Michael McKinney absorbs more music in a week than most do in an entire calendar year.
Another strange and uneasy summer is drawing to a close. Plenty of DJs offered up suitably off-kilter soundtracks, ranging from block-party blasters to humid and murky ambiance. On one side of the coin, there were the party-starters: Yung Singh continued his meteoric rise through London’s club circuit with a blazing mix of hardcore, bhangra, and bass music; and Kiernan Laveaux blurred breakbeat, hard drum, and dubstep into a whirlwind of percussive heaters. Simisea’s mix for Juanita’s NYC is intended to pair with a long summer’s day, moving from birdsong to hi-fi hip-house and back, and the latest offering from Japan house-etc mastermind Powder is three hours of zonked-out house and minimal techno recorded from a packed room.
On the other hand, some selectors leaned into the uncertainty of the past few months. For Aaron J and TSVI, that meant making things even weirder: Aaron J’s mix for Animalia is both queasy and beautiful, a session of techno that reaches towards the stars; and TSVI’s mix for Fact is wild-eyed and dense, chock-full of anxious and blown-out drums. Others slowed down time with exploratory ambient. Cairo’s ABADIR drew lines between ambient techno, field recordings, and glacial drone, while Bratislava’s Adam Donoval blurred elegant and angular modern-classical recordings into an elegiac hour.
A few DJs seem to move outside of the season entirely, though. Ali Berger put out a mix of freestyle and electro heaters that land just as hard three decades after their heyday, and Other Joe dug deep into the ECM catalog in search of whisper-quiet jazz records. The unpinnable London duo Time Is Away put out two wildly different mixes: one full of deeply felt IDM and house records, and another that mines the writing of Patience Gray, Greek mythology, and a hundred years of folk-music traditions. Breakwave’s Concept in Practice mix for If-Only uses piles of field recordings and reel-to-reel rips to create something that’s both temporally specific and wholly unplaceable; elsewhere, Kia connected spindly dancehall, bass-blasted dubstep, slippery downtempo, and a million other shades of electronic music with a veteran’s grace.
Here are some of the best DJ sets August had to offer.
Aaron J – Animix Forty Six
Since 2014, Aaron J has been the head behind Sure Thing, an event series and record label that has its roots in techno but frequently spirals into otherworldly and bone-chilling ambiance. His DJ sets are suffused with a similar energy, all minimal-techno grooves and alien electronics, with tempos threatening to drop out entirely. (When he was last featured here, it was for one of his queasiest offerings yet.) Animix Forty Six is a continuation, and refinement, of that formula; this is seamless and zero-oxygen techno, its rhythms centered between deep unease and startling beauty. Aaron J mixes with patience here, rendering any seams wholly invisible even as he moves from mechanical and shuddering rhythms to delicate and heart-on-sleeve synth workouts. Near the end, he disposes of beats entirely, letting a slow cascade of bells, distant voices, and waterlogged keyboards provide a comedown from the preceding hour of celestial techno. It’s a natural conclusion: whether it’s got drums or not, Aaron J’s craft is about stretching sounds into infinity.
ABADIR – Drifted
As ABADIR, Rami Abadir explores liminal spaces and blows them out into the cosmos. (His latest record, Pause/Stutter/Uh/Repeat, is a meditation on human communication that twists voices into wholly unrecognizable shapes.) In other words, he’s a perfect fit for 3XL (f.k.a. Experiences Ltd.), which has slowly turned into one of the internet’s most vital hubs for ambient music. Drifted offers a clear image of what makes the collective so compelling: this is ambience, stretched and questioned and flipped inside out; here, ABADIR melts mournful glitched-up pointillism into reverb-drenched reggae, moves from heart-in-throat ambient-techno to swirling masses of field recordings and cosmic synthesizers, and soundtracks the shift from autumnal drones to below-zero wind. It’s a generous two hours that offer a gentle but deeply varied drift; each muffled drum lands with the intimacy of a heartbeat, even as the gauzy electronics stretch towards the sky.
