Wednesday, February 14, 2007

POLE: Steingarten (~Scape Records)

POLE
Steingarten
~SCAPE44CD
~Scape Records 2007
09 Tracks. 45mins06secs




Buy it: CD
Pole | ~Scape Records

It has been a while since Pole’s Stefan Betke’s last poured his bouncy grooves down our ear canals, and it is fair to say that the electronic caravan has moved on a fair bit. Betke has certainly not remained on the side of the road though, as this new slice, his first output since his 2003 self titled album, proves at length.

Moving away from the monochrome aesthetic of previous records, the cover of Steingarten depicts one of King Ludwig II’s fantasy Bavarian castles, built to protect him from reality. The album itself also moves away from Betke’s original template as he ornates his minimal dub radiation with various soundscapes. His liquid grooves are still found sprinkled all over these nine tracks, but more often than not in vaporized form. Whereas radiating bass lines were regularly found at the heart of his compositions, they have been moved so far in the background that they almost disappear, leaving frail melodic structures to curve under the weight of various other elements.

Steingarten also marks a return to entirely instrumental music forms following Pole’s brush with hip-hop on his previous output, which featured a handful of vocal contributions from American rapper Fat Jon. Here, there is very little of the digital urban grit left. Instead, Betke veers toward Chain Reaction territory once again by starving his compositions of oxygen until they appear emaciated. It is then only that he inflicts violent electric surges by way of treated electric guitars, which are in turn pebble-dashed over the skeletal techno forms which relentlessly drive the groove (Winkelstreben, Düsseldorf, Jungs) or applied in colourful layers on more subtle pieces. This process is not entirely new to Betke, yet it is the first time that he dares such contrast in tone, and it often pays off. His obsessive minimalism however sometimes wears a tad thin, as on the rather uneventful mid-section of the record. Schöner Land and Mädchen are uncomfortably linear and leave a slight bitter after taste as the listener is caught up between utterly precise sonic forms and left wondering whether a particular track has only just started or whether it has been going for some time.

When Betke asserts a more exuberant side of his musical persona, the mood changes entirely. While Warum, Achtenrbahn or Düsseldorf are quirky electro moments bubbling with Detroit enthusiasm, the latter featuring the most coherent melody found on this record, Sylvenstein reveals that the Pole of old is still lurking in the background, and Jungs shows off a shiny body built up out of a steamrolled Autechre carcass. The album concludes with the rather poetic Pferd, upon which Pole relies to draw an interesting line between past and present without appearing at all nostalgic or arrogant.

As the title suggests, Steingarten is a chaotic and unpredictable affair, with arid moments and rich patches alternating with insistent regularity. While Stefan Betke’s music was never conceived to entertain in the more common sense of the word, there are times here when a glimmer of fun is perceptible, albeit in the distance. Despite appearances, Steingarten is a Pole album through and through, but Betke is clearly older and wiser now, and his music has become more open and concrete.

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