Reviewed by John Brady
Friday, May 12 2000, 7:45 PM
I came into possession of Pole's CD 1 in the best possible way: I got it for free. I found it in the "Free" bin at the radio station where I DJ. A promo duplicate, the disc had been thrown into the bin for the first lucky scavenger -- in this case, me -- who happened by.
Pole is the Berlin-based producer Stefan Betke. Betke has recently made a name for himself among the electronica cognesenti by compiling albums of imaginatively crafted, oddly filtered techno minimalism. A large part of Betke's attraction for the people in the cultural know comes from his use of tape hiss and vinyl crackles to accompany his rolling beats and dub echoes. With his scratchy mixes, Betke works against the aesthetic puritanism that animates so much of electronic music. Unlike the majority of electronica producers, Betke refuses to produce the clean, streamlined sound made possible by digital technology. His tracks are dirty.
With this sonic debris the listener witnesses the traces left behind by the technology and the labor that went into the production of each track. With his self-reflexive inclusion of imperfection, Betke has found a way to do something that has long eluded most electronica producers. He has found a way to evoke the material dimension of digital music, to call attention to the fact that digital music is a product of cultural labor and not simply technology.
But static has limits, especially when Betke attempts to use it to represent something more specific, like the city of Berlin. Track 5 on CD 1, "Berlin" is a languid, looping song built upon barely audible bass thumpings. If this is Berlin, it is Berlin at 5 am, when the streets are empty, devoid of activity. But the suspicion one gets is that this track could represent any city or no city at all. There is no obvious connection between what one hears and the city of Berlin or the urban experience in general. Betke's scratchy minimalism isn't up to the task of making meaning.
Betke has recently formed a label, devoted to presenting what he calls "Modern City Dub." "The digital tugging, creaking melancholic, pleasantly warm sound of city dub," Betke writes, "remains the slightly uncanny orchestration of our cities. Dub has the power to create a bearable structure for the anonymous commercial centers of the inner cities. It is able to fade out the seizure of the inner cities by industrial giants and to temporarily stop the disappearance of public spaces."
No, it cannot. Neither Dub, nor any other kind of music has the power to reshape our social world in such a profound way as Betke hopes. But what it can do, is provide a way to express the human costs of the 'seizure of the inner cities' and the disappearance of public spaces. In its present form, Betke's version of urban dub is ultimately too hermetic to serve as such a vehicle of communication. What he would like to signify with tracks like Berlin is buried too far beneath the sound of static, sealed off from the listener.
CD 1 is a Scape Records release