Systems/Layers takes flight with a desolate organ depressed on one note, the backdrop for a mournful cello and a slicing violin, the hum of human activity barely peeking through the atmosphere. Cars pass as a young woman tells us that she was thinking about "it" the other day, without ever explaining what it is ("it" is in the liner notes, if you want to find out). And before you know it, "Moscow Is in the Telephone" is over, gracefully giving way to "Water from the Same Source", featuring Kyle Crabtree's hi-hat, Rachel Grimes's cautious piano progression, and a host of violins intertwining sadly with each other, all climbing to some kind of hopeful revelation. When it comes, it's cutting and percussive, Crabtree's assured drum work guiding the whole avant-chamber engine forward into a climax before it surreptitiously ends.
And then you're utterly alone. That is, until the next Beautiful Moment.
Yet, only two songs into Systems/Layers, the stunning chamber music collective Rachel's has carved out a name for itself in a music scene dominated by sneering middle-class punkers and flak-jacket sportin' G-funkers. Not that Rachel's would probably mind listening to that type of popular music though; both Crabtree and guitarist/bassist Jason Noble are also members of Shipping News, who want more than anything to just rawk in their own way. But, most importantly, Systems/Layers is about the intersection between environments and bodies, the "electron flow" (as notorious "extreme concept" architect Toyo Ito explains in the liner notes) between the increasingly electronic body and the primitive one that still craves Nature's original energies, wind and light. And to do that, you've got to be able to inhabit spaces beyond your control, to be able to integrate the shuffling noise of the cities whose thumping cacophony can sometimes degrade the natural sphere either surrounding it or trapped within it.
With that lofty goal in mind, and with the collaboration of The SITI Company -- a theater ensemble from New York -- Rachel's has produced one hell of a gorgeous concept album, a Dark Side of the Moon for the Debussy set. SITI originally hooked up with Rachel's -- who collaborated on their last album, Full on Night, with the San Francisco experimental electronic duo, Matmos -- in Louisville, but their shared interests in theater, found sounds, and theoretical exercises took them from Skidmore College to Indiana and Utah and back again to NYC in search of cohesion and completion; Systems/Layers was borne out of that two-plus years of collaboration, and a live set with SITI is in the works.
It is this committed collaboration that marks Systems/Layers' finest moments. Shannon Wright's guest vocals on "Last Things Last" -- the only vocal turn on the release -- echoes the haunting atmosphere of This Mortal Coil's finest work. Harvey Wang's compelling photography adds another powerful dimension of deep meditation to the enterprise. The sound clips, snatches of conversation, ice cream trucks and subway station noise, a crosswalk jingle that sounds exactly like the one in Koji Morimoto's equally eerie "Beyond" installment of The Animatrix -- all of these and more were submitted by Rachel's friends and fans. In reaching out to the world to find out where the body ends and the environment begins, Rachel's seems to have realized that it really does take a village to conceive something amazing.
And every member of Rachel's has the musical skills to pay the bills, especially the band's namesake, Rachel Grimes. Her measured piano on the album's title track is equal parts Chopin and Harold Budd while her dancing progression on "Arterial" would give Mozart a run for his money. Christian Frederickson's manic "even/odd" is a showcase for his viola, as well as the string work of Rachel's cellist Eve Miller and guests Jamie Hoffman, Karl Olsen, Scott Staidle, and Marcus Ratzenboeck. The list goes on.
In the end, Systems/Layers turns out to be one of the year's finest releases. Its hungry exploration of aural soundscapes, its inquiring mind, and its resolutely gifted musicianship are enough to warrant consideration. But its greatest gift, like the one offered by Mogwai's Happy Songs for Happy People, is its sheer compatibility -- you can take Systems/Layers anywhere and it will speak to you. And maybe award with you with a lucid dream or nightmare along the way.