Pole: Wald

Portishead's Dummy, Burial's Burial, Television's Marquee Moon, Boards of Canada's Music Has the Right to Children—countless cases abound of a debut or early career album that's so seminal and influential it proves to be the defining recording against which all subsequent releases by the artist are judged. Stefan Betke's Pole project is little different in that regard, considering how hugely influential his game-changing debut album, earmarked by its damaged Waldorf 4 Pole-Filter textures, turned out to be. Seventeen years on from that auspicious outing, the Berlin producer and mastering engineer is still making music, and though the material he's issuing now doesn't sound quite as original, it's definitely worth listening to. And with so much time having passed, Betke's been able to step outside and move beyond the long shadow cast by Pole 1.

The road's been a long and winding one for Betke. After following up the first album with two complementary chapters—the trilogy-like character of the three reinforced by their Pole 1, 2, and 3 titles—he turned his attention elsewhere, most dramatically to hip-hop on his 2003 self-titled release (with American rapper Fat Jon collaborating), before gradually slowing his output. Six years passed before the next full-length Pole collection, Steingarten, appeared, and eight more after that until Wald, even if a trio of EPs, Waldgeschichten, surfaced in 2011. The new material represents a natural extension to Steingarten, with Betke drawing for inspiration from the forest for the new album. His always-difficult-to-categorize sound—it's been variously described as abstract electronic club music and sophisticated electronic lounge music, among other things—is still identifiably rooted in dub, yet Wald presents, much like what preceded it, a highly personalized take on the form.

What's interesting about these nine pieces (Wald appears to combine six studio creations and three live tracks, but the latter are, in fact, reworked in-studio mixes of tracks previously issued on the Waldgeschichten EPs) is that, in contrast to other artists' tracks that grow less interesting as they unfold, Betke's Pole productions become more engrossing; in fact, some of Wald's songs—he refers to his productions as songs, not tracks—begin in such a low-key, unassuming manner they risk turning off the listener. But time and attention are rewarded when a given piece blossoms into a multi-scenic episode teeming with dazzling textural detail. In a typical track, bass, snare, and kick drum pulses interweave with high-register pings and metallic accents, the scratchy sounds fusing into loping, funk-fueled swarms of alien chatter and heady stimulation.

Oddly, the opening song “Kautz” sounds at certain moments less like Pole and more like Eno, specifically the Eno who created (not entirely successfully) an unusual brand of futuristic Afrojazz on Nerve Net, the connection never more explicit than when a braying, horn-like noise intrudes towards the end of “Kautz” (in a recent interview with XLR8R, Betke explained that the inspiration for the abrupt interjection occurred when the quietude of a Berlin forest walk was shattered by a chainsaw). As arresting is “Käfer” for the needling cricket noise (a käfer is a beetle, by the way) that persists alongside jagged-edge synth smears.

“Salamander” suggests that the distance separating Wald and Pole isn't all that great after all, given that the instrumental cut's insistent funk groove wouldn't have sounded out of place on the earlier album, and much the same might be said of “Moos,” a crackling, bass-thudding set-piece that plays like some single-track amalgamation of the entire Pole catalogue. The album isn't without its muscular moments, as demonstrated by the propulsive “Wurzel,” which is notable as much for arresting noise textures that sound like samples of grime-coated bicycle chains configured into loops, and “Fichte,” whose ricocheting beat pattern can't help but call Autechre to mind. In its own idiosyncratic way, Wald convincingly shows Betke to still be, years removed from his debut outing, a vital force within the electronic dub field, and the recording similarly argues that his sound design skills have never been sharper.

November 2015