Shy Layers’ second full-length release, Midnight Marker, is a lot like getting a big warm hug from a calculator. At first you’re more than a little unnerved; since when does math homework put the moves on? Once the consternation subsides, though, the novelty of it seems appealing. So you hug the calculator back, and for quite a while you’re just cuddled in numbers, loving every scrupulously accounted-for second. But by the time nearly forty minutes have elapsed, you’re more than a little eager to escape the TI-84 embrace, because for all your new friend’s fuzzy comforts, it’s still a calculator. If that doesn’t make intuitive sense to you, check out the eponymous opening track:
Such is Midnight Marker’s mood. Part Daft Punk on the beach, part counterpoint exercise, and a whole lot of low-key grooves to boot, what Shy Layers has crafted here is indisputably unique. The ambitions are modest – find a vibe and play in it – and well-met. A few of the tracks (“Gateway”, “Lover’s Code”) have a more traditional structure, complete with vocals made largely unintelligible by vocoder. Others (“Test Pattern”, “Tropical Storm”) are much looser instrumental affairs, the sonic equivalents of laying back in a hammock and letting the wind toss you where it will. Almost all of the songs have a unique, memorable charm to them…yet something about the album fails to click.
Part of the challenge, one suspects, is that Midnight Marker lives right on the boundary between ambient electronic, and a more straightforward style. The musicianship and songwriting are charismatic enough to command the foreground, yet perpetually hold themselves at a distance, with a diffuse smile on their collective face. That lack of any emotional variation takes the don’t-worry-be-happy feeling, a sentiment that at first feels like an optimistic glimpse into a distinctly non-dystopian future when rendered in such baldly electronic instrumentation, and makes it somewhat depthless. By the time “Draw The Shades” closes out the album, the feel-good imperative has been so relentless that I end up feeling nothing at all.
This, of course, is treating the album as foreground. Taking it as ambience – as I’m doing whilst writing this review – it’s far more of a triumph. Which strikes me as a reductive, almost dismissive way to suggest a potential listener engage with the album, yet the fact can hardly be avoided: Midnight Marker is an absolute joy of a listen, as long as you aren’t listening to it too carefully. This is the well-met modesty of Shy Layers’ ambitions at work.
Midnight Marker is at once chill and shrill, a breezy, soothing whole comprised of hard-edged parts. Its synths beep and boop in asynchronous rhythms atop a variety of more recognizable organic instruments, and the result is truly hypnotic, one of the more unique electronic albums in recent memory. While the spell Shy Layers casts here isn’t quite strong enough to sustain the album’s runtime, it’s one well worth falling under. So go on. Hug the calculator, at least for a little while.
Notable Tracks: “Midnight Marker”; “Gateway”; “Lover’s Code”
FFO: Daft Punk, Khruangbin, the Donkey Kong Country soundtrack