The neo-classical genre is one of the unsung delights of the modern British and northern European music scenes. Artists such as Nils Frahm, Max Richter, Eluvium, Hauschka, and Johann Johannsson have developed considerable followings these last years for their classically-inspired instrumental music that is, at its best, deeply emotional and suggestive, but which is allied to a modern musicality that often deploys electronics. Poppy Ackroyd is not only creating waves for her innovative meshing of the classical with the electronic, and her subtle-yet-intricate compositions, but also because she is a rare female operating in these esoteric waters.
She’s been around for a few years now – this is her third album – and will be known to some as a member of Hidden Orchestra’s live band, who release music on Brighton’s Tru Thoughts label. Ackroyd has recently made Brighton her home (her partner is Hidden Orchestra’s Joe Acheson), as well as the One Little Indian label, an apt decision in both cases; with both label and city known for their non-conformist approach. While her debut of last year for One Little Indian was essentially a pared-back piano-only re-working of some of her back catalogue, in the case of Resolve, it is her inventive ways of making sounds with a piano or violin – instruments she was formally trained to play when growing up – that lies at the centre. Using these instruments as the basis for her music she then expands, edits, loops and manipulates in order to arrive at richly enveloping and ethereal sounds that, on the surface, sound real and natural. However, they are, in reality, the result of her combination of traditional playing, manipulating aspects of the instrument via fingers, drumsticks and plectrums, self-produced studio manipulations and multi-tracking work, alongside other keys, and stringed instruments such as the cello. Importantly, everything retains a crystal-like clarity, where the complex sounds simple. Resolve comes across a mini-orchestral panoply of sounds aided by Manu Delago on hang, Mike Lesirge on flute and clarinets, and Jo Quail on cello (who gets the honour of having a track named after her (‘Quail’), who were all invited to experiment with their instruments. Ackroyd would then sift through the recordings and choose sounds and ideas that she could then build and manipulate upon.
For the most part the building blocks are lightly applied percussive elements (from tapping keys and piano strings, ‘playing’ the instrument as it were), which are repetitive, often rippling piano motifs and strings that swell and sway, flutter and fly. She can make her sound come across a little African (via ‘The Calm Before’, which uses the clicking of clarinet keys to create that worldly sound), while on ‘Trains’ she attempts to simulate the sounds, movement, speed and changing scenery of a train journey, albeit in a way that isn’t glaringly obvious on the surface, but which reveals itself within its textured layers. Throughout Resolve, her inventiveness shows no bounds; via the use of paper over piano strings in creating percussive textures and beats, while the short ’Stems’ was created using a combination of pianino (a small toy piano) and wine glasses! There is, generally, a minimalist approach to the playing, in the vein of say Michael Nyman, where outright flair is ditched for textured atmosphere throughout, such as on the pulsating ‘Light’, and the rippling motifs allied with the percussive and rhythmic interplay of ‘Time’. It’s also there on the subtle up and down drama of ‘Luna’, and the aptly named ‘The Dream’, full of gently plucked and then manipulated strings and cascading piano runs, all working with the grain of a shuffling clock-like percussive tempo. Whilst the melody reveals itself slowly but decidedly, the piece evolving and flowing before it resolves itself by the song’s end, with an elegance that is spine-tingling.
In her own words, she says, “Resolve is about the determination to embrace the good things in life whilst dealing with unexpected and challenging difficulties. Finding the light in the dark, facing sadness and loss head on, and developing a growing inner strength.” For sure, due to its vocal-less content, Resolve is hard to pin down and categorise, especially for the casual listener. Whilst obviously able to work on the level of background music, its rich tapestry is only properly revealed after several listens. Ultimately, it’s a progressive neo-classical work of great musicality and inventiveness, tremendous warmth, and subtle theatricality, that utilises traditional instrumentation and electronic manipulation via her excellent studio know-how and attention to detail.