iving up to one’s legacy as an artist is never an easy prospect, and following his pioneering Pole releases from the late ’90s (1, 2, and 3), Stefan Betke was staring this problem straight between the eyes. The stripped-down, dub-influenced techno he released during that time, alongside like-minded producers from the Basic Channel camp and others, changed the face of electronic music for the following decade—and with no sign of that influence dying down, the change may just be permanent. Which is all well and good for the ego and CV, but where does that leave an artist who has no interest in repeating himself? If his original plan was to break new sonic ground, how could this be achieved without either rehashing things he had already done or totally alienating his strong following?
Fair or not, it’s likely that nothing Betke issues from here on out will make people forget that early output. Betke’s sixth full-length album (and second on his own ~scape imprint) goes a long way toward solving that particular conundrum. After a rather unexpected side trip into hip-hop (including guest appearances from Fat Jon) on his self-titled album from 2003, Betke hasn’t merely licked his wounds and retreated into familiar territory, but fused some lessons learned from his own back catalog to create a shiny new beast, at once identifiable as his work and yet something tangibly different. In a blindfolded test I conducted (with the help of iTunes Party Shuffle function), I named the majority of these tracks as having a Pole-influenced sound, but only once correctly identified a track from this album as Betke’s own work. He hasn’t reinvented the wheel here, but he has pimped his ride a bit, with some fabulous results.
Most of the tracks here are built around short loops, and there are still significant dub and hip-hop influences present, as well as bits of old Pole standbys (noise/clicks/pops as rhythmic tools; deep throbbing bass; languid tempos). But this time out, Betke has mixed things in a different way; it’s still technically “minimal” music, but the layers overlap far more than they did in the past, making for a busier, more melodic landscape of sounds. Everything is richer, more fully realized, and when the bits of melody do float in and out of the mix, they are that much more memorable for having made their way through Betke’s layers. The beats are more varied, from hip-hop and R&B influenced breakbeat-type loops (“Warum,” “Schöner Land”) to funk (“Achterbahn”) to scratching, fuzzed-up Aphexisms (“Mädchen”); the basslines are more melodic, a departure from the heavy dub tracks of yore, more suited to moving asses than inspiring head-nods. When Betke’s trademark crackling, hissing noises appear, they don’t simply hang in the ether and loop themselves for the sake of looping—they’re far more integrated into the grain and structure of the tracks, a building block rather than mere ornamentation. This might not be Betke’s most groundbreaking full-length, nor even the most memorable, but the case can be made that it is his most fully realized.
The cover photo of Schloss Neuschwanstein is an apt visual metaphor for the music found within: ornate, serene, untouched almost to the point of it looking slightly surreal, like it was constructed of Lego as opposed to brick and mortar. It looks bright and inviting, even cozy in places, but is surrounded by desolate, snow-covered mountains, almost too perfect to exist in this reality. The layout is intricate and sprawling, but somehow conveys a sense of simplicity and economy. Just as this castle could easily be a snowblind mirage, Pole’s music exists in its own pocket universe—but one close enough to reality to be easily grasped and related to.