The best artists working in contemporary electronic music often don’t take themselves too seriously. In many cases, the aesthetics and actual listening experience can feel severe and stern at times, but the musicians themselves feel more open to curious explorations than ever before. Maybe it’s yet another example of the polyglot nature of our modern world, but it’s invigorating to hear albums that willingly leave behind established conventions to learn from other genres.
To be clear, Pole has been involved in such work for his entire career, but Tempus takes those artistic predilections to fresh heights. Stefan Betke has made a tidy career for himself creating ambitious electronic art that pulls equally from jazz, prog and kosmische, and this new album veritably overflows with those textures and compositional idioms. He has anchored the seven songs on this project in layers of distorted rhythms that listeners can feel in their subconscious even as they dig for them in hopes of getting their feet moving.
It begins with Betke’s absolute fearlessness when it comes to off-kilter time signatures. The bulk of these tunes regularly feature a strong, earnest tempo akin to a mathcore band locking into a flow that most people couldn’t clap to on a good day. It also helps that the overall delivery of the rhythms gets hidden in the layers of syncopated synth pulses and swooping keyboard pads. He then ramps up the tension with ragged hi-hat and snare combinations that fall at seemingly haphazard locations around the actual beat while still keeping immaculate time.
The strength of Tempus rests in how it effortlessly channels all that disparate energy into fluid forward motion. Over and over again, a sublime sense of tempo and pacing ensures the sly but steady momentum of this album. The wandering basslines engage in a slinky dance with the drum patterns that are barely holding themselves together. At times, it feels like Pole prefers stabs, vibes and nuance over a steady groove, but when you allow your ears to engage the entire song, the progression of the music is undeniable.
On “Grauer Sand,” Betke treats us to a deconstructed Kraftwerk tune as a mysterious hi-hat phrase marches steadily underneath cascades of clattering sound effects, minor key synth chords, and a random snare clap. With “Firmament,” we bask in an inverted Can tune, complete with a persistent yet discombobulating drum pattern spools out while an amorphous jazz-inflected bass line provides counterpoint to the meandering piano melody. The title track almost gives us a straightforward tune, but even that feels like the various instruments have been layered quarter-beats off each other, resulting in an unsettling experience.
Throughout the whole of Tempus, Pole toys with our ears in ways that almost feel improvised, but when you stop to examine exactly how he’s making these songs, it becomes clear exactly how disciplined this project really is. Yes, much of this music reads as creepy and creeping on the surface, but peeling back the layers in hopes of understanding what’s happening instead reveals the work of an artist who is deliberate and intentional. This goes far beyond mere genre-hopping to showcase a diverse set of influences; this is a keenly executed multimedia project that revels in its sharp vision for the future.