Album review: Conrad Clipper – ‘Heron’s Book Of Dreams’: a pseudonymous, textural ambient gem

The Breakdown

Heron's Book of Dreams is glorious. It knows what to do, it knows what you need, and never aims for cheap and maximal when stripping back, excellent arrangement and contrast can do the job. Think a slightly more abrasively edged, more intimate A Winged Victory For The Sullen. A very beautiful record for people who love the interstices where 'flesh and blood' instrumentation gets it on with drones. Delightful.
LUAU 8.8

QUESTION the first: who is Conrad Clipper? We don’t know and we can only presume, given the confirmedly pseudonymous nature of (his?) releases, that we may never find out; one of those delicious little mysteries – you may own other recordings by (them?) and never know; or indeed, as with Morse operators, you may learn to spot his ‘hand’ at work in the melodies and cadences, make an educated guess at who it is. Answers on a postcard, please, to Backseat Towers.

Which is all incidental frippery, really; a little of that mystery does indeed permeate through to Conrad’s latest album, Heron’s Book Of Dreams, out on April 30th on London’s Luau Records – a label which cutely summates itself as “Smalltime. Nice though”, and which also hosts the psychedelic ideas-fest of Jakarta’s Jirapah; the no-wave psych-jazz of Engrams, and the mutant, fractured blues rock of Sumatraban – like Jon Spencer in a blender; in short, one of those labels doing great work right at the coalface of the underground.

So what little do we know of Conrad Clipper? He has a focus on prepared, programmed and played piano and he lives and records in Berlin. Thassit. He is, as the prepared and programmed element to his pianist practice would suggest, and there’s a run of plosives, a bit of a favourite on BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction: presenters Verity Sharp and Jennifer Lucy Allan have called his work “a rare and tender sonic wonder”; there’s some heavyweight approval from people who really know this sphere.

His debut album, 2016’s Cycle of Liminal Rites, took the form of a limited cassette run for Emily Elhaj’s Love Lion label, which imprint sprung Angel Olsen debut on a welcoming world 11 years ago. This second offering was recorded in Arizona and Berlin, and was mixed and mastered by Deerhoof’s guitarist John Dieterich – a musician who’s enjoying a collaborative hot streak at the moment, what with his Endlings project with Raven Chacon.

Hiding his true nominative light under a bushel he may be, but Conrad has offered some observations on Heron’s Book of Dreams: “Through the window at [experimental desert town] Arcosanti, I could see the desert, vast and transformative. Inside the room was an upright piano, a Fender Rhodes, and several synths.

“For five days – every morning, afternoon and evening – I sat in this room with the circular window and wrote the music you can hear on this record. Outside, intimate crowds gathered to watch some of the world’s best musicians play unique and unrepeatable sets.

“Arcosanti, AZ is a prototype arcology designed by Paolo Soleri. Picture, if you can, moonbase architecture inspired by late-Sixties sustainable ideologies. Concrete atriums screened with poplar and olive trees. Shady, calm apses to keep the desert sun off. The low roar of the iron forge, casting the famous Arcosanti bells that are shipped around the world.

“Each year, FORM festival takes place there and selects 1,000 people to attend. I was not selected. Instead, I found myself there working as a photographic assistant to my friend, Tonje. During that week, through Tonje, I met Tortoise, Bill Callahan, The National, Grizzly Bear, Moses Sumney, Perfume Genius, Braids, Skrillex, Hundred Waters and many others.

“Whenever possible, and often during their live shows, I would sneak into the room with the circular window to write and record Heron’s Book of Dreams.

“This record, then, is for anyone who has found themselves watching as their dreams play out on a stage without them.”

What a beautiful, slightly sad concept. Aww.

Just a note before we tuck in on prepared piano, which most seasoned travellers out in these areas can cheerfully skip, and I make no bones about referring to Wikipedia here; the piano is, of course, when you lift the lid, a percussion instrument, within which working a hammer strikes strings; to prepare it is to alter the process in some way by the addition of “… bolts, screws, mutes, rubber erasers, and/or other objects on or between the strings. Its invention is usually traced to John Cage’s dance music for Bacchanale (c. 1938), created without room for a percussion orchestra.”

Of course, with the advent of wholly electronic musics, that category has expanded beyond the immediately physical to include all kinds of triggering and the like; some of which we might be witnessing within the album. Let’s not get too het up about what. Let’s just luxuriate.

