Stefan Betke has hit higher highs and lower lows than most electronic artists. But what makes his output as Pole uneven is also what makes his career so exciting to follow: a fearlessness in applying his considerable skill as a producer in new, untested directions. “I like to have a concept in my work,” he explains, “but I do not like to expand it into an endless repetition of itself.” Lately, his focus has been the passing of time. The German musician recorded 2020’s Fading in response to his mother’s memory loss due to Alzheimer’s, and its elegiac tone mourns the lost past that dementia entails. Tempus, his latest album, shares the melancholic mood of Fading, extending that album’s musical palette with decaying percussion and piano that sound like artifacts of the past struggling to remain in the present.
Whereas Fading was full of punchy bass and crisp percussion, Betke’s dub effects on Tempus stretch components of the rhythm section into long tails of staticky ambience that pan across the sonic field. This backwards pull can make it difficult to determine where the momentum comes from in a song. The opener “Cenote” moves forward with a modest, repeating bass groove through spacious synth pads while a resonant, reverbed cowbell brightens the track like a streetlamp rhythmically flashing. “Grauer Sand” begins on more solid ground, with uptempo percussion hurrying underneath hints of melody that flash and sparkle in the upper registers. The meandering “Alp,” on the other hand, loses this momentum with a too-tentative bassline that seems unsure of its destination. Its atmosphere evokes a city at night, but across its six minutes, a suspicion arises that you’ve been going in circles through confusing backstreets.
From Pole’s inception with the broken Waldorf 4-Pole filter that gave his early releases a crackly lo-fi veneer, Betke has used the project to explore the limitations of technology. In “Stechmück,” he revives that spirit, choosing to keep a take in which his Minimoog was dying. Over growling bass and sharp drum blasts, a chaotic buzzing swirls like an out-of-control RC airplane. Its incongruity risks ruining the track but instead makes it the most memorable on the album. Just as his electronic keyboard dies, Betke reaches for an acoustic piano for Tempus’ last two tracks, an unusual move in the Pole oeuvre despite Betke being a trained pianist and jazz musician. The title track is the busiest here, but through a bluster of overlapping percussion and darting synths, the piano provides surprising emotional ballast. The bassy “Allermannsharnisch” is lifted by exploratory piano chords that lend it a jazzy feel before increasingly loud synth drones overtake the song. The last sound on the album is a somber piano chord fading out—a reminder of how much Betke has yet to explore.
For over 20 years, Betke has created electronic music ranging from ultra-minimalism to wide-screen maximalism. His early trilogy 1, 2, 3 introduced glitch to understated, fuzzy dub and inspired a legion of sound-alikes, while 2007’s Steingarten showcased a more dynamic take on bass music that remains the highlight of his career. Fitting for an album about the passage of time, Tempus looks to these past approaches, combining their moody atmosphere with the clean production and dense textures of his later work. It’s the sound of an artist drawing from his repertoire while demonstrating that he is still looking to the future.
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