Adam Donoval – POKORA 005
Adam Badí Donoval keeps busy. Between running Warm Winters Ltd., writing on experimental music, and working as a studio engineer, he’s become a mainstay in ambient-adjacent scenes. His work belies that pace, though; it is unhurried and generous, more likely to evoke a slow creep than a sprint. The fifth episode of POKORA, his show on the ever-essential radio.syg.ma, continues that approach. Here, he spends an hour winding between slowly unspooling ambience: Valentina Goncharova and Alexander Aksenov’s disquieting and elliptical cello-saxophone duet “Reincarnation II,” the shimmering slow-motion orchestral drones of Oren Ambarchi’s “Inamorata,” the swelling and hissing electronics of Elina Boshenkova’s “Song 5. Afraid of Men.” Throughout, Donoval blends lush textures with plaintive minimalism, making for an elegiac and wholly immersive hour of glacial compositions.
Ali Berger – Dance ‘21: The Freestyle Episode
Dance ‘21: The Freestyle Episode opens with a slight feint. What sounds like a slo-mo bass flute drifting atop sludged-up percussion suggests an hour of psychedelic selections. This set is anything but, though: just look at the title. After a few seconds, Ali Berger rockets from no-BPM slurries to slick and bubbly funk, revealing the opening number to be the slicked-back grooves of The Brothers Johnson’s “P.O. Box 2000”; from there, it’s an hour of vivacious freestyle and heated electro, all lovelorn emcees and stripped-back MPC rhythms. Berger finds a million intersections on that venn diagram, keeping things varied without going too off-kilter: glistening vocal cuts, laid-back piano-house rollers, chilly synth workouts, and just about anything that would light up a CDJ circa ‘88. It’s a testament to his ear that these tracks sound just as crisp thirty years on, but it’s hardly an exercise in academia or archivism: this is a playful and effervescent celebration of a very particular corner of dance music.
Anz – Spring / Summer Dubs 2021
Since she started producing her own tracks in 2015, Manchester’s Anz has become a staple of the city’s club circuit. Her music is playful and assembled with a kitchen-sink sensibility; Anz grabs bits of electro, house, garage, breakbeat, and techno for her releases, switching out the proportions with each new cut. It only makes sense that her annual Spring / Summer Dubs series has become appointment listening: composed entirely of her own tracks, they take that same club-night utopianism and stretch it out for as long as it can go. On Spring / Summer Dubs 2021, she pulls off the same trick yet again, vaulting between jacking electro, riotous jungle, fleet-footed UK funky, and roughed-up house records. (In a particularly inspired bit, she flips a 50 Cent cut into lucid-dream territory, only to slip into drum-and-bass that threatens to dissolve on contact.) The mix is ineffably joyous, features head-turning blends aplenty, and links the hardcore continuum together with finesse and elegance. In other words, it’s yet another firestarting Anz set in a long line of them.
Breakwave – Concept in Practice: Breakwave’s ‘Topographical Terrene’ Mix
As Breakwave, Jessica Beaumont has earned a reputation for playing serrated and aggressively left-of-center club tools, jumping between industrial-tinged techno and mammoth dubstep grinders with ease. Topographical Terrene, then, might come as a bit of a shock: here, she’s jettisoned anything approaching “bass music” entirely, instead choosing to focus on field recordings and dissociative electronics. This isn’t wholly unprecedented, admittedly—she’s explored similar spaces on her NTS residency, and many of her best mixes already carried a bit of stomach-churning energy alongside their lumbering rhythms. In practice, the principal difference between this and her club sets lies in the construction: rather than finding liminal spaces between kick drums, she conjures new ones between bird calls and gurgling synthesizers. Here, she finds plenty of rifts to explore, sliding the specific—overhead aircraft, years-old static-coated vocal recordings—next to equally unplaceable sounds, whether that’s all sorts of unidentifiable clicks and whirrs or a bit of hypnotic drone-ambience that surfaces midway through. Beaumont’s music has long explored uneasy intimacy: the shrapnel flying off of kick drums rendered a bit too sharp, the head-spinning that accompanies a bit of turgid bass, and, now, the uneasy space between microscopic details and the cosmos. It’s not so much a left turn as a tweaked take on a well-practiced approach.
