There’s a lot of good music being released these days on limited edition cassette, and Sustained Layers is among the best. The physical-digital divide is fully exposed when a recording as solid as this receives a press run of only 66; after they are all gone (and we hope they sell out), only the digital will remain.
Sustained Layers sounds just like its title, but the layers arrive from three artists in three different countries: Costa Rica, France and the U.K. The vocals on the final track were recorded by a fourth, Molly Ann Donahue, in New York – the home of the United Nations. If only such international cooperation could be found in our governments, we might have more reason to hope. The fact that these artists were able to cooperate across a great divide is evidence that shared vision can be as uniting as national pride. Together, the three artists create a glorious mesh, echoing across a pair of magnetic-enhanced spools.
Guitar, keyboards, and delay pedals seem to be the prime instruments, although the computer certainly comes in handy when attempting to combine disparate sources. The blending of sound contributions relies on a firm hand at the mixing desk – each layer had to be placed in such a way as not to clash with its counterparts, but to add luster to their surfaces. While one can often distinguish a trio of sources – a droning guitar, ambient washes and experimental electronics – nothing here sounds like the product of its respective country. Instead, the very thickness of the morass imitates interwoven friendships and intractable alliances. These artists could all be playing simultaneously, and we’d never know it; they have found a way to match timbre and key. The two time-titled pieces, “3PM and 3AM”, demonstrate the fact that the contributors are living in vastly different time zones; the passage of cars on the former is countered by a dark, bruising rumble on the latter. In a sense, the collected group is always at work and not at work, always asleep and awake, always rising and retiring. The art of drone is its timelessness, but Sustained Layers takes it a step further by adding a literal sense to the implied.
Some of the middle tracks – “Limbo” in particular – dial it down a notch to the ambient level, providing dynamic contrast. But the most distinct track is saved for the end, as Donahue’s 4AD-inflected voice graces “Dawn” with nebulous, otherworldly tones. This last sustained layer adds a sense of closure while serving as a sign of strength; together, these artists have accomplished something worthy of greater notice than a simple green cassette. (Richard Allen)