ALBUM REVIEW: Pole – ‘Fading’: an enveloping electronic palimpsest

IT’S BEEN quite a year for Stefan Betke, the vinyl mastering and electronic wizard who we know better as Pole.

Having released his last studio set, Wald, on his own eponymous imprint in 2015, earlier this year he made a return to Mute, for whom he last released a full-length album in 2003.

He came back for the deserved reissues of his seminal turn-of-the-century trio of albums, coloured-coded in resonant shades of midnight blue, scarlet red and sunset yellow: 1, 2, and 3, in which stark downbeat electronica met the space and bass and pulsing of dub, and got along like they’d known each forever; the sorta couple in your social group who are almost sickeningly well matched.

If you haven’t spent time with them, you ought: 2 is my favourite by a nose, and I couldn’t really justify why; oh, if  when you do, make sure you’ve got sub-woofers that are up for a run through their paces. That bass ….

Luckily for those of us who adore a deeply synaesthesic earscape, Stefan’s return wasn’t just about marking a career retrospective; it would also mean a new album for Mute, in the shape of Fading. A departure here in the titling nomenclature, from the functionality of the numbering through R and Pole, &c; an adjectival title suggests deeper purpose and intent. 

And it does, as Stefan explains: “The album was mostly inspired by the idea of memory loss,” he says. “My mum had dementia and I saw her losing all the memory that she had accumulated over her 91 long years. 

“When losing that memory it turned into what she was probably like in the beginning of her life when she was born – like an empty box.”

A sad, salutary life experience, the gradual loss; of such events, creative catharsis may be the route out. For, say, an acoustic singer-songwriter, it’s obvious which route you might take. How does a sound-shaper, a soundscaper, approach the nature of memory and its loss; that fragmentation?

“It was the motor for moving in this direction,” he says. “So for the opening track, ‘Drifting’, there is the idea of a whole lifespan that starts pretty empty and it gets fuller and then it ends with this kind of bell sound in the background. Or ‘Fading’, the last track, deals with the idea of fading away and disappearing slowly.

“But you always leave something. You leave a feeling or an image or an atmosphere. Everybody who lives leaves something on this earth.” 

So let’s look at those bookending tracks. “Drifting” indeed bleeds into consciousness on tone sweep and sudden, interjecting percussive skitter; as you’d expect with Pole, there’s acres of space, chasms of echo, and a chill, brooding melodic landscape in a minor scale, fraying at the edges of dissonance as it shifts, like Grieg.

We’re more than three minutes through when a Berlin microhouse groove settles and solidifies, gives an unobtrusive shape to the complex textures playing out in the space above and below. Like a child reaching the mirror stage, you can pretty much hear “Drifting” reach an understanding of itself and its place in the world. As the beat propels the song forward, big lava-lamp bubbles of dub sound lofting up and past your vision, dit-dit-ditting out of the strictures of the straight rhythm and spiralling away on their own course, as all the best dub effects do. 

The concluding and titular track follows the obverse path. A pretty, cold synth motif cycles through space, offset against the rhythm; other subservient melodic layers sit underneath. Gradually the melody fades, leaving a glitchscape with this one mantric tone pulse a distant beacon.

Stefan Betke, aka Pole. Photographed by Ben de Biel

There’s the brace of beguiling, preceding single drops herein as well. “Röschen”, which you can hear below, brings a lighter static scatter with an eye on the potency of the bottom end; mid-tone washes of melody make for a beguiling and clean tune full of passing cityscape. As with all of Pole’s work, there’s a multiplicity of routes you may choose to follow through a world of polyrhythm, of sudden interjection, of the space between the notes, different textural pops and cycles, some supporting crossbeams of the whole, others subsidiary, all of which, if you follow them, give a jazz-like appreciation of the interweave and patterning in play. 

“Nebelkrähe” (which translates as hooded crow’, offering a contemporaneous, cultural cross-correspondence with Max Porter’s novel of loss and the corvid, Grief Is The Thing With Feathers) fashions those Pole leitmotifs into new and alluring shapes: the texture, the deep chasms of grain-flecked space, the dark dub drops. It’s like a web spun across a glacial crevasse; a structure with absolute cohesion and integrity, but one which allows for an absolute falling away waay down in the space between. It manages to caress in the eeriest way.  It’s an exploration of a tune, one to burrow into and investigate. 

“’Nebelkrähe’ is really one of my favourites because it is so heavy but has so many details in the background,” says Stefan. “It also probably has the most direct connection to the trilogy.”

Because here is the subtle, dementia-inspired concept at work. Stefan-as-Pole has always proceeded forward, ever forward, reinventing without erasing. “Every Pole record connects to recordings that I’ve made before, in order to stay in this kind of vertical development,” he confirms. 

“The ideas from 1,2,3 up to now are connected. I keep the interesting elements, languages and vocabulary that I designed and add new elements.

“You can hear some little pops and glitches in the background of this recording, which is a direct reference to the trilogy; but you hear it relatively quietly in the background, it’s not really too heavily featured. This is a little bit of a sign from me, as my history is fading away slowly, too.” Which explains the depth and the layering.

“Erinnerung” (‘remembering’) is deeply of the 1, 2, 3 trilogy in its glitch and space, but has a different, smoother melodic midground, festooned with little flourishes and tastes of sound. It hints at a widescreen, almost deep house potential in places as it rises and rouses, but leaves that possibility visible in the distance as it swerves back into a shadowier leftfield. It remembers keenly though, where it came from. “Tangente” has a low-key lope of bass and beats, in collusion with which quirkier sonics leer and wooze and yaw, akin to fellow German deep sound traveller Frank Bretschneider; alien and invitingly disconcerting.

“Traum” (‘dream’) is fashioned from unashamedly stark metallic (the elements, not the genre) swipes and swerves; they’re balanced by a quite ethereal, almost choral tones right down inside, pinned by a nuanced simmer of low bass chatter, muttering away. It’ll sound stunning on headphones, or through a luxuriously big PA, and most grades of hifi in between. (Listening on your phone, though. Must you?). All of which, of course, is entirely the intent. 

“Whenever I compose a piece of music it has to have this element to it,” sayeth Stefan: “I need to be able to listen to it in the car when I go to the seaside or in my living room or in a club. From the beginning onwards, that was always the idea.

“I think it’s a really warm-sounding record; I go really deep into the sound design. I wanted to fill your head up with atmospheric sounds. 

“It has to be on this thin edge between just enough information to keep things interesting but not too many ideas that it gives the impression it could be two separate tracks.”

Fading is a palimpsest, Stefan writing over and erasing, finessing and revisiting all the Poles which make up Pole. Which also explains why this is an album you reach inside, as if noticing some element of sound glittering like a necklace hanging from a branch just off the beaten track; pursue that beckoning glimmer in and let Fading fold its lushness around you.

For all the motorik elements, Pole’s is (and has ever been) a body of work in which left-right, forward-backward are, to a greater extent, inappropriate measurements; think of Fading in terms of depth, of descending and exploring what lies within. It’ll delight you and surprise you; envelop you.

Pole’s Fading will be released on digital, CD, limited Aztec gold and black vinyl formats by Mute on November 6th. Lovers of deep and fine electronic textures, place your order here.

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