Pole: Steingarten

Uttered in a musical context, the word ‘chameleon' is often used in reference to Miles Davis, yet—despite extreme differences—it just as easily applies to Stefan Betke's Pole. The Berlin artist turned the electronic world on its collective head with his seminal Pole debut, and then proceeded to solidify his reputation with two slightly less earth-shattering yet still remarkable follow-ups. Having seemingly reached an impasse, Betke then united with Fat Jon for an eponymously-titled ‘hip-hop' collection that seemed to split the Pole ranks in two. Radically changing styles again, Betke delivered a bone-rattling ‘noise' set at MUTEK 2006, which led me to expect that Betke's next release would be a recorded equivalent. Defying expectations once again, Steingarten sounds a universe removed from the caterwaul stoked by Betke and his MUTEK partners bassist Zeitblom and drummer Hanno Leichtmann. Certainly that shift is foreshadowed by Steingarten's cover which, in diametric contrast to the earlier albums' monochrome colour displays, shows a highly-saturated colour photograph of the castle Schloss Neuschwanstein in its wintry mountain setting.

At first, the album sounds low-key and dramatically restrained; closer listening reveals that, beyond the deceptively straightforward surface, there lies a wealth of intricate and multifarious detail. “Warum,” for example, inaugurates the disc unassumingly with a lugubrious, clip-hop lope but Pole slathers the tune with mini-explosions of squeals and squirts that render it ever-more distorted and heavier. Like Jan Jelinek's Tierbeobachtungen and Kosmischer Pitch, Steingarten pushes Pole's sound in the direction of krautrock's psychedelic galaxy, though its rhythm foundation renders it more accessible than Jelinek's pair. Steingarten's bass-heavy, dub-inflected beats may anchor the tracks more conventionally than Pole's earlier work but they also free him to subtly weave a wealth of careening textures into the overall fabric. On “Winkelstreben,” for instance, a legion of groaning and distorted noises collides until the song's midpoint when Pole coaxes muffled wails from what might be an abused electric guitar. Ultimately, what most characterizes the album is the tension between rhythmic stability and the radically disorienting sound design that pervades every seeming moment. Exemplifying this tension, “Achterbahn” is animated by a poppy pulse and a bouncy bass line on the one hand, but it's also swathed in dense smears and prickly textures. Likewise, “Düsseldorf” juxtaposes an almost polka-styled techno pulse with noise splashes, while “Jungs” overlays clanging beat punctuations and the firefly plummet of a syndrum accent with guttural croaks. If Steingarten isn't, finally, as radical and innovative as Pole's debut, the new album not only offers an engrossing listening experience but, most importantly, lays fertile ground for the explorations to come.

May 2007