Review Summary: Max Tundra’s lighthearted blend of complex electronica and catchy pop stylings produces a truly original work.
There are few albums I’ve listened to where the opening moments of that first song plop a huge “WTF"” in my brain. Usually associated with a band you’ve never heard before, these are moments that catch you totally off guard and leave you scrambling to find your bearings. Animal Collective’s “Peacebone,” with its psychotic onslaught of electronic twitches and glitches, comes to mind. Another equally perplexing opener is “Merman,” which launches Mastered by Guy at the Exchange
, the 2002 work of English electronic musician Max Tundra. Upon first listen, literally within the first two seconds of this screwball record, I felt like Tundra reached out of the speakers and slapped me across the face.
Following his wordless 2000 debut Some Best Friend You Turned Out to Be
, which featured experimental electronica with thinly veiled pop aspirations, Max Tundra’s search for new sounds turned up an instrument he had never considered before: his own voice. All of a sudden an amateur songwriter, Tundra penned his words like he composed his music: heavy on the slant but hungry for the atypical pop hook. Mastered by Guy at the Exchange
is the fruit of this labor, and it’s a supremely catchy, brilliantly twisted concoction.
Blasting out of the gates, “Merman” plays like the fastest commercial jingle ever created, as Tundra’s sleek, sped up falsetto bounces on top of warm synths and a barrage of scatterbrained drumming. In a phenomenon repeated over and over again on Mastered
, Tundra’s wild palette achieves improbable catchiness. On “Lights,” another such success story, Max Tundra cranks up the speed and pitch of his vocals to impossible levels for a standard pop song, and yet, an underlying pop sensibility shines through with joyous melodicism. Tundra’s production prowess shines here as well, as a bass beat of clumsy womps and a constant stream of electronic pops and fizzles add to the track’s allure.
In addition to his embrace of pop conventions, Tundra is constantly focused on serving up the unexpected, changing directions and speeds on a dime. Max Tundra is a musician who works in milliseconds. On “MBGATE,” from out of nowhere, a sparse and moody piece turns into a full-fledged club dance number, while “Cabasa,” the album’s seven-minute centerpiece, starts with basic downtempo techie beats and ends with a piano-pounding, Ben Folds-style boogie. Carefully placed between these more active pieces are chances to cool down, such as the undersea dream “Fuerte” and the detour into space “61over.”
The album, however, is most thrilling when Tundra considers the listener game for more and blasts complex yet beautiful electronics through the speakers. In this way, several songs like “Fuerte,” “Acorns,” and Gondry,” while competent pieces, fall by the wayside and lack staying power. “Hilted,” on the other hand, is an exhilirating testament to Tundra’s outstanding sonic range. The beginning of the song conjures images of Mario jumping on Goombas and dropping down pipes, because the shimmering beeps and synths have Tundra clearly embracing an early Nintendo soundtrack. Tundra then reaches his alternative rock moment with a modest electric guitar riff before the song’s steady outro is, of all things, strummed out on acoustic guitar.
Mastered by Guy at the Exchange
finds Tundra discovering the power of voice, but it’s not just his own. Much of the singing on the album is handed off to his sister, Becky Jacobs, who also sings in the alternative folk outfit Tunngs. Becky Jacob’s deep, warm and soulful voice provides another interesting dynamic to Tundra’s blend of off-the-wall electronica and accessible melody. Her ultra cool style fits comfortably amid her brother’s dizzying soundscapes, especially in the glimmering swagger of “Lysine.” “Pocket” sounds like a chorus of hundreds of Becky Jacobs’s singing through a thick filter of ambiance from a city street.
Becky also sings the closer “Labial,” a six-minute epic that has Tundra jumping through hoops for his grand finale. The song begins with an unassuming trip-hop groove before launching into light-speed electronic glitchery at one point broken with squealing electric guitar. “Labial” label then descends into quiet bass rumblings before reaching a dramatic, synth-heavy climax.
As to what Tundra wants to say with all his pop-embracing electronic dazzle, it’s not all that much. The lyrics are quirky, often nonsensical snippets of daily life that reflect the eccentricities of the music itself. “Labial” breaks down Tundra’s songwriting background: “I only sing about things that happen to me/ I never learnt how to fill my songs with allegory/ While my peers paid attention in English, I thought about how/ I could undress the girl who appeared in my life with a ‘pow.’” Having Becky sing this one adds immensely to the song’s hilarity. The lyrics usually serve a purpose of making musical rather than literal sense, but the narratives and rough sketches are full of highly specific observations and peculiar abstract humor.
While lyrically Mastered
doesn’t say much, it doesn’t need to. Max Tundra already packs the album with a mind-numbing amount of fascinating sonic ideas that speak for themselves, while the colorful lyrics only add to the fun. Make no mistake, for many, Tundra’s otherworldly brand of pop may not resonate through the electronic eccentricities that deliver his sharp melodies. But when Tundra strikes a chord with adventurous listeners, the album’s plentiful “WTF” moments are exhilarating, unpredictable, and curiously catchy.