Conrad Clipper, photographed by Tonje Thilesen

For a luxuriant record it is, and one of those in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It’s a proper whole-album experience, and shuffling and excerpting into playlists for this one; well, that’s a bit philistine.

The opening three pieces are little fragments, none troubling the two-minute boundary. “Arcosanti” is a prelude, opening in bright bell glimmer before the piano introduces itself with some autumnal motifs, the right degree of pretty and tonally darker; there’s a lot of room ambience, crackle and breath and y’know, living world surrounding it.

Time was when sheen was the whole aesthetic thing for the piano, as with much else – record its notes and its notes only, not the percussive click of attack and the squeaks and groans of its wood, let alone too much of the actual surrounding space in which it is being played. That’s all changed in recent years, with albums like Henrik Lindstrand’s Nordhem, very much being a love letter to the totality of the piano and the space it occupies. A good thing.

But I digress. “Arcosanti” quickly morphs into the equal brevity of “Forces Under Your Control” which seems to serve by way of introduction to the other major compositional element herein, the delicious, textural drone – Wiltzie to the previous track’s O’Halloran, if you will. It opens out with real wide-eyed thrall, overtones to light up your lobes, a little retrotronic modulation; surges, falls and smooths the ground for the arrival of “Say The Name”, in which the two elements begin to dance, an odd key shift keeping you on your (blissed) toes as the piano intones and the drone keeps a studious undercarriage of warmth flowing.

These short shifts of mood wend us well into “The Coven”, where the real depth begins. Flowering from some modular synth trilling it has delicious, high overtones, lofty as a vaulted cathedral ceiling, which torrent across your listening, a little of the Tim Hecker in their vivacious rush, decay, resurgence. A faraway organ tone adds midrange counterpoint. It’s stunning. “Triple Dance”, if anything, is even more hallowed; it’s about the ring, the resonance, but eventually elects to allow Conrad’s solo piano all the room it needs in which to pick out spare evocation, every note judicious.

“No Peaches For The Foolish” takes a different course, bursting into fire on an oh-so-slow microtonal rise; a gamelan percussive heralding; some bird cries infiltrating. You can hear the susurration of the prepared piano here, I fancy – a little percussive hissing to the glissando of the chords, all major seventh warmth. You can’t keep a good drone down for long though, and it returns in an understudy’s role, a wash of other colour.

The title track has an art nouveaux velvet in its blood; a bright spring morning after an opium dream, maybe. It’s also the most pastoralist track here, as befits the title; it reminds me a lot of the aesthetic of Snowdrops’ beautiful experimental classical set, Volutes, which we reviewed towards the tail end of last year. There’s a violin, lamenting sweetly, wound tight into that drone tone, I swear. It brings sonic lushness and wonder.

“Forces Beyond Your Control” , the counterpoint to the second track, readies for the bow and the curtain. It stays faithful to the naturalistic warmth of the preceding track, except the piano drops away; almost as when you’re watching a band in concert (there were such things, my child) and the players begin to depart even as the last song still plays. It’s a requiem, almost in coda; the high, singing sustain is underpinned by simple synths, plying back and forth on a little heart-tug of two chords.

When I came cold to this album, I confess, I expected to be maybe underwhelmed – which is no reflection whatsoever on the mysterious Conrad and his work; it just seems like the field of post-classical/modern compositional piano is getting a bit – well, oversubscribed these days; that everyone and their wife has discovered their inner Satie, has rented out an abandoned dance studio in an unfashionable part of town, is flexing their Hanon exercises before that dusty ol’ upright in the corner as we speak.

But Heron’s Book of Dreams is glorious. It knows what to do, it knows what you need, and never aims for cheap and maximal when stripping back, excellent arrangement and contrast can do the job. At just about 28 minutes in length, you’ve dropped your hard-earned on longer albums, true; mind you, if you’re a fan of bands like Felt, you’ve dropped cash on shorter ones. Think a slightly more abrasively edged, delightfully lo-fi (in places), more intimate A Winged Victory For The Sullen, and you’re steering a safe course. And never mind the width; feel the quality.

A very beautiful record for people who love the interstices where ‘flesh and blood’ instrumentation gets it on with drones. Delightful.

Conrad Clipper’s Heron’s Book of Dreams will be released by Luau Records digitally, on CD and on limited vinyl on April 30th; you can pre-order yours from the label’s Bandcamp page.

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