For a long time, I think that people dismissed Rachel's as a group of indie kids who thought that they could get together and play classical music. After a string of amazing albums, the group shrugged off most of the criticism aimed their way by creating memorable music that mixed an indie-rock sensibility with chamber music and even a bit of extreme experimentation. After their last release, Selenography, I figured that the group had pretty much disappeared (despite various installations here and there over the years), but they're back with Systems/Layers and it's their most realized work yet.
As it turns out, the group has been working steadily for the last two years, and the material on this album is the result of that. Through collaboration with the SITI Company for a theater piece of the same name, the group improvised and discussed various pieces, arriving at this 19 track, 62-minute effort. Another unique element of this release is that the group makes use of a lot of field recordings. Perhaps because of the long recording process or the different ideas by different contributors, it feels almost like a musical travelogue of sorts, documenting different places with different music and themes.
"Moscow Is In The Telephone" opens the disc with shimmering organ and melancholy strings that gives way to only a solitaire violin playing out over crowd noise. The end of the piece swells slightly, but the whole thing just sort of wanders through quiet sidestreets before coming to an end. "Water From The Same Source" takes a much more structured route, and it's easily one of the best tracks on the release and perhaps one of the best the group has ever done. After building with achingly beautiful strings and quiet cymbals, it shifts back and forth between string and piano melodies while building surely and steadily into a gorgeous climax.
There are so many great tracks on the release that you'd have to talk about most of the release to do it justice. Some of the standouts include the subtle, twinkling interplay between strings and piano on "Arterial," the fluttering string quartet and manipulation of "Where_ Have_ All_ My_ Files_ Gone?" and the absolutely haunting "Last Things Last" (which makes nice use of understated vocals). Proving they're not above making a bit of a racket, "Singing Bridge" drops a huge, filtered and distorted bassline and drums that makes you feel like you're listening to something else entirely.
It would also be amiss of me not to mention that the piano playing of Rachel Grimes alone on this disc makes for some of the most stunning moments once again. Even when the group strips things down (as on the title track "Systems/Layers" or on "Anytime Soon"), it's her work on the piano that keeps things together and seems to be the backbone of the beautiful album. With the field recordings, the release at times resembles the more sublime moments of Set Fire To Flames, but with more strings and a slightly less bleak sound. Hopefully it won't take the group quite as long to do their next release, but when it comes out this well, I suppose I can wait.