On Sept. 1 of this year, Stefan Betke, who records under the alias Pole, created a label (called “pole”) that will function primarily to release his own work. Thus far, his work consists of five proper albums apart from his remixes and singles: the trilogy 1,2,3, the misguided hip-hop follow-up pole, and the critically acclaimed 2007 comeback Steingarten. Last month, Betke released his first new music since 2007. “Waldgeschichten” is one of a series of singles to be released “later this year and in 2012” (no definite release date has been announced). A full album will follow in late 2012.
A four-year hiatus from an electronic producer whose best work is arguably a decade behind him is not necessarily unique or even noteworthy. But in Pole’s case, his return feels like an event. For one thing, the classic late nineties trilogy that made his name in the Berlin electronic underground was out of print for some time after the collapse of Pole’s original label, Kiff SM. A re-release of the trilogy through Betke's own ~scape label in 2008 kept up his momentum with Pole after Steingarten. However, the fact that such important music can be off the market because of the fragility of the music industry (especially for abstract artists such as Pole, whose audience is inherently comparatively small) is alarming, and a stable outlet such as his own label does much to ensure that a similar situation does not reoccur. Even if the rise of illegal downloading in the intervening decade meant these records could still be heard by fans or curious newcomers, the lack of a physical product basically made the first run of these albums collector’s items, not easily accessible to the casual fan.
Not that the years the trilogy was unavailable lessened its influence in the electronic music world. Although the fuzzed-out dub and crackly synth glitches on these albums are fairly standard today, especially on early dubstep records like Burial’s debut, these sounds were revelatory to the electronic music producers and listeners of 1998. Betke’s connection with Basic Channel was most often cited as a context for his music, but comparisons to contemporaries like Oval and Microstoria were also offered to those trying to make sense of these alien, ambient sounds. Pole’s music of this era is too restrained to act as a real analog to Oval’s more schizophrenic clicks-n-cuts style, though (a comparison to Oval’s ponderous, 70-song 2010 album O would even be more convincing). 1,2,3 is like a dub version of Aphex Twin’s ambient work, or a bass-heavy version of Brian Eno’s lighter-than-air Music for Airports. And because it was made with a malfunctioning Waldorf 4 Pole-Filter (from which the name Pole is taken), it was literally unable to be reproduced by any other musician.
Betke’s self-titled follow-up in 2003 obliterated any expectations of a continuation of this streak of brilliance. In an attempt to exaggerate the subtle hip-hop elements of his work, Betke blew out his beats and then invited Fat Jon to rap over them. It was a crucial misstep. Luckily, four years later he returned with Steingarten and alleviated any fears that he was permanently off his game. Steingarten managed to retain echoes (in a literal sense) of his foray into hip hop, while maintaining the enigmatic sound of his earlier work. The cover of the album, a brightly colored picture of a castle surrounded by forest, stands in sharp contrast to the monochromatic covers of his first albums, and the music is similarly evocative of colorful landscapes. The complexity that was before submerged in hisses and crackles comes to the forefront, with a driving krautrock beat prevailing in most songs.
The three tracks on “Waldgeschichten” are an evolutionary successor to Steingarten. “Wipfel”’s crisp acoustic plucking stands in contrast to the incessant whirring that forms the beat. On “Wipfel Dub,” Betke takes the track and adds echo to a drum track to create a cavernous, foreboding space. “Wurzel” is more mellow, taking its time to install its loping, bass-inflected beat directly into the listener’s brain. Without overstaying its welcome, of course. These are tracks that should not be listened to before nightfall. Much like the bass music (Burial, Mark Pritchard) that came after Pole, this is music meant for the long walk home after the club.
According to its website, Pole’s new label was founded to “give [Betke’s] forthcoming releases an autonomous structure for experimentation and creativity.” Considering his track record, it seems that Betke has been able to be experimental and creative up to this point without the "autonomous structure." If it allows him to continue making music of this caliber, though, I don’t think that anyone can argue that his label is a damn good idea.