It is a surprisingly strong album in that it evokes a field of reference well removed from the dancefloor, but in translating the sonic palette of a minimalist genre to more traditionally kinetic forms he exposes a key conceptual weakness.
Pole Folder is the alter-ego of Belgian producer Benoit Franquet. Not very many musicians find success with their first release, but that's exactly what happened to Franquet: in 2001 his debut 12" "Apollo Vibe" was selected by John Digweed to lead off his Global Underground: Los Angeles mix, the 19th installment in that famous series. Since then he's released a handful of singles on Digweed's venerable Bedrock label, and each successive release has been warmly embraced by the progressive house community.
His debut artist album -- the first for Bedrock -- comes as the result of two years of work. In many ways it is far from what you might expect from a producer so intimately associated with the ascetic realms of prog house. Franquet has assembled a diverse collection of tracks that range far from the borders of prog house, while still maintaining a strong sense of that genre's signature strengths. It is a surprisingly strong album in that it evokes a field of reference well removed from the dancefloor -- with sonic echoes of trip-hop and conventional rock -- but in translating the sonic palette of a minimalist genre to more traditionally kinetic forms he exposes a key conceptual weakness.
Progressive house is an offshoot of trance which studiously downplayed that genre's increasing reliance on enormously bold synthetic melody lines, seen by many as excessive and by others as simply cheesy. Prog house became popular when an increasing number of DJs began showcasing this stripped-down trance variant, with prominent basslines and airy atmospherics replacing the rote mechanical arpeggios which had already reached the point of self-parody by the end of the '90s. But the advent of a more ascetic brand of trance created its own problems: the new genre's dearth of bombastic melodies invited DJs to compete in making each new record more sparse than the one before, to the extent that most prog house compilations became exquisitely boring. The race for sophistication had given way to a downward spiral towards the sublimely pretentious, and the spontaneity and virtuosity -- not to mention the fun -- which had long been the hallmarks of the most exciting dance music disappeared entirely.
Props to Franquet for realizing that an album composed of nothing but prog rock instrumentals would have been, most likely, a fool's errand. The genre works best when used sparingly, in contexts where sparse and spacey can be juxtaposed as pleasing virtues against dissimilar elements. Sometimes Franquet succeeds in this juxtaposition, sometimes he doesn't: the uptempo, dance-oriented tracks on Zero Gold are mostly enjoyable, while the slower, trip-hop tracks often fail to engage.
Ironically, one of the best tracks on the album is the only track included from a past 12" release, "London". This is progressive house it its best, with a driving, enthusiastic bass-drum offset against sparse melodic bits that give the perception not of density but of open space. But there's more going on here than just the average beat, as the track is filled with the kind of mid-range abstract noises used in a way that reminds me strongly of late '80s industrial. It builds to a surprisingly powerful crescendo before evaporating into an effective coda of low-key synths and strange cosmic noises.
"Inner Turmoil" is another strong track. Built atop a pleasingly robust breakbeat it slowly adds more kinetic elements while the traditional prog synth lines loom ominously in the background. The squeaky acid lines and processed electric guitar bring to mind a more meditative Crystal Method. It's a strong dance track and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it gained traction with DJs outside the insulated prog house community.
The problem is that when the tempo slows down, the attempts at creating a solemn intimacy become mired in torpidity. Franquet would have done well to study the example of one of his stated influences, Massive Attack: after producing three albums of consistent and uncontested quality throughout the 90s, they returned in 2003 (albeit in a shrunken line-up) with 100th Window, a stark and studious collection, obviously influenced by the progressive sound but much too portentous for its own good. Despite the exquisite production (or perhaps because of it), music like this often fails to engage the listener. Tracks like "Abrasion", despite strong vocals by Shelley Harland, never quite seem to wake up, struggling along in a methadone stupor until falling to the floor some six minutes later.
For every "Waterfalls of Love" (featuring Kirsty Hawkshaw channeling the earnest Ray of Light-era Madonna), which lopes along at an exquisitely produced but eminently torpid pace, there's a "Salvation on Slavery Sins" which, despite the regrettable title, manages to build a sizable head of steam. "Scared to Lose" (with fellow-Belgian chanteuse Sandra Ferretti) succeeds by adopting a more organic drum pattern, as opposed to the more traditionally deracinated percussion that the other downtempo tracks showcase.
On the balance, the album is more enjoyable than not. Although the frequent trip-hop interludes prove less than fully satisfying, the dance moments succeed in bringing Franquet's subtle charisma to the fore. In attempting to adopt an earnest and studied exterior, he sometimes falls into monotony, but thankfully the album is diverse enough to enable the stronger fragments to shine through.