Berlin-based producer/electronic musician Stefan Betke worked closely with the dub-informed techno label Basic Channel before releasing music of his own under the name Pole. His sounds were derived from and named after a less-than-perfectly functional sound-processing device called the 4-Pole Filter. Running his skeletal, bass-heavy tracks through the filter produced random clicks and crackles, adding a thick atmosphere of mystery and unpredictability to the minimal compositions. Betke’s earliest work as Pole surfaced as a series of 12″ singles in the late ’90s, but it developed from its noisy, spare beginnings on subsequent and more ornately rendered albums like 2022’s Tempus.
Betke worked as a producer and mastering engineer before putting out the first Pole material in 1998. Two 12″ singles, “Tanzen” and “Raum Eins,” were quickly followed by a trio of numbered album-length releases. This trilogy (1, 2, and 3) was issued by the Kiff label and distributed to American audiences by Matador. Where most Basic Channel releases clung fearlessly to the throbbing momentum of 4/4 minimalism, Betke drew complex, intricate rhythms from the crisp analog haze, layering rich, ghostly melodies over multi-tracked tape hiss and a barrage of syncopated skips and stutters. Betke’s tracks thus shared more with off-kilter Kölners such as Oval, Mouse on Mars, and Kandis than with his colleagues at Basic Channel. Still, his music retained the stark emptiness of Berlin post-techno, though it was more interesting — and far less dance-friendly — than the comparison might suggest.
After his numbered trilogy of albums, Betke briefly aligned with Daniel Miller’s Mute label, where he released the 45/45 and 90/90 EPs, as well as a self-titled album, in 2003. These tracks offered a radical departure from Betke’s past. They incorporated more pronounced beats, as well as appearances from rapper Fat Jon. Betke then returned to his own Scape label, a revered source of releases from kindred spirits like Jan Jelinek, Kit Clayton, and Deadbeat. Steingarten, a livelier and more adventurous set, appeared in 2007. Following that album, Pole releases were less frequent, but Betke continued to be an in-demand mastering engineer for singles, EPs, and albums issued on Third Ear, Mute, and Uncanny Valley, among many other labels.
Scape ceased operation in 2010; the following year, Pole created an eponymous label. His debut album trilogy was digitally reissued, and a series of Waldgeschichten EPs appeared. In Dubs, Pole’s remix EP of tracks by Roll the Dice, was released by Leaf in 2012. His long-awaited sixth album, Wald, arrived in 2015, followed by the single “Lurch (Version)” in 2016. The following year, Bureau B released Betke’s installment of the Con-Struct series, featuring compositions made from the archive of the late electronic pioneer Conrad Schnitzler.
Betke signed a deal with Mute Records, which brought his now-legendary numbered trilogy of early albums back into print in 2020. That same year, Mute released the seventh proper studio album from Pole, a collection of restless and drifting tracks entitled Fading. Themes of memory loss and dementia were reflected in the record’s fragmented sonics. In 2022, his eighth LP, Tempus, found Betke returning to the embrace of randomness and imperfection that characterized his earliest work, building many tracks around the sound of a dying synthesizer. ~ Sean Cooper