It’s difficult to write about Conor Walsh‘s music without undue focus on his death 3 years ago. But it’s essential when listening to ‘The Lucid’, which is a living, impassioned piece of work, and not a memorial to a talent tragically lost.
His personality and intellect sound in every note of the album, but it’s memorable more for the way it expands the vocabulary of the solo piano and explores new spaces at the intersection of classical and electronic music.
In assembling ‘The Lucid’ from dozens of unreleased pieces found on a laptop after his death, Walsh’s family and producer Enda Bates have resisted the temptation to include promising but unfinished works, or to give a plain chronological overview of his career. Instead, the album has a convincing flow that leads from more conventional acoustic pieces in the first half to ambient explorations in the second.
Of those acoustic pieces, the title track is most similar to the music on Walsh’s debut EP, ‘The Front’, with undulating tremolos that ebb and flow over slow melodies in the bass. Banphrionsa and Tines are also familiar: the plangent atmospherics of Walsh’s music are tailor-made for soundtracks, and chances are you’ve already heard those used in TV documentaries.
Not all of the acoustic pieces are so successful. Fanthesia is pleasant but unremarkable, and Pleading Sylph shows Walsh adopting the dynamics of heavy rock, but not entirely avoiding its bombast. But they’re the only pieces here that feel obviously in a style he’d already moved on from.
Moody solo piano? So far, so Frahm. Although there’s an undeniable similarity between Walsh’s music and that of Nils Frahm, the irony of the comparison is that Walsh was unaware of Frahm for most of his career, and unimpressed when he finally heard him. The second half of ‘The Lucid’ instead shows the influence of some very different musicians.
In OAP, the track that bridges the two halves, Walsh’s piano is heavily processed, its pitch-shifted delays sounding in quieter parts like a gamelan, and then rattling ominously and building to crashing waves of sound. If John Cage had loved Nirvana and Tool like Walsh did, his prepared piano works might have sounded a little like this.
By the time we hear Bars and Leitmotif, it would be easy to forget we’re even listening to a piano being played. Walsh had been hugely enthused first by Aphex Twin’s ambient works, and more recently by Burial’s music. These tracks see him adopting similar techniques: sound degradation as a compositional device, the atomisation of melody, and skeletal, glitchy percussion.
This is music that is focused on the empty space within sound, on making us notice the trails that each note leaves behind it, and there’s a powerful but desolate beauty to it.
An Fhuair closes the album and brings things full circle. Starting with spectral high melodies, it adds the arpeggios that were so prominent on the first half, brings in synths and a kick drum, and then reduces it all to an ambient hum, as though everything that had gone before was dissolved into thin air.
There’s an undeniable poignancy in hearing an absent performer play music that is itself so focused on absence. But it would be a mistake to listen to ‘The Lucid’ with only this in mind. The voids it traverses are ones in which we’re challenged to listen more intently, and to consider the huge gap that any solo performer has to bridge to connect with an audience.
And this is hopefully not the last we’ll hear of Walsh. Although he had released only 4 tracks before now, he was a prolific composer, and his family are considering a follow up release in the near future.
In the meantime, ‘The Lucid’ shows just how much ground he’d covered.