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As the calendar turned over once again, plenty of DJs turned in mixes for the darkest month of the year, offering space for reflection along the way. Torus and Spekki Webu both explored their fusions of trance and ambient music in sprawled-out sets, while Time Is Away dug into folk-music traditions and chilly ambience. Jake Muir, one of Berlin’s strongest sonic cartographers, charted out the intersection of frigid electronics and barely-there dub, and KMRU and Aho Ssan showed off their vision of world’s-end noise and freaked-out sound design. On a more stilled note, Steffen Bennemann soundtracked a sleep-in concert with a heady mix of sludgy synthesizers, barely-there techno, and lush jazz records.

Plenty of DJs opted for a bit more rhythm, though. Autechre turned in a show-stopping session of favorite tunes from the early ‘90s, and Cardopusher—a.k.a. Safety Trance—took the sounds of reggaetón and techno and launched them into a distant future. Batu, in a characteristically wild-eyed performance at Dekmantel Festival, explored a thousand forms of white-hot club tunes, and Noff & Andreas Parker zoomed in on classy tech-house rollers for their NTS takeover.

Tim Reaper and Kode9, two dons of fast-and-tight rave music, dug into footwork and jungle records in a riotous back-to-back, while Black Rave Culture pulled off something similar with plenty of techno flavors thrown in. OSSX, a critical group in modern east-coast club, showed off the heart-racing power of Baltimore and Jersey club, while Tom Boogizm looked across oceans, finding the common ground between cragged dancehall and amp-busting bass tracks. Darcy Justice turned in a playful and anything-goes session for the early-morning ravers, and Nick Boyd and Tony G found excuses to blast the club with Ghostbusters!, gabber, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Here are some of the best DJ sets January had to offer.

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At this point, Autechre are a known quantity in electronic music. The duo, whose pairing has outlasted the birth, death, and rebirth of entire dance-music genres, make devilishly unpredictable music, stuff that works on an alien logic and sounds halfway scrambled at its most obvious. That reputation for rug-pulling, alongside their typically austere aesthetic, make 1992 Contextual Mix all the more thrilling: here, they pull the curtain back a bit and show off some of the music that was “floating around” during the golden age of IDM. (The mix was made to commemorate the re-release of Warp’s Artificial Intelligence, a seminal compilation of the stuff.)

The result is a long-form exploration of vintage electro, hip-hop, breaks, and acid, drawing umpteen lines between oceans, histories, and aesthetics along the way. Over the mix’s several-hour runtime, those lines get increasingly blurry: windows-down Miami bass is disorientingly close to cloistered acid house; paranoid synthpop turns into wigged-out electro; party-starting hip-hop crashes into skeletal almost-acid techno. The whole thing’s a treasure trove of early-’90s dance music, pushing against aesthetic assumptions with each cranked knob.

In a recent Art of DJing feature at Resident Advisor, Batu laid out the common thread between some of his favorite DJs: a convincing “sound world,” laid out by a selector with a clear agenda and a more or less singular voice. The Bristol DJ’s take on techno and UK dance-music idioms has long since earned him a strong following, but Dekmantel Festival 2022—one of his strongest recorded offerings to date—ought to catapult him into conversation with his favorite names. In just under two hours, he conjures an entire universe through the amplifiers, vaulting between umpteen styles with panache.

His anything-goes approach should be clear from the jump, when he takes weightless synth workouts and drops a billion-ton club tool on top. From there, it’s off to the races: the rest of Dekmantel Festival 2022 is similarly fantastical, nostalgic and futuristic at once. Here, he’s throwing down with the best of the ‘90s warehouse ravers; elsewhere, he’s flipping techno tools inside out and pouring the drums all over the dancefloor. In one particularly arresting moment, he moves from stargazing synth-work to chopped-and-jumped Jersey club and apocalyptic grime. Most impressively, it sounds seamless. Dekmantel Festival 2022 is full of quietly masterful blends like this: Batu jumping between countless styles to form one entirely his own.

Black Rave Culture—the Washington, D.C.-based trio of James Bangura, DJ Nativesun, and Amal—has little time for subtlety. Their mixes are a series of planted flags, showing off the range and depth of Black dance music: blazing techno and windstorm footwork, mile-a-minute Amen breaks and old-school piano-house revivalism. On 3024 TAPES 001, the debut in 3024’s mix series, the trio go deeper and wider still. It’s an ecstatic three hours that feels half that, thanks in large part to their speedy selections: pretty much every track here has a light-speed kick drum or a frenetic snare chop keeping the proceedings moving along.

