Channelers: Space Makes Clearing
Inner Islands

Stag Hare: Velvet And Bone
Inner Islands

With each Inner Islands release I receive, my affection grows for the Oakland, California-based imprint and its cassette catalogue. Founded by Braden J McKenna and now operated by Sean Conrad, Inner Islands' music makes good on its label name by presenting sounds that simulate the experience of serene mental drift.

Operating under his Channelers guise, Conrad is responsible for Space Makes Clearing, one of two new releases on the label and available in a limited edition of seventy-five cassette copies (digital also, of course). Aside from clarifying that it was home-recorded, the package itself includes scant information about the release, though the Bandcamp page for it displays the text, “Reverence for the cycles of life, for the ever-changing sky, for the yearning that drives one forward, for the acceptance that keeps one still,” words that go a long way towards capturing the humble, devotional spirit of the recording. Also helpful is the press release, which describes Conrad's attempt to foster a therapeutic effect using repetition as it creates “space to let the mind wander.”

That detail actually helps a lot to bring the recording into focus, given the degree to which repetition as a compositional strategy infuses the seven settings. During “Clear Guidance Golden Chords,” for instance, a piano pattern cycles throughout the piece, functioning ostensibly as an anchor for bright, dulcimer-like flutterings. An eight-note acoustic guitar figure assumes a similar role within “A Sweep of Crying Fog,” in this case repetition encouraging the listener to freely drift in tune with the music's lulling flow. Perhaps the most effective realizations of Conrad's concept are “Praise for Life in All Its Forms,” in which chiming patterns and soft vocal exhalations entrance the listener for nine minutes, and the hypnotically droning outro “Your Spell is on the Wind.”

Admittedly there are moments when Conrad risks numbing the listener when a repeating pattern is so simple (see the five-note piano motif in “Stone People”), but the likelihood of that dissipates when subsequently added contrapuntal details keep the stimulation level high. It's tempting to slot Space Makes Clearing into the ambient minimalism category, what with the lilting flow and harmonious tone of the material, but its seven pieces are, in fact, more akin to instrumental songs. Whatever the preferred designation, it's compelling stuff that achieves its intended effects with understated poise.

If repetition and entrancement are central reference points for Conrad's outing, Stag Hare's ninth full album originates out of a considerably different set of circumstances: Velvet And Bone (available in digital and in a limited edition of 100 cassettes) is the first Stag Hare album release since sound artist Zara Biggs-Garrick experienced an official gender transformation; now known as Willow Sky Biggs, the Salt Lake City-based artist intends to follow up this fourth release on Inner Islands with one final addition to the Stag Hare catalogue within the coming year. Such dramatic life changes are reflected in the dedication included with the release, “For Rebecca because you destroyed me so that I may grow into something better,” and in the explanatory text that cites death, depression, and love as key points of departure for Stag Hare's “gothic fable.”

That striking skull detail on the cover shouldn't, incidentally, be construed as signifying any connection between death metal and Stag Hare's music. She traffics in a style of electronic material that's trippier than Conrad's and more inclined to transport the listener with a psychedelic drone than soothe with repetition. The two releases do, however, share a propensity for song form, which, in the case of Stag Hare sometimes manifests as a delectable swoon. “Mirror” even approximates some shoegaze-and-trip-hop combination, what with its murmuring vocals, relaxed funk-rock groove, guitar accents, and synthesizer haze, while “Moonlit” takes an even deeper, chillwave-styled plunge into the dreampop sea. As seductive is “Shadow,” which perpetuates the trippy vibe and again wraps vocals in an enveloping fog of beats and synthetic textures. Lyrics are provided in all cases, but frankly you'll probably find your attempt to focus on the words sidetracked by the shimmering sonic display.

Though Velvet And Bone splits its six tracks evenly between vocal and instrumental cuts, each impresses as a fully formed, stand-alone production. Don't think, in other words, that slow-burning, synth-heavy instrumentals such as “Opening (Depression)” and “Locket” are any less stirring simply because singing's absent. As compelling is “Ghosthunter,” which could even pass for a club treatment of Stag Hare when a booming kick drum and drop-outs are folded into the tune's galloping swing.

November 2016