Vague personal nostalgia and yearning for times past can be achieved electronically in two ways. There's the Plone way (http://www.elidor.freeserve.co.uk/plone.htm) - perfectly realised, flawlessly formed, consciously and proudly "soulless", arranged without a moment's blip, almost the chamber music of childhood. And then there's ... well, there's this. Relatively uncontrolled, messy, thrown together, but if anything far more intensely nostalgic (for our childhoods were hell at the time, utterly ill-formed, rushed, panicky, badly thrown-together, and it's a deluded soul indeed who denies that).
Position Normal's Stop Your Nonsense is probably Max Tundra's closest relative in approach - this messy, vaguely parochial sound collage - though the devastatingly affecting melodies it's interspersed with owe most to the Aphex Twin's joyous Richard D. James Album. The specific comparison point here would be a track like "Goon Gumpas"; quiet and unobtrusive, elegant and yearning, yet never drowning in schmaltz. Most of the melody lines created by Max Tundra are moving entirely because of their playfulness and unassuming charm; he never falls for that Plone / Boards of Canada trap of orchestrating and dramatising childhood into something more lavish than it actually was.
"Cakes" begins proceedings, and it's wonderful; the mock-military drumbeat and soft-rock flute reminding me vaguely of Abba's "Fernando", or some other shameful, hidden memory from 80s Radio 2. It's a perfect little construction, shifting perfectly from soft guitar minimalism to joyous, dancing-on-the-park-bench synth-and-brass maximalism. Pieces like this, "Lamplite on a One-Horse Shoe", "Ah, There's Deek Now - Let's Ask Him" and "Lausanne" are immaculate and intensely evocative. Everything's in there - 80s computer game music, shifting drumbeats and basslines redolent alternately of stripped-down Adam and the Ants and early house, out-of-tune infant-school flutes, Music Time steel bands, chord progressions that gradually rise from the mundane to the euphoric - but it's the personal resonance that is greatest.
I'm suddenly picturing myself back in a world of not minding that the local park's toilets were rotting from decades of vandalism and neglect, thinking in terms of treats and days out rather than an endless stream of pleasure, an approach and ethos that now seems to have been jettisoned and disowned in the Blair era. I'm imagining myself or someone like me at piece in a primary school of grey folders and light-brown text books and perhaps a BBC Micro in the corridor. A type of childhood that now seems quite inward-looking and parochial, coloured in various shades of pale, faint, unobtrusive colour rather than the blinding brightness of now, but nevertheless deeply pleasurable and enjoyable, very different from the media-saturated, obsessively adult-aspirational world that children seem to live in today (the stodgy rockcakes, sun-dappled childhood snapshot, seaside crab and low-rent futurist "children playground" notice on the CD design suggests that Tundra's hinting in that direction himself, though it's all entirely subtle and untelegraphed; thankfully nothing is patronisingly pointed out for us). Then the fuzzy, proudly badly-recorded piano of "Tuli, A Plain Ride From Canvas" kicks in, and I'm suddenly back in a time when quality of recording was far less important, harking back to the era of dust-encrusted vinyl and music lessons where British schools, in law, could do exactly what they wanted.
It's an excellent album, though it does fall off somewhat in the second half - "Bill Sholem Quintette" is overlong and gets a little indulgently jazzy, less emotionally affecting than what has come before. "Ink Me" enters a tight funk groove not reached previously on the album - maybe he's clearly and recognisably rhythmically harshening up as a vague symbol of changing, toughening times? And "The Batalon" is too consciously crazy to be much good; it's so busy melodically and rhythmically running around and losing control of itself, it fails to identify a resonant core, though the rhythm is impressively hard and imposing; the physicality of someone like Ed Rush in the most unlikely place.
"Subsi Kuku" is probably the best example of the tougher funk sound that dominates the second half of the album; initially built around that 1987-88 hi-hat (everyone from Whitney to S'Express used it; you recognise it), it develops into an incredibly musically rich extended piece; brutal synth breaks, more computer game noises, acoustic guitars returning us to the melancholia of the early tracks, it's all there. This is fist funk if it had ever been able to drop that wretched laddishness and leeriness, pointless old-school hip-hop samples, etc.; it seems as though Max Tundra can't take hold of any style without removing its indulgences utterly and honing it to perfection.
The beginning of "6161" is utterly bizarre, the opposite of what you're expecting; harsh Rolling Stones guitar and handclaps have you suspecting a late 60s jam session; all very good in its way, but not what you were hoping for. Then it turns round with harpsichord on speed and what sounds like a nightmarishly accelerated version of 80s corporate synth sounds, while still embracing a high-powered mutation of old-school rock. The sound of an artist utterly confident of what he can do with sound; afraid of nothing, worried of less.
The concluding "Carbon Cones" is overextended, of course; repeats itself overtly towards the end, is maybe too consciously a "closer". But the recurring vocal motif, guitar sounds, and rhythmic tucks and turns are memorable, as is the gradual slow fade after it's run out of rhythmic propulsion, and it returns us to that feeling of forbidden power stations and disused English parks. Max Tundra clearly doesn't need to try hard to evoke all that stuff; it's in his memory, it comes out naturally and unconsciously, and that's very nearly always the best way.
The school playground resignation of the album's title is in no way coincidental; Max Tundra knows that life was hell in 1978 or 1986 or 1991 or whenever you were that age, and it's scarcely better now, and that the best way out of it is to create charmingly home-made music which combines loving archivism with melodic grace. Never ignore him.
Robin Carmody, 29th October 2000