Few probably imagined that Stefan Betke’s Pole project would amount to more than a blip (mind the pun) on the cultural radar. It’s hardly dramatic music. It focuses mostly on microsounds, tiny infractions that pierce into the vaguest of melodies, which are themselves accompanied by a sub-bass groove line that is generally more sensory than auditory. A casual listener could probably put this music on in the background, go about his routine, and forget that it’s even on. To average ears, it sounds like gutted music with the meat and potatoes ripped out of it. The disemboweled remains are only skin, a pulsating heart, and sonic splatter. Few might even realize, were it not for the recommendation by a close friend or your friendly local music journal, that such a dish is actually a delicacy.
At the time of 1‘s release in 1998, Pole had few predecessors, but the critical complex was sure quick to link back to them (Basic Channel, Microstoria, Oval) in an effort to throw the disc, whatever it was, aside. Even Betke’s central gimmick, that busted Waldorf 4-Pole Filter that started producing more interesting sounds by accident than the techno Betke meant to make come out of it, seemed like a novelty at best rather than a kind of musical Dogme 95, a limitation device to make the most concisely effective spontaneous sounds.
By the time 2 and 3 were released, in annual succession of one another, an international ovation for “glitch” music was under way. Within this excitement, a quiet commotion made by imitators and newcomers seemed to overwhelm the faculties of listeners. Thus little attention was paid to those making longform statements like Pole, who was not only album-based, but also seemed to be working in continuance (as part of a proposed trilogy). Upon first hearing 2, my first Pole album, I thought it was brilliant. But at the time I couldn’t imagine that hearing another two albums worth of the same kind of music could thrill me in the same way or realign my perceptions further. I couldn’t have been more wrong, but I also needed a new set of ears with which to sink into the rest of the catalogue.
History and hindsight have been kind to Pole. Not only have his discs made their way onto many retrospective critical favorites lists, but they’ve become a something of a fetish object for aspiring new artists. They’ve become the bottomed-out end point for IDM, an inspiration for what terminal echo space is capable in dubstep (last year also saw a pair of remixes by Shackleton and Peverelist respectively on tracks from Pole’s latest album), and a trimmed and shaven core that diminuitive minimalists can look to for guidance.
Far from austere, Pole’s music is psychosomatically plangent art music. In an era when percussion had been reduced to formalist or utilitarian functions, Pole defenestrated traditional percussion and tiled the multitrack floors of his songs with scratchy remnants of sound that he applied rhythmically. These elements cooperated with the dub bass groove (which is far more prevalent on 2 and 3 than 1) to structure each track as an open-ended sonic procurement. Rather than let each individual melodic motif loop itself into some kind of Basic Channel-style recursion, Pole allowed his first three albums a certain degree of indeterminancy within a hollow pop framework, commiting long-term to the kind of accidents that created those Waldorf 4-Pole Filter sounds in the first place.
1, now a decade old, is perhaps the most vastly divergent of the trilogy, particularly in how it only hints at a connection to sound systems and deep-fried dub reggae (though “Fremd” comes pretty close at precisely foreshadowing that later sound). Yet it still shares an implicit kinship with Jamaican music in its application of sparse daubs of melody—simple chords, protracted echos, and an emphasis on the space between notes as a song’s affective thesis. Otherwise, most of the cuts sound like organic explorations of the minutaie of a Mouse on Mars track, temporal elements from IDM fully realized and stretched out to song length. 1 is fantastically intricate, if not the most consistent of the discs included on ~Scape’s newly released box set, which contains three monopantoned, chronologically numbered albums.
2 and 3 are both fully realized dubscapes, biovular brethren raised in the same household as 1‘s bastard stepchild. The three-disc set adds only a few bonus tracks from the era, all of which appear at the end of 3. They’re all nice cuts, but they also subvert the entropic force of the preceding album.
Both 3 and 2 are urban, though never urbane. They connect the digital grit of glitch with the messy echolocation of King Tubby excavations. 2, and especially the more narratively deteriorative 3, have a more phenomenological than tactile resonance. Sure, the bass is stirring and trance-like throughout, but the overarching sound is one of abstract, almost anti-terrestrial formations, feeling more at home in outer space (rather than inner space) or underwater (rather than above sea level).
Thus, its urbanness is like graffiti, intended to be alien and off-putting to those who don’t speak its language, making it perhaps all the more alluring as such. Pole exists in minimalism’s ghetto and its grotto, impoverished and sparse but never lacking in appreciation of its personal surroundings. His music that creates an environment that starts out as controlled and tempered as a Barnett Newman painting. However, soon its vibrant colors become blunted by thick layers of ganja smoke and the consistency is betrayed by a quantum deck of variables which are quark-like in their unpredictability. It often sneaks up on you, much like Pole and Betke snuck up on history, though it’s most often extremely rewarding when it does. It’s quite the happy accident.