That uniform focus on white-knuckle energy allows them all sorts of stylistic jumps: quick-and-messy reggaetón flips, billion-ton ragga bombs, tectonic-plate gqom tools. But, again and again, they tie it back to Amen breaks and slamming kicks. That kitchen-sink and careful approach to genre belies their connection to the modern techno-etc. scene that’s been lighting up the tri-state area for the past few years. But 3024 TAPES 001 reveals what’s been clear to anyone watching that circuit: they’re among the best in a crowded class.

Cardopusher, née Luis Garban, hasn’t sat still for twenty years. His earliest material sits comfortably alongside golden-age breakcore; his later work keeps up the intensity but looks towards the piledriving sounds of techno, EBM, and dubstep. In the past few years, he’s turned once again, this time with a full-on dive into neoperreo and reggaetón. With RA.867, Cardopusher blends screaming dembow rhythms with thousand-pound kick drums, triangulating the space between techno, perreo, and noise. He tips the scales a bit further as Safety Trance, an alias dedicated to hypermodern Latin club-music cuts.

Dekmantel Podcast 416 sees the producer leaning into spooked-out and serrated neoperreo records, all white-hot kicks and scrambled-up dembow tools; it’s reggaetón tuned for the abyss, or at least for peak-time mixing. SYSTEM Mix 085 lands somewhere between the other sets: the gnashed-teeth intensity of the RA mix combined with the Dekmantel episode’s focus on shuffled-up drums. Regardless of the selection, though, they’re all fundamentally variations on a theme. In each case, Garban blends Latin club sounds with decades of experience in hardcore, catapulting each into the future along the way.

How do you soundtrack a sunrise? With Meredith 2022, Darcy Justice proposes an answer: amp-busting techno and UK club rhythms. From 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., the DJ stretches the rave into the early hours, rocketing between a million forms of uptempo mania: riotous grime flips, joyously over-the-top Europop, barnstorming jungle. The set starts out as an impressive balancing act, with Darcy Justice finding a middle ground between gritted-teeth club cuts and more effervescent melodies. As the set runs on, though, that dynamic gets even more pronounced as they reach ever deeper into their crates—some of the late-session blends are just wild enough to work. (In an eleventh-hour highlight, Justice takes hand-drum whirlwinds of UK funky and gqom, rides that to a maniacal peak, and drops into the tectonic-plate southern rap of DJ Chose’s “Thick.”) That 5 a.m. time slot makes perfect sense: on Meredith 2022 Darcy Justice collapses the space between late-night hedonism and blissed-out euphoria.

When Jake Muir wrote that his latest mix was “more rhythmic than usual,” that was reason enough to turn heads. The DJ-producer has long since cemented his place in the modern outré-ambient canon thanks, in part, to mixes of murky and otherworldly synthetics; his selections, more often than not, sound like they’ve been beamed in from another plane. So any claims have to be contextualized: 70˚F is indeed more rhythmic than a typical Muir mix, but it’s hardly a blast of breakbeats or hardcore junglism. (That’s later in the column.)

Here, Muir dives deep into the murky waters of ambient dub, sludged-up sound design, and late-night field recordings, finding frigid rhythms that don’t so much groove as pulse; here, any drums sound more like distant heartbeats than anything you’d find in a CDJ. The result is an hour of slow-motion psychedelia. Muir may be working with a bit more momentum than usual, but he’s pulling listeners ever deeper, not forward. 70˚F is lurid and vertiginous, offering a deep disorientation to anyone willing to plumb its depths.

In 2021, KMRU and Aho Ssan—two names at the cutting edge of ambient music—joined forces. Limen, the LP they created together, is a hair-raising pile-up of corroded electronics. each track sounds, and feels, like the flames that adorn its cover: beautiful, frightening, and awe-inspiring all at once. Fact Mix 893, by comparison, is relatively calm, until it isn’t. In just half an hour, they move from deep-sigh drones to anxiety-laden walls of noise, reaching a white-hot intensity reminiscent of Limen along the way.

In each case, the beauty lies in the textural details: the way that static dances atop, and then tunnels into, each instrument; the gut-churning feel of a string section slowly detuning and dissolving; the heart-in-throat terror carried by a busted-amplifier drone. (It should come as no surprise that the set’s visualizer, created by Sevi Iko Dømochevsky, is at once wildly abstract and aesthetically overwhelming.) Throughout Fact Mix 893, KMRU and Aho Ssan return to world’s-end electronics and find a strange, liminal beauty within.

