Although he may not get as much attention as he perhaps should—and lets be frank, minimal electronic music is a dicey sell under the best of musical economies—it doesn’t mean that Stefan Betke isn’t still a force to be reckoned with. 2003’s self-titled release may have seemed slightly baffling at the time, and while I liked it then and now, it is in retrospect obviously a transitional record. Stepping away from the bracing, almost punishing minimalism of his first three records (titled, elegantly, 1, 2 and 3), his newfound sonic catholicism extended pretty far and yet not far enough. Fat Jon’s raps were questionably abstruse: if you’re going to incorporate vocals into minimal dub, why backpack hip-hop? (Thankfully, most of the rap tracks on Pole were also made available in instrumental form on separate releases.) The colors and textures that made Betke’s early records so paradoxically rich were still in evidence, even if they seemed to have wilted a bit in the context of the measurably more elaborate arrangements. It was obvious that something new was called for in Betke’s sound, but it wasn’t quite clear at the time what that entailed.
Steingarten immediately announces itself as a different kind of Pole album. Whereas previous albums all featured startlingly minimal jacket designs, with either the monochrome primary colors of his first trilogy or the pastel blue washes of the Pole-era material, Steingarten practically jumps off the shelf with one of the most vivid pieces of album art I’ve seen in years, a full-color photograph of the Schloss Neuschwanstein in Bavaria (Germany). Taken in winter, with deep blue sky reflecting off the snow-covered mountains in the distance, the picture seems less a photograph than a fever dream, an incredibly intricate image that is all the more unsettling for its concrete reality.
And that, more than anything else, perfectly describes Pole in the year 2007. The slightly muddy languor that infected the self-titled album is gone, replaced by an almost laser-guided sense of precision and momentum. You’d be hard pressed to really place Pole in the continuum of dance music, but there are some heavy beats here nonetheless; “Achterbahn” could conceivably have wandered in off one of Matthew Herbert’s house albums, all glitchy beats and ramshackle, anxious energy. Herbert is actually a pretty good point of reference here, for a number of reasons: Herbert’s music often walks the razor’s edge between being sparse and cluttered. There’s a lot of space in the music, and even if there are a number of different things going on at any given moment, none of them really fill the proceedings to the exclusion of the others. While the bottom-end here is still recognizably Pole, filled with deep bass rumblings and atmospheric scratches, there’s a lot else going on in the mid-and-high ranges. Those who miss the straight dub will probably like “Sylvenstein”, perhaps the most obvious throwback to the older sound—but it’s not entirely out of place, as it still has a far more robust sense of rhythmical melody than almost anything else in his previous back catalog.
That’s the key phrase: rhythmical melody. Steingarten is still very much a minimal piece because it doesn’t allow for what most people think of as being properly developed melody lines (the type most commonly associated with pop songwriting or even classical composition)—what you’ve got instead is a sense of melody as a jigsaw puzzle, a process of patterns and textures that agglomerate through repetition rather than development, a distinctly modernist approach. You can definitely hear this put into practice for people like Herbert and a good many of the Kompakt artists as well—the Field’s excellent From Here We Go Sublime makes use of the same technique with far more expansive results.
It’s really hard to criticize Steingarten. For what it is, it’s just about perfect. There’s none of the indulgence that often bedevils minimalism, as the album clocks in at a modest 45 minutes. Every track is just about a complete microcosm unto itself, unfolding with precision and lingering for just long enough for the listener to begin to get a grasp of the many subtleties on display, but not long enough for it to wear out its welcome. It’s a kind of concise statement that simply can’t to beat, because you can’t imagine how it could be any better than it already is.