Slam on the CDJ: The Best DJ Sets of November 2021

Slam on the CDJ returns with the best DJ sets of the past month featuring Astrid Øster Mortensen, Ellen Arkbro, LOIF and more.
By    November 30, 2021

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Michael McKinney absorbs more music in a week than most do in an entire calendar year.

As the days get shorter and the air gets crisper, it’s tempting to hunker down and move a bit more quietly. In October, plenty of DJs offered fitting soundtracks for this impulse, burrowing into nooks and crannies to find entirely new worlds. Astrid Øster Mortensen reached across continents for an hour of folk-music psychedelia, and Bored Lord pulled off a similar trick, albeit with dubbed-out trip-hop. Ellen Arkbro, the Swedish composer best known for her glacial compositional style, dug into slow-motion ambiance and electronics; Exael spun plainspoken ambient into a thing of ethereal beauty.

If getting out and moving’s more your speed, though, there’s a handful of selectors worth looking towards. D. Strange blended an hour of serrated electro and dystopian techno for Truants; for Resident Advisor, New Jersey’s reigning club-music champ UNIIQU3 showed off her anything-goes and firestarting approach to Jersey club. LOIF and Myles Mac both went deep: the former with slippery IDM and headphone heaters of all stripes, and the latter with a session of ‘90s chillout and sun-kissed house ripped straight from Ibiza. New York’s Physical Therapy showed off his omnivorous attitude at Nowadays, slamming Radiohead into reggaeton and rave-up retrofuturism; Zara zoomed in on drum-and-bass, turning in a session that moves from a quiet simmer of snares to a roiling boil.

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

Astrid Øster Mortensen – Motion Cast Vol. 77

Gro Mig En Blomst, the debut record from Swedish folk-music experimentalist Astrid Øster Mortensen, is most impressive for its quiet grandeur. She uses intimate sounds—hushed vocals, elliptical guitars, snatches of field recordings—and crafts epics in miniature, gently pushing the listener’s gaze towards the stars all the while. She pulls off a similar trick on her DJ set for Motion Ward, piling up plainspoken folk musics into beguiling shapes that seem to span centuries: spare flights for acoustic guitar, sand-encrusted drone reminiscent of Earth’s most Old-West excursions, and disorientingly minimal close-harmony acapella. Thanks to her tight control over tone, Mortensen is able to bridge all sorts of supposed gaps here, moving from medieval-fair processionals to liturgical choral music with grace. The resultant mix is both intimate and communal, sounding tailor-made for evenings filled with starlight and crackling embers.

Bored Lord – Saying It Could Even Make It Happen

Bored Lord is best known for her anything-goes take on rave music: catch her Bandcamp at the right time and you’re liable to find old-school breaks, tranced-up rap flips, nu-metal club edits, or bass-blasted techno. The most striking thing about her set for c-, then, is its subtlety. The session opens with a bit of staticky ambiance, only to crack open with a Shabba Ranks dub replete with neck-snapping snares and tight vocal harmonies, but that, too, turns out to be a bit of a feint. Saying It Could Even Make It Happen is named for a lyric in Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting,” which appears midway through the mix atop J Dilla’s “Sunbeams,” and that combination encapsulates much of the hour: dreamy topline, roughshod percussion, and a thoroughly trippy atmosphere. Elsewhere, that style manifests in a shift from the dusty drums and turntablism psychedelia of DJ Krush’s “Kemuri” to globetrotting trip-hop courtesy of Tulka’s “Meena Devi (Funky Trigger Mix)”; later still, it’s the dreamy flute-trance of Statik Sound System’s “Secret Love.” The title of the mix points towards the power of vocalization, suggesting that a mere suggestion is enough to make something tangible: its sounds, both spectral and deeply felt, lend the power of manifestation a sonic heft.

