Experimental pop is one of those amorphous music-critic descriptors that often tells you next to nothing about the act it’s supposed to be illuminating. The genre generally gets applied to artists whose music engages, rather than shies away from, dissonant harmonies; who are more willing to use time signatures other than 4/4; and whose song structures rarely conform to the simple verse-chorus structure that we hear on the radio. Ben Jacobs, the London musician who records as Max Tundra, does all these things and a few more. He layers computer-driven synths in dense harmonies that resist resolution; he abruptly switches tempi and timbre without necessarily returning to his original ideas; he uses percussion as accentuation and as an instrument in itself, rather than as a metronome. But his voice is smooth and clear (most of the time), and his songs have melodies that are forthright and occasionally even hummable. All this makes him a rather perfect example of that vague “experimental pop” thing we’ve been talking about.
The singer’s temperament suits this appellation, too. It’s been six years since Tundra’s sophomore album, Mastered by Guy at the Exchange, and with ten new songs on Parallax Error Beheads You, that makes it approximately seven months per song. The material does have the intricacy to justify such a protracted compositional process. Though the pieces are composed of multiple live tracks (all performed by Jacobs himself), these are often buried beneath a thick bubble of drum machine and synthesizer. The bubble occasionally takes over completely, transforming what initially sound like pop songs into extended, thickly-textured electronica — you may be surprised, more often than you would expect on a Max Tundra album, to find yourself dancing.
It’s well known that Jacobs is a perfectionist, so you know his music’s worth analysing. And it’s clear from the first listen that his complicated arrangements and unexpected musical choices are precisely thought out. Sure, the atonality that casually exists in and around these songs will turn off some listeners, but if you last through the first few listens, this element becomes a fascinating and integral piece of Max Tundra’s musical landscape. It enriches and deepens his musical expression to the point that soon you can’t imagine the artist without it. Call this thinking man’s pop.
The album follows a meandering path from more straightforward pop songwriting to extended, electronica-influenced grooves that still retain Jacobs’ candy coating. These are some of the most joyful, compulsive moments on the album. “Orphaned” is a cut-and-spliced celebration, where vocals only enter after three minutes of sugar-high computer game electronica. “The Entertainment”, whose first verse is pure pop, blossoms into blithely unself-aware Annie-style electropop. Earlier on, where things are more straightforward, it’s no less entertaining. The vaguely call-response between music and lyrics in “Will Get Fooled Again” propels the hyped-up first single to a quirky memorableness. And “Which Song”, immediately following, becomes a classic Tundra synth-ping ballad, which gracefully expands its horizons with an extended electronic outro that never feels cluttered with sound. This claustrophobic feeling, which occasionally overtakes Jacobs’ songs, may be the only problematic element here. It’s an understandable byproduct of the throw-everything-at-the-song Max Tundra style.
Most of the time, though, Jacobs’ arrangements are rich in the service of the song’s larger intent — they expand, rather than divert, a composition’s horizon. The lyrics, which are mostly of a heartbroken-geek variety, are occasionally diverting but don’t carry a whole lot of weight. “I landed in somebody’s lap / Between the iPod and yellow trucker cap”, Jacobs sings on “Gum Chimes”, and we have the blueprint: technology is both the metaphor and the medium for Max Tundra’s laments and celebrations.
Like Shugo Tokumaru, Max Tundra may be lauded by critics but find only a small listenership. That they are often among the most passionate of supporters is some consolation, but it won’t stop us from jumping up and down saying, “Listen to this! It’s really, really good!” Max Tundra’s music is smart, engaging, and both challenging and fun to listen to. That’s what makes it unusual, and worth treasuring.