There’s a lot to be said for a delicate touch behind the decks, but sometimes you just need to light the amps on fire. For Sorry Records’s Bossa Nova Civic Club takeover, label heads Nick Boyd & Tony G—here going by Dick Void & Bony G—go all in on devil-may-care blends. Given it was recorded on Halloween night, of course there’s a full-throttle Ghostbusters bootleg, and of course it flips into piledriving bassline and a techno Phantom of the Opera flip. Everything-goes is the name of the game here, and the pair seem to relish in keeping the dancefloor second-guessing even as the drums rain down. (At its most maniacal, it comes close to sounding like something from DJ Bus Replacement Service or HMT Hard Cru, two critical figures in the world of gut-busting club tracks.) But there’s a clear throughline here, too: each DJ has a well-honed ear for classic house and techno, with plenty of richly textured synthesizers keeping things from getting too dark and messy, even when they’re tossing left-field club edits on top of show tunes.

One of the greatest thrills of tech house comes in its unending chug. No matter what sounds you throw into the mix, a strong enough groove will power through. For their guest spot on DJ Fart in the Club‘s NTS residency, Noff and Andreas Palmer toss all sorts of wrenches into the works, testing the connective power of a well-placed kick drum along the way. It’s stuffed with classy and playful rhythms across the heads-down club-music spectrum: a bit of almost-acid techno here, a splash of trance synthesizers there, a tumble of minimal-indebted hi-hats elsewhere. (In both style and substance, 6th January 2023 recalls some of the best stuff coming out of Melbourne, a city that’s become a festival hotspot thanks in large part to a new generation of techno, tech-house, and trance DJs.) But even their most out-there selections are anchored by a uniform focus on forward momentum; this is aimed at keeping floors moving above all else. On that metric, Noff and Andreas Palmer succeed with flying colors.

Whether it’s in Baltimore, Newark, or Philadelphia, the east coast has a proud history of quick-and-precise club music. OSSX, the New Jersey trio who blew up the circuit with last year’s Split Wig, understand this as well as anyone: in their music, they take jittery musical lineages and tangle them around anything they can get their hands on. Unreleased Mix Vol. 2, the group’s latest set of originals, shows them operating at peak form. Here, they focus on the sounds of Jersey and Baltimore club, all lickety-split snares and why-not sample flips.

The result is a blazing-fast blend of contemporary R&B and storming breakbeats, hyper-precise snare drums and late-night love songs. At points, it’s strikingly beautiful, with lovelorn melodies draped atop fleet-footed drum loops; elsewhere, it’s got the tough-as-nails feel of golden-age hip-hop and modern footwork. Unreleased Mix Vol. 2 is a love letter to, and a continuation of, east-coast club’s kitchen-sink jubilee, moving in a million directions at once with an unrelenting energy.

There’s a certain magic to a slow build. A well-practiced DJ can move between wildly different territories and make it all seem seamless, given they move patiently enough. Spekki Webu understands this. He has been practicing this alchemy for years, taking the sounds of techno, trance and ambient music—three styles that already promise infinities—and casting them into another dimension entirely. Fact Mix 886 begins with a healthy dose of astral-plane ambience: synthesizers scattered atop abyssal emptiness, sounding like the glimmers of distant stars.

Ever so slowly, Webu complicates things, tossing in tectonic-plate groans, muffled kick drums, and spine-tingling synthesizers. Eventually, he builds the whole thing to a quiet simmer, transforming the set’s early minimalism into something else entirely, hurtling through the cosmos while staring into the depths below. It’s a deeply disorienting trick, and its success is owed almost entirely to Webu’s masterful control behind the decks. His tight grip on atmosphere lets him reach for all sorts of pitch-black dancefloor sounds, folding glimmers of hardcore techno and psychedelic trance into a deep-space ambience. Fact Mix 886 is a masterful display of patient blends; by moving with care, Webu suggests a million queasy infinities.

The name gives away the game. Dreams, performed late at night, was intended to soundtrack a deep slumber. (Attendees were encouraged to bring their own sleeping bags or mattresses to the event.) The mix, which runs for a handful of sleep cycles, would certainly make an evocative accompaniment: it is patient and calm and a bit queasy, combining deep grooves with expansive ambience. For its early stages, Bennemann trades in pitch-black electronics, all million-mile drones and late-night field recordings; over time, he slowly begins to fold in a few more rhythms until the whole thing takes on a quiet sway. (It’s worth noting here that Bennemann offers a download of the set, which runs for nearly double the length of the stream; given the nature of the recording, the length is befitting.)

Near the one-hour mark, he’s working with metronomic techno, played quietly enough to avoid stirring the audience; jump forward twenty minutes, and he’s found his way towards elegiac piano pieces and chilled-out ECM-adjacent jazz records. In the same way a warehouse set might build up momentum over its runtime, Dreams slowly works into stranger and more playful territories, even if it’s all whispered. Over three-plus hours, Bennemann, with fastidious care and unerring grace, turns dream-pop, choral music, deep-space ambient, and spooked-out minimalism into a long-form lullaby.