D. Strange – Truancy Volume 284

In his interview with Truants, Chicago’s D. Strange briefly speaks about Blade Runner: it contains his favorite film score, it strongly influenced his 2019 LP Off World, and he’s seen the film so many times that it helps him sleep. This affinity comes as little surprise after listening to his mix for the site: this is an hour of neon-lit electro and broken-machinery techno, all storming grooves shifted slightly off-center. Broadly speaking, it falls under the umbrella of industrial techno—these are tough rhythms, fit for gritted teeth and fog-blasted dancefloors—but it is far closer to the former descriptor than the latter. That works to the set’s benefit. D. Strange spends an hour throwing wrenches into his own grooves, whether it’s a sudden shift from peak-time techno to dystopian electro-minimalism or a riveting bit that jumps from garbled electronics, walls of sound, sputtering drum kits, and overdriven kick drums. If D. Strange’s sound gestures towards the mechanical, his mixing reveals a total dedication towards gumming up the works. Given that style, of course the set runs hot, moving so aggressively that it threatens to derail itself throughout. Like Blade Runner, Truancy Volume 284 is carefully crafted techno-dystopianism with plenty of soul hiding between the wires.

Ellen Arkbro – 19th October 2021

Ellen Arkbro’s compositions don’t move so much as gradually unfurl, revealing new depths to pre-existing forms. Her work exists somewhere between modern classical, ambient, and drone music, stretching chords and crashes for guitars and organs and percussion into enveloping shapes. For the debut episode of her monthly Moving Places show on NTS Radio, Arkbro leans into that framework with a lineup of similarly minded musicians: Brian Eno, Paul De Marinis, Ellen Fullman, the late Jon Hassell. She selects with patience throughout, opting for quiet ambiance and elliptical compositions. At points, this means an extended portion of Robert Ashley’s spoken-word opus Private Parts; elsewhere, it’s the hiss-rattle glitch-percussion of “Apotropaic” by Kid Millions and Jan St. Werner. The specifics are hardly the point, though: 19th October 2021 is about the long uncurling of tones, stretching into infinity and slowing down time along the way.

Exael – Pleasure Gallery S2 E1

They’re a mainstay of this column already, but it still bears repeating: Exael, alongside a rolodex of similarly-minded artists—Ben Bondy, Perila, Pontiac Streator, Special Guest DJ, Ulla—have quietly, for years, been unspooling and reassembling ambient music into beguiling forms. For their mix for Bristol’s Pleasure Gallery, Exael taps into that mode yet again, offering up an hour of blurry IDM, field recordings, and elongated drones. It has a quiet but undeniable pulse, with each kick drum shrouded behind a thick layer of fog; this is quiet and intimate music, full of gauzy synthesizers and wide-open sound design. The cover recedes a few times, exposing the beating heart at the center of it all: two deeply affecting and strikingly minimal Ariana Grande edits, spots of pointillistic trance synthesizers, a dip into rattling drum-kit wizardry alongside ethereal choirs. Exael has a long history of creating quiet majesty out of a few keyboards and drum tones; Pleasure Gallery S2 E1 reaffirms their skill with conjuring understated beauty.

Kohwi – Imagem

Imagem begins simply. KiNK’s “Soar” is made of just a few elements: rubbery synthesizers in a locked groove, a metronomic hi-hat, and understated strings. Thanks to its slow-motion melancholia, the track is both woozy and mellow; it sounds like unease gnawing at the edges of serenity. That sentiment proves indicative. Kohwi assembles a patchwork of sounds Imagem—sluggish ambient-rap edits, trance-inflected pop numbers, slamming and acidic techno—but never quite shakes that initial grogginess. Even the most wild-eyed moments sink back into sludgy ambience here, but that back-and-forth motion offers plenty of surprises. It’s both playful and moody, full of slippery blends and dimly lit electronics. It’s a slyly mixed session full of feints and left hooks; Kohwi straddles umpteen styles throughout the set but seems more interested in the cracks between.

