Stefan Betke has hit higher highs and lower lows than most electronic artists. But what makes his output as a Pole uneven is also what makes his career so exciting to follow: a fearlessness in applying his considerable skills as a producer in new, untested directions. “I like having a concept in my work,” he explains, “but I don’t like developing it into endless repetition of itself.” Lately, he’s been focusing on the passage of time. The German musician recorded the 2020s Discoloration in response to his mother’s memory loss from Alzheimer’s disease, and his elegiac tone mourns the lost past that dementia entails. Tempushis latest album, shares the melancholic atmosphere of Discoloration, expanding the musical palette of this album with percussion and decaying piano that sound like artifacts from the past struggling to stay in the present.
Whereas Discoloration was full of punchy bass and crisp percussion, Betke’s dub effects on Tempus stretch the rhythm section components into long tails of static ambience that cross the sound field. This pull back can make it difficult to determine where the momentum is coming from in a song. Opener “Cenote” moves forward with a modest, repetitive bass groove through spacious synth pads as a reverberating, ringing cowbell illuminates the track like a streetlamp flashing in rhythm. “Grauer Sand” begins on firmer ground, with uptempo percussion rushing under melody notes that flicker and shimmer in the upper registers. The sinuous “Alp”, on the other hand, loses this momentum with an overly hesitant bass line that seems uncertain of its destination. Its atmosphere is reminiscent of a city at night, but over its six minutes, one suspects you’ve been winding around in confusing alleyways.
Ever since Pole’s inception with the broken Waldorf 4-Pole filter that gave its early releases a cracking lo-fi veneer, Betke has used the project to explore the limits of technology. In “Stechmück”, he revives this spirit, choosing to keep a grip in which his Minimoog was dying. Over rumbling bass and high-pitched drum sounds, a chaotic hum swirls like an out-of-control RC plane. Its incongruity risks ruining the track but on the contrary makes it the most memorable of the album. While his electronic keyboard dies, Betke opts for an acoustic piano for Tempus‘ final two tracks, an unusual move in Pole’s oeuvre despite Betke being a trained jazz pianist and musician. The title track is the busiest here, but through a swagger of overlapping percussion and darting synths, the piano provides surprising emotional ballast. The “Allermannsharnisch” bass is lifted by exploratory piano chords that give it a jazzy feel before increasingly loud synth drones overtake the song. The album’s final sound is a dark, fading piano chord – a reminder of how much Betke has yet to explore.
For over 20 years, Betke has been creating electronic music ranging from ultra-minimalism to big-screen maximalism. His first trilogy 1, 2, 3 introduced the glitch in a low-key, fuzzy dub and inspired a legion of similar sounds, while 2007 Steingarten presented a more dynamic approach to bass music which remains the highlight of his career. Suitable for an album on the passage of time, Tempus looks back 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 always looking to the future.
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