Music

Max Tundra: Parallax Error Beheads You

Ben Jacobs brings back his superb and challenging take on pop after six years.


Max Tundra

Parallax Error Beheads You

Label: Domino
UK Release Date: 2008-10-20
US Release Date: 2008-11-18
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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.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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