This is what it sounds like after Icarus falls…
Pardon the cliché, but music should be a journey of some kind. Ideally, you should be at a different place by an album’s end than you were at the start. Nowadays, too many musicians release albums that are riddled with a kind of disjointedness – all parts and not enough of a whole. Having a fulfilling musical journey is somewhat impossible under such circumstances. While I am not making the argument for concept albums, I am however making the case for a certain sense of thematic cohesion that will undoubtedly deflower the soul. We have reached an unsatisfactory point in culture in which many, if not all of us, live life in blips and parts. The bigger picture, whatever that may mean, eludes us and we are consequentially fragmented. Musicians and music in general should go against the social fragmentation and make us whole, if only for a moment. System Vandross, the new album from Buffalo cello-turntable duo Phillips-Borden, accomplishes just that.
At first, I did not know what to make of System Vandross. I admired its rough frankness, how it lulled me into a ragged dream state. I enjoyed the seesaw battle between cello and turntable, unsure if the battle was a cohesive one. Am I mistaken? I asked myself. The musicians are certainly accomplished, able to illuminate the potential irregularity of the cello (played by TJ Borden) and forlorn fluidity of the turntable (played by Rob Phillips), but for what purpose? Uncertain at first of the journey Phillips-Borden were embarking on, I needed to take a step back. I poured myself a glass of Pinot Noir and lit up a cigarette, taking in the nighttime that twirled about me. Then it hit me: System Vandross is night music. Upon said revelation, I sighed. Describing music as “night music” has always felt like a copout to me. It’s like when someone describes a particular song as “experimental,” it irks me; what exactly does that mean? In my opinion, all music is experimental, but not all music is intended for the night. In short, Phillips-Borden has created fulfilling cohesion out of irregularity and forlorn fluidity.
“Matchstick Arbitrage,” one of the album’s standouts, is a stunning deconstruction of musical and emotional anxiety. Right off the bat, there is an overreaching sense of calmness, the calm before the storm, so to speak. The cello, fixed firmly in the ground, provides the foundation allowing the turntable to explore the area all around. While the cello is jagged and frantic, the turntable is pulsating and airy. It is the juxtaposition between the two that creates, dare I say, a post-apocalyptic mental dancehall. The song moves at an almost-quicksand pace. You’re teased into thinking that an explosion will happen and though it never quite does, you’re certain of one thing: anxiety itself is an explosion, one that keeps half of you firmly planted in the ground and the other half chaotically swimming through space. When listening to “Matchstick Arbitrage,” we should dance…but not quite. We should move…but not quite. Sure-footed hesitation is a remarkable and strange feeling, one that aptly sums up “Matchstick Arbitrage” as well as the album as a whole. Try listening to the song and not have your brain dance out of your skull.
There is a tension that pulsates throughout the album: between inaction and action, redemption and damnation, between earth and air, indelibly executed by cello and turntable, courtesy of Phillips-Borden. Throughout the album, cello and turntable often switch roles. While in “Matchstick Arbitrage” the cello provides the foundation whereas the turntable roams free. In other songs, the turntable is the foundation. There is always a freeing gap present. System Vandross is the gap in-between two unreachables; Philips-Borden flings us into it, much like Icarus in his ill-fated and sun-drenched quest. It is no wonder then that there is a song entitled “Fall of Icarus redux” on the album. The song, a particular favorite of mine, begins in a cultish fashion, reminding one of a darkening pasture at the witching hour, a frenzied flock of shepherds swaying and chanting. It is ghostly, cello and turntable exposing and exploiting each other’s limitations. The turntable, open-ended, gives way to the cello’s narrow jaggedness. Together, the two instruments create a doomed dance, rhythmically painting a portrait of poor Icarus’s flight. By song’s end, we know for sure that Icarus has crash-landed. But, but, but—not all hope is lost! Thematically and musically, System Vandross is not an album about doomed flights but, rather, what happens after those doomed flights, when a new kind of hopefulness begins to settle in and the world around you is fresher than it was before. Sometimes, we must expose and exploit each other’s limitations. Through this, one may achieve a sense of fulfillment and wholeness.
System Vandross is most certainly a battle between cello and turntable, but that battle turns into a dance. And that dance into a doomed flight. Before we know it, the landscape around us is different and for the better. And so we too must battle, dance, and fly. Open up your ears and eyes, for that matter, and be like Icarus after his flight. Give System Vandross a listen.
Review by Justin Karcher