DjGlo410 – JEROME Mixfile #768
Baltimore club, the raucous and rambunctious style blaring from umpteen Maryland soundsystems, is perhaps best defined by its forward motion: this is club music as a steamroller, each kick and snare engineered for maximum impact. On their entry into the ever-unpredictable JEROME Mixfile series, DjGlo410 offers up a tightly coiled half-hour of the stuff, piling up rubberneck sample flips and lacing them with slamming percussion. The manic energy is amplified by the source material they mine; DjGlo410 pulls from the sleazy hip-house of Dev’s “Bass Down Low,” the pitch-black sneer of Project Pat’s “Ain’t From My Hood,” plenty of Lil Jon party-starters, and about a million other blink-and-you’ll-miss-it rap-radio stormers, taking yesteryear’s house-party classics and flipping them into piledriving rave-ups. It’s a neat bottling of what makes Baltimore club so essential: white-hot percussion, manic vocal chops, and an unwavering focus on making any ravers sweat a bit harder.
James K – If-Only Podcast #96
A quick scroll through James K’s NTS page reveals an artist drawn to the fringes of electronic dance music. On Trip Lick, her monthly show for the platform, she explores cragged techno, light-speed breakbeat, near-unidentifiable synthesizer sludges, blissed-out trance-pop, and just about anything else that could threaten to crack an amplifier in half. On her mix for If-Only, her omnivorous streak continues to predictably tantalizing results. After an introduction of blurry ambiance, she spends the next hundred minutes rocketing between all sorts of riveting club-music sounds: melancholic breakbeat, roughneck hard drum, strobe-blasted trance, jacking UK garage, bizarro vocal-house, and untold others. On paper, it seems like the set ought to brick at some point, thanks to the sheer range of styles James K draws from, but her nimble mixing and unerring handle on the set’s atmosphere—which shifts back and forth between full-throttle dancefloor heaters and tears-in-the-club euphoria—keep things under control throughout. If-Only Podcast #96 is a wildly varied, deftly orchestrated, and tightly wound set of contemporary club tools the world over.
Kiernan Laveaux – 363˚
363˚ is aptly titled. Kiernan Laveaux’s entry in pi pi pi‘s mix series takes a bit to reach a boil; at first, it’s little more than a descending bass tone and pattering drums. But, slowly, the temperature rises as that percussion speeds up and Laveaux ties their drums into increasingly elaborate knots, moving from unhurried ambience to blazing MPC workouts with disorienting grace. It’s this play with rhythm that really holds the set together; it pulls from too many genres and styles to really nail down anything else. Over the course of an hour, they flirt with bérite club’s elliptical rhythms, the mammoth low-end of dubstep, the hypnotic pulse of minimal techno, the blur of zonked-out breakbeat, and even the corrugated grind of gqom, but their mixing—always fleet-footed and playful, and only rarely daring to slow down—keeps things moving with such speed that any stylistic differences melt away. What’s left, then, are the drums, offering bottomless pitfalls one moment and gusts of wind the next, stretching into infinity in either direction.
