Anytime a musician puts out a self-titled album that isn’t a debut, you know it’s going to be an attempt at redefinition, an album that says, “Oh, you thought that was me? Well, meet the new me.” Pole‘s Pole fits that mold and doesn’t. It’s no Liz Phair or Metallica, meaning it’s definitely not a push for a new level of superstardom. The day when scratchy, weird electronic music is the key to million-dollar success will be a day when the music world and mainstream music fans hold very different views about the role of music in life. Yet Pole certainly is a proclamation that Pole is not a one-trick pony, that there’s more to Stefan Betke and his music than listeners might have previously thought.
On the first three Pole albums, 1, 2, and 3, Betke crafted a unique musical environment and then progressed it in small steps. Clearly based on the dynamics and feeling of dub reggae, Pole’s tracks took as their main building blocks sounds that might be thought of as “not music”, like static and fuzz, but then used them to create an atmosphere that was rich, sonorous, and surprisingly melodic. Avant garde yet easy to sink into, all three of Pole’s albums were highly praised by critics, even as each sounded really similar to the one before it (though not identical: each sounded both sparser and more developed, a unique achievement).
With Pole, Betke hasn’t abandoned his vision altogether, he’s just turned it in a new direction. Here the feeling is more of a low-key underground hip-hop album than of an edgy work of “electronica”. This is in part because four of the nine tracks feature Cincinnati rapper Fat Jon on vocals, something absent from Pole’s previous albums. On those tracks Betke necessarily shifts roles, crafting tracks suited for hip-hop vocals. Yet even the five instrumentals retain the feeling of those four tracks. The nine songs feel very much cut of one cloth, and this time the rhythms and mood have a distinct hip-hop influence not the sort of hip-hop that’s ringing up the million-dollar sales, but a mellow, spaced-out type of hip-hop. The beats sound like they could have come off an Outkast record or even a Dr. Dre record, if Outkast or Dre were Martians that liked everything slowed down and twisted.
The dub influence is still high, both in terms of style and concept: two of the track titles bear the word “version” behind them, and several sound like different versions of each other. Yet the fuzz is pretty much gone. On the surface that’s a huge change, a giving-up of the sound most people identify with Pole. It’s akin to Miles switching to organ; the sound you’re listening for is gone. Yet ultimately that seems less like a surrender than an expression of freedom. These tracks are still filled with weird sounds, it’s just not the same sounds you might be expecting.
The beats and bass on Pole are augmented by synthesizer notes that come and go like mischievous ghosts, chimes that ring and similarly disappear, a saxophone (courtesy of Thomas Haas) that sounds warped, and plenty of noises that you’ll strain to identify. As sparse as these tracks are—and they are sparse; you feel if you tried to chart all of the sonic elements on some sort of map you’d come up with something simple, like a square—they’re also complicated. The more you listen the more you wonder what all is going on, what all you’re hearing.
The combination of streamlined sonic architecture with a heavy dose of mystery fits tightly with Fat Jon’s lyrics and rhyming style. He rhymes like a Zen poet, ruminating on the hidden forces behind the world. His words mull over infinity and time; he treads near that line between philosophy and new-age mumbo-jumbo, but to my ears he stays firmly on the side of mental exploration, not narcissism. “You never found a place that made you feel more radical”, he says on “Arena”, and while he’s talking about a place inside he could just as well be describing the track, which is both comforting and unsettling, with rumbling percussion and what sounds like either a distorted harmonica or an alien version of Astor Piazzolla’s bandoneon.
Pole might throw you for a loop if you’re overly attached to the “Pole sound” of the past, but that might be a good thing. It’s an album about forward motion and learning: Fat Jon’s rhymes deal with finding peace through exploration, while Betke’s musical tracks embody both. Pole is one self-titled album where the artist’s progression feels genuine. Betke uses his past sound as a platform without getting too attached to it. If he continues to do that, who knows what far-off places he’ll lead us to.