Without a full-length release since 1999’s wonderful Selenography, Rachel’s’ Systems/Layers, the trio’s fifth proper album, keeps with the band’s tradition of playing beautiful, epic, inspiring, sometimes frightening music that could probably be called “classical” before it’s called anything else. Of course, not classical in the traditional sense; the band uses strings, horns and percussion instruments to create a progressive sound that appeals to a younger, more diversified crowd than what is common for this genre of music. After all, Rachel’s is a chamber music band that has played with Fugazi.
To fully get an understanding of this record, you need to know that Rachel’s actually began work on Systems/Layers in 1997. The project started when members of the band began recording interesting sounds of New York City in order to create a concept album relating to life in the city. They put the project on hold because of various tours and other work, but it became revitalized in 2002 while Rachel’s was working with SITI Co., a theater company that incorporates live music into its performances.
From a distance, this record is comparable to most of the work Rachel’s has done in the past. But upon closer inspection, the listener will find that there’s a bit more going on here. A major component of the mostly instrumental Systems/Layers, which follows eight characters over the course of one city day, is the field recordings scattered throughout. Rachel’s fans from all over the country contributed most of these sounds. They range from sounds of the subway to children playing to barely audible conversations about unclear topics, but they all represent life in an urban environment.
Not only do these samples help achieve the theme of this concept album, but they also help tie the record together, creating a flow from one track to the next. This combination of samples and music along with the liner photography creates a stimulating experience for the listener. And this experience can be enhanced even more when the record becomes a soundtrack to urban travels.
Moving through the city isn’t the only time that Systems/Layers can be enjoyed. It can be deeply listened to anywhere to stimulate complex thought and contemplation. It works as soothing background music. Systems/Layers can be a bit intense at times, with whirling strings and intense percussion, but mostly it’s relaxing and therapeutic. Over all, Rachel’s has created a very beautiful record similar to a film score — some of the music is going to be used in SITI Co.’s upcoming live performances.
Systems/Layers is a record that fans of previous Rachel’s releases will love, but it will also appeal to anyone who enjoys meaningful, moving music. It’s one of those great records that can enhance whatever it is you happen to be doing while listening, or it can transport you to another place entirely, if you let it. It’s one of those records that can create such emotions inside of you that you never want it to end, but when it does, the best thing you can do is start it over again.