Kia – Animix Forty Three
Since it kicked off in early 2020, Animalia’s mix series has quietly become one of the most exciting platforms out. (There’s a reason that it has featured so frequently in this column, whether for pointillistic trance, blurry drone-ambience, or alien minimal techno.) Perhaps the most impressive thing about Animix Forty Three, helmed by none other than Animalia boss Kia, is how it captures the kaleidoscopic sound of the series thus far. It seems to move in several different tempi at once, with slow-motion ambient-dub melting into white-hot drum and bass and slippery downtempo selections; individual tracks promise to stretch into infinity, but they’re paired with a deft, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it approach to blends that makes the whole thing entrancing. Kia amps up the queasiness with piles of carpet-pulling blends: a shift from sweltering breakbeat into shimmering ambient-dancehall, which itself gets swallowed up by cavernous dubstep; or, later, a heap of sun-kissed Amen breaks, whisper-quiet almost-house, and squiggling IDM. Animix Forty Three is uncanny, imaginative, and relentlessly vertiginous; in other words, it’s a perfect encapsulation of what makes Kia—and, by extension, Animalia—so exciting.
Mister Water Wet – FR076
Mister Water Wet, a.k.a. Kansas City shapeshifter Tito Fuego, is part of one of modern electronic music’s most exciting collectives: a loose group of ambient-adjacent composers spanning from Moscow to the midwest, each with a million aliases. (See also: Special Guest DJ, Ulla Straus, Nikolay Kozlov, Perila, Ben Bondy.) Their music takes ambience and stretches it into fascinating territories, whether that’s zoned-out dub or bleary-eyed field recordings. In Mister Water Wet’s case, it’s often laid-back sonic collagery, relaxing and disheveled in equal measure. Following an exploration of yacht-rock earlier this year, he returned with FR076, possibly his most welcoming offering yet. His roots in outré assemblage are still on full display throughout: over the course of an hour, he traverses between busted jungle, warped G-funk, jittery house, chilled-out lounge music, cocktail-bar rap, and chopped-up R&B. It’s a pleasantly shaggy and warm set, packed with unexpected blends that jump genres and moods with panache. FR076, for all its surprises, fits perfectly in Mister Water Wet’s oeuvre: unusual electronics suffused with an inimitable joy.
Other Joe – Theory Therapy 25
Australia’s Other Joe—née Joseph Buchan—may be best known as an ambient-etc. producer and label head with fierce ties to his local electronic-music scene, but the skeleton key to his work may lie on another side of the world entirely. On Theory Therapy 25, he digs up a handful of celestial and hushed jazz recordings, half of which are pulled from Munich’s legendary ECM Records and the other half of which might as well have been. The jump across oceans makes sense; Other Joe’s more serene compositions are often shot through with the kind of unhurried grace that so frequently runs through ECM’s catalog. Here, Other Joe digs up a series of spacious selections that threaten to slip between the decks: the barely-there ambient-jazz of Eivind Aarset and Jan Bang’s “Surrender,” Terje Rypdal’s blurry upright-bass workout “Mystery Man,” the nigh-liturgical drift of Tord Gustavsen Trio’s “Where Breathing Starts.” It takes a while for any sort of deeply felt groove to take hold, but even then, the rhythms move more subtly, focusing on a deliberate sway rather than any sort of head-knocking percussion lines. In this context, the final track of the set, the slow-motion samba-jazz of Lee Byung-Woo’s “춤 (Dance),” lands like a knockout punch. On Theory Therapy 25, Buchan world-builds with grace, stretching across traditions and histories to create something that seems to suspend time entirely.
Powder – Passing it Clockwise
In an interview with Resident Advisor, Powder laid out her approach to her art, calling it a “continuous process of unwittingly being drawn to something I don’t understand.” It checks out: the Tokyo-based DJ has made a career off of left-field and playful mixing. It is both unusual and familiar; in her world, deep grooves stretch until they bend slightly askew and dancefloor heaters melt into wafting jazz and blurry ambiance. Passing it Clockwise, excerpted from an all-nighter session in July, typifies this approach. She’s in top form here, moving from haunted-house minimal to electro-tinged jazz freakouts and mutant club tools with a disarming elegance that belies the distance between her crates. Listen long enough, though, and another connective tissue starts to emerge: this is perhaps the most minimal and surreal Powder offering yet, full of lopsided techno and cavernous rhythms. (Halfway through, she cues up Prince of Denmark’s “Miseri,” itself a halfway point on a similarly gargantuan modern-day minimal-techno masterwork.) Powder has long made killer mixes out of slightly unexpected material; on Passing it Clockwise, she digs deep into her clubbier crates and flips the dancefloor upside down.