Tim Reaper has, in the past few years, rocketed to the upper tier of modern jungle, but he’s been around the 160-BPM scene for a lot longer than that. Kode9 cut his teeth in the left-field UK club-music circuit, but tune in to a modern set from the DJ and you’re likely to get a black hole of gqom and footwork. Their pairing, then, is only logical: these are two UK dance-music lifers, and they’ve each found their way towards hyper-precise and rapid-fire sounds. For their performance at Unsound Festival 2022, here immortalized in their podcast series, Reaper & Kode9 made good on their billing’s implicit promise.

Neck-snapping drums are the order of the hour, whether they’re lifted from vintage drum breaks or chopped-up footwork cuts. The duo prizes momentum above all else here, working through their USBs at a breathless clip while drawing lines between all sorts of club-night traditions: funked-up ghetto house and riotous pop-radio bootlegging, storming techno-jungle and blistering juke. It’s a thrilling and sweat-soaked session, a tough and wild-eyed celebration of fast-and-tight rave music, and, above all else, a towering tornado of drum breaks.

Time Is Away make radio plays for collagists. The London duo, in their longtime NTS residency and elsewhere, have been soundtracking, and exploring, stories for years. Sometimes, that storytelling is literal, as in their pair of pieces on Patience Grey’s Honey From a Weed; other times, it is more figurative, such as their explorations of early religious music and balladry. In the dead of winter, they released two sets that explore this duality. Souvenir takes the text of Michael Bracewell’s book of the same name, scattering recitations atop a bed of chilly ambience. The effect is something like a ghost story, or perhaps an obituary; the original text, after all, is about a London from decades ago, much of which has been built over and forgotten.

Murmur, a live session recorded at a listening bar in Amsterdam, moves the timeline even further back, offering up countless forms of folk music in the process: shambolic tunes about hurdy-gurdies and elliptical minimalism, spectral choral works and eerie dub records. Its lengthy runtime affords the DJs plenty of time to stretch out, connecting timelines, techniques, and traditions in the process. Each set is, fundamentally, a story about histories; they are memorials to sounds and styles that have been built upon and paved over, forgotten and remembered and entirely rebuilt.

Around 20 minutes into Unsound Podcast 84, something remarkable happens. Up until that moment, Tom Boogizm—one of the most defiantly eclectic DJs in Manchester—had been playing ragged and messy dancehall and reggaetón records, all skeletal rhythms and fire-breathing MCs. But then he cranks a few knobs and starts looping a rhythm in on itself, turning the whole thing deeply claustrophobic in the process, and then he grabs Rihanna’s “Woo,” another song defined by its confrontational and jagged sonics. The two tracks aren’t quite the same BPM, and they race around each other; over the course of a few minutes, the blend moves from mania to a madcap state of elation.

It’s emblematic of Boogizm’s approach on Unsound Podcast 84, which bottles his everything-goes approach to club music: billion-BPM singeli and chase-scene gqom, manic dubstep and the chopped-up, Baltimore-indebted sounds of bérite club, lushly orchestrated trap and ice-cold drill. Boogizm’s blends, which are both intuitive and aimed straight at the rubberneckers, draw lines between club idioms from around the globe. On paper, it’s a miracle that Boogizm holds the whole thing together; in practice, it’s an ode to the anything-goes sounds of hypermodern club music.

Torus has made his name on the back of gauzy ambient and trance records: two genres that gesture towards different worlds, or at least reimaginings of the one we’re currently in. In his mixes, he blends the styles together with such precision as to render genre a moot point; he slows things down, dunks them in fog, renders any vivid colors in sepia tones. (In this way, his work recalls that of Malibu, another critical producer at the intersection of rave music, ambience, and nostalgia.) On Fact Mix 888, Torus delves into the smog yet again, turning in forty-odd minutes of bleary-eyed ambience.

His characteristic trick—turning starry-eyed dance-music tunes into a soundtrack for stargazing—is as effective as ever; every neon-tinged synthesizer hits like a gentle breeze, and the explicitly ambient cuts only deepen the haze. Halfway through, Torus grabs a TikTok and plays it straight: tornado sirens crashing against each other before resolving into a delicate chord, the sound of the real world turning to something unexpectedly beautiful. The same could be said for the rest of Fact Mix 888; throughout, Torus takes well-trodden sounds and imbues them with a deep sense of nostalgia.

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