The last I had heard, Pole had a reputation for the kind of super-clean, semi-minimalist laptop-twiddling electronica that you'd normally associate with an ultra-hip German DJ. Surprise. From the first track of this eponymous album, it's clear that any assumptions you might have made about the limits of his sonic interests and palette have been rendered inoperative. "Slow Motion", in addition to being laid out over a groove-laden trip-hop beat, features vocals from Chicago hip-hop savant Fat Jon (who, in an additional surprise, I had always thought worked in an exclusively instrumental
metier). As it turns out, Jon is a worthy MC, and Pole (Stefan Betke) proves himself a steady hand on the beats. It's the kind of reversal of expectations that, if the world of independent music tended to live up to its high-minded rhetoric and its extensive possibilities, would be routine. Given the real-world state of affairs, it's a refreshing surprise.
That's just the first track. There's plenty more brilliance to come. While not all of it involves Fat Jon, the spirit of broad horizons and inclusion enlivens the entire album, as when saxophonist Thomas Haas's rapid-fire blasts of surprised notes thicken the conversation between deep-groove bassline and staccato syncopated keyboard chords on "Bushes (There Is A Secret Behind)". And while the expected glitchiness may be absent, there is certainly a strong edge to the rhythm stops, reversals and ambient manipulations of "Umbrella".
"Green Is Not Green-Yellow" is one of the album's most fascinating tracks, milking an essentially unchanging four bars for its duration, serving almost as a trampoline from which the saxophone can resound in one direction while August Engkilde's upright bass bounces in the other. It's followed by "The Bell", which is as syncopated and unexpected in its rhythm as the preceding track was calm and repetitive. Here again, Fat Jon is given plenty of room to move, and he glides speak-style over the lines, hardly ever seeming to be following rhythm at all, until you hear each stanza end on a dime. A four-beat cezura in the middle is the money moment, the point at which you know that you're in the hands of pros so confident they don't even have to think about it anymore.
Mostly, Pole is the sound of a restless musical talent and intellect seeking out like-minded collaborators, expanding their horizons, and producing an otherwise impossible synthesis. "You could call us selfish beings that want riches / We dream of a simple life and extravagant wishes", Fat Jon intones on "Arena"; "You never found a place that made you feel so radical / It's what we face / what we create / what we love what we hate what we embrace because we can't escape." He might as well be talking about the space this album inhabits -- an exciting collaboration, fighting musical limits and expectations and embracing whatever works.