Quartz – RA.791
Since its foundation in 1994, Metalheadz has become a legendary name in drum-and-bass. This is in large part thanks to twin forces: the label affords its signees a tremendous degree of creative freedom, but its quality expectations are similarly titanic. This combination, a mix of wild inventiveness and rigorously culling the herd, makes just about anything Metalheadz-affiliated worth tuning into. The same can easily be said for RA.791, a three-hour whirlwind of white-hot drum-and-bass and gnarled dubstep from Quartz. He’s relatively new to the label—their first release from the Cardiff-based producer dates to 2018—but he makes for an elegant fit thanks to his sharp ear and deep crates. Here, he digs up piles of storming drums and abyssal bass; the first two hours of the set move between the eerie almost-minimalism of depth-charge synthesizers and the ensuing rush that follows, with unending drum kits rushing to fill up the vacuum. For the final hour, he slows down a bit, moving to 140-BPM dubstep rollers, but keeps the mix at a boil thanks to unpredictable mixing, skittering percussion, and acidic synth work. RA.791 is a veritable masterclass in gritted-teeth hardcore from one of the most exciting faces in the scene. Of course it’s Metalheadz.
Simisea – Juanita’s Mix 051
Simisea wrote that he made Juanita’s Mix 051 as a “love letter to summer,” intending it to trace the arc of a long and busy day with friends. That much is clear from the start. The set opens with the hum of a city waking up, replete with birdsong and the bustle of foot traffic; an unhurried synthesizer, wafting in and out of focus, recalls the slow drift of sunlight. From there, he delivers a masterclass in slowly unfurling blends: each selection reads a bit more expansive than the last, even as the synths grow and the drums start to pound on the pavement. He moves in off-balance and uniformly welcoming ways here, slipping between slow-motion R&B, wigged-out dancehall, slick almost-UK garage, and late-night hip-house without breaking a sweat. Once it finally draws to a close, he’s lingered long past the sunset, tracing the beams of starlight with ghostly percussion. On Juanita’s Mix 051, Simisea constructs a monument to sun-kissed days that always end too soon.
Tim Reaper – Crack Mix 415
Everything old is new again; just ask Tim Reaper. Spend enough time on the right corners of Bandcamp or Discogs and he’s bound to pop up: between his productions, mixes, and his own label (named, fittingly, Future Retro London), he’s spearheading a revival of jungle, the rough-and-tumble Amen-break fueled dance music that’s locked into the UK’s DNA at this point. His style is both playful and exacting, and he is historically minded but rarely reverential, making his sets required listening for anyone with an ear to the ground. On his mix for Crack Magazine, he proves his chops yet again, cooking up an hour of raucous and white-knuckle jungle. Much of the thrill here, as with many Tim Reaper mixes, is watching how the drums molt from track to track: from old-school breaks to walls of snares and new-school almost-techno, Crack Mix 415 is locked in an ever-hastening sprint that only grows more exhilarating as it speeds up. Jungle’s history may be well-trodden, but Reaper’s mixes show, again and again, that it’s still got plenty of power. This one, thrillingly, is no different.
Time Is Away – GGHQ Mix #57 / Honey From a Weed Part 1
Time Is Away, a.k.a. London’s Jack Rollo and Elaine Tierney, have established a formidable reputation on the back of their longtime NTS residency and mixtapes. They tend to work with stilled and quiet forms, reaching back centuries for endless incarnations of folk music: fingerpicked guitars, choirs reaching towards God, hushed and communal jazz records. Taken in that context, GGHQ Mix #57 is both a sharp left turn and a logical continuation of their practice. The set, dubbed a “Late Summer Dance Mix,” is composed almost entirely of nocturnal house music, all shuffling drums submerged in a thick fog. In gesturing so explicitly towards the dancefloor, the duo seem to be sharply deviating from their more typical fare, which is often a bit too hazy for a four-on-the-floor kick drum. But the rhythms harbor a throughline: pained and anonymous vocals, which tangle love and loss, grasping for something that may never fully appear. That sense of yearning runs through much of the duo’s catalogue, and even a shift towards muggy dance music can’t obscure that.
