solo guitar, which evokes interior spaces for me, of bedroom lessons and living room jams, and the intimacy of the recording, which at times captures Conrad's body and its movments. While there are no field recordings, no forest visions, no clearings in the woods, the looping, cyclical guitar patterns of "taking time to pray for more love in the world" reminds us of the seasons and natural time, giving a sense that this is only a temporary retreat inside.
Finally, the highlight of the album for me sits at its center, "calm rainy window." As I have said before, his music, more than any other, has clarified my own thinking on music, space and politics. I have occasionally spoken of lowercase sound, picking up on Steve Roden's concept. As Roden wrote of lowercase, "“It bears a certain sense of quiet and humility; it doesn't demand attention, it must be discovered... It’s the opposite of capital letters—loud things which draw attention to themselves.” With each new album from Conrad, I see this idea as more and more powerful, part of his project of activating quiet places. I know that the fact that the song titles are all in lowercase is probably a coincidence, but this is my blog and I am going to pretend that they are not a coincidence at all! THEY ARE CONFIRMING MY WRITING! Seriously though, it is a great lens to view this record through, as it has a sense of quiet and humility; more powerfully, if you can give it the attention, if you can find the right spaces to hear it, it will enrapture you. "calm rainy window" confirmed the power of this idea, as I became almost obsessed by a few notes in the song. It comes in for the first time around the 30 second mark; after a pattern of gentle strums has built up; suddenly these bending notes emerge and it is like a bolt of lightning. They sound so beautiful and melancholy it leaves me speechless. It deserves your $3 alone.
As always, this is the part of the post where I ask you to buy the album. I consider Sean and his label like Pound for Pound family, so it means a lot to me to learn that my readers are supporting Inner Islands. Skip the morning coffee and instead head to the Inner Islands Bandcamp and buy Arden Tapes for $3. You will feel less anxious from the lack of caffeine, then you will put this on and fall into a state of pure calm and bliss. Win win. You can also find out more about Sean, his music, his photography and his upcoming gigs at his personal site. Find more info on Inner Islands at their site and become a fan at their Facebook. Thanks my friends, big surprise coming tomorrow, so stoked!