Honey From a Weed Part 1 offers a useful contrast. The set is interspersed with excerpts from Patience Grey’s cookbook-memoir of the same title, which is as much about cooking as it is about time, place, and movement: it is about drying tomato sauce with the help of the northern wind, and about hunting foxes in the dead of winter, and about the ever-changing rituals of local cuisine. Grey’s writing makes for a fitting muse; Rollo and Tierney’s art, like Honey From a Weed, is built upon piled-up stories, histories, and meditations that lie upon each other like latticework. Between readings of Grey’s text, the pair reach backwards through centuries of musical traditions: elliptical and elegiac Greek folk, preternaturally stilled American primitivism, gliched-up taiko, glacial Persian classical music recordings. These seemingly disparate threads are all held together by a shared sense of wonder; they move slowly and deliberately, striking a reverential tone through sheer quietude. The recitations of Grey’s writing—whether about the myth of Prometheus or the nourishing qualities of a simple dish—capture that, too, making the personal and intimate seem cosmic in scale. It’s a canny combination. Honey From a Weed Part 1 shows Rollo and Tierney capturing a quiet and nigh-liturgical grandeur, tying musical and spiritual traditions into a gossamer Gordian knot.
TSVI – Fact Mix 819
Since his debut as TSVI in 2014, Guglielmo Barzacchini has helped mutate the dankest corners of UK dance music into all sorts of contorted forms. His style is stubbornly idiosyncratic, full of whiplash-inducing percussion workouts and a globe-collapsing approach to influence. (When Barzacchini was last in this column, as recently as last month, it was for a dizzying mix that traversed the spaces between dub, techno, hard drum, and singeli.) On his mix for Fact, he looks elsewhere yet again: gorge music. GORGE.IN, the chief provider of the stuff, says that it’s “inspired by rock climbing and mountaineering”; in a 2013 interview, DJ Nanga, a core producer affiliated with the label, put it simply: “If toms are used, it is Gorge.” In TSVI’s hands, this means a spartan and militaristic vision of dance music, full of blown-out tom drums and sheets of noise. Throughout Fact Mix 819, he collides the forms together until they read as one. He blends with such speed and elegance that watching the sounds molt is half the fun; while flecks of footwork, gqom, amapiano, and contemporary UK club tools show up here, they’re all refracted into baffling forms, flipped inside out and cranked way up. The mix offers yet another vision into TSVI’s omnivorous take on club music, full of rock-hard rhythms that dare listeners to grab their pitons.
Yung Singh – Boiler Room London
When Yung Singh’s mix for UK garage label Shuffle ‘n’ Swing came out last year, it was something of a revelation. On that set, the Daytimers affiliate showed off the sheer depth of South Asian garage, taking an entire history off the sidelines and thrusting it onto the global stage. It follows that his mix for Boiler Room, recorded with throngs of people swarming the decks, scans as a bit of a coronation. Here, he shows off the depth of his crates at a breakneck pace, intertwining countless club-music styles in beguiling ways: in an early toss of the gauntlet, he jumps from soaring bhangra to the negative-space dubstep of SBTRKT’s “Wildfire” and incisive UK drill with Punjabi ties. Give him a few more minutes, and he’s flipping Rye Rye and The Game, making it look wholly natural all the while. It’s a truly globetrotting set that presents a defiantly joyous vision for dance music; by the end, Singh is dancing, too, tears streaming down his face as the rhythms rain down.