LOIF – 6° of Separation

The most striking thing about 6° of Separation may be its atmosphere: LOIF splits the difference between heads-down dancefloor sonics and blissed-out sounds befitting the 2-a.m. drive home, creating a session that is both downcast and driving. Along this tightrope, the Melbourne DJ finds all sorts of spaced-out rhythms: pastel-colored IDM, full of squiggly synthesizers and slippery drum kits; ambience made up of strobe-lit keyboards and murmured vocals; deep house records with a bit of haunted-house uneasiness on top; elliptical trance that pairs the genre’s promises of euphoria with hefty kicks. On paper, 6° of Separation links so many styles together that it ought to fall apart under its own weight. In practice, though, LOIF blends with ease and finesse, taking the finest strands of each track and weaving them together into a trippy patchwork that never shows its seams.

Myles Mac – Juanita’s Mix 056

Myles Mac says he’s got an enthusiasm for ‘90s dance and chill-out records, but don’t take his word for it: queue up his mix for Juanita’s NYC. For Juanita’s Mix 056, the Melbourne DJ (and Melbourne Deepcast head) goes deep, offering up two hours of laid-back house records suitable for sunrise dancefloors. The set starts slow and serene, all blurry synthesizers and jazzy drums, but things pick up pretty quickly: the tempo and mood both pick up, moving from plainspoken beachside ambiance to heartfelt dancefloor optimism. Along the way, there’s a smattering of low-key hip-hop, plenty of sun-kissed ‘90s trance, and a seemingly endless supply of contagiously optimistic house records. Mac leans deep into chill-out room wizardry here; smooth mixing and a tight handle on atmosphere let him render each vocal performance a bit more affecting than the last, each bit of air a bit breezier, and each groove a bit deeper.

Physical Therapy – Live @ Nowadays Oct 9 2021

Whether in his mixes or under an ever expanding roster of aliases, Daniel Fisher has built up an endlessly rewarding body of work. This is largely thanks to his reverence for, and playful approach to, genre and style. He’s as likely to be hyperspecific—his output includes souped-up UK garage and Phil Lynott’s discography, melancholy disco and soft-rock and country dubs—as he is to straddle a million sounds simultaneously, like his head-spinning half-time set for Honcho Campout 2019. Live @ Nowadays is closest to the latter set: it sees Fisher at his most omnivorous, jumping between hard-drum Rihanna bootlegs, white-label jungle records, and sweltering dubstep. In the most daring turn of the session, he blends a pair of groggy Radiohead flips into the riotous ghettotech of DJ Nasty’s “Blowing Bubbles,” but this sort of anything-goes energy runs through the rest of the set, too: at one point, he crashes reggaeton-injected R&B crashing into jagged post-everything UK bass music, at another, he takes Sundan’s left-field club-rap stormer “Act a Hoe Widdit” and dissolves it into cragged and disorienting dubstep. It almost sounds like Fisher is daring himself into ever stranger corners as the mix heats up. The greatest joy of Live @ Nowadays, then, is that he never loses the dancefloor along the way: this is top-notch club-night fodder from front to back, all wholly unexpected selections mixed with a wink.

UNIIQU3 – RA.800

UNIIQU3 has dubbed herself New Jersey’s “club queen,” and not without reason. Her music, while predominantly rooted in the jostling and rapidfire rhythms of Jersey club, makes room for plenty of other East-Coast sounds—post-Miami club-rap, chopped-up Baltimore CDJ fodder, the genre-agnostic techno-etc. pouring out of New York. On RA.800, she proves her chops yet again, deploying East Coast club’s idioms in full force. It’s a blazing hour of storming drums, stuttering vocals, a kitchen-sink approach to percussion, and a laser focus on the dancefloor. Critically, there’s piles upon piles of bootlegs, too: pop-radio bombs retooled into cheeky and firestarting club-music tools, like a disorientingly minimal take on the Black Eyed Peas, an everything-at-once Beyoncé refix, or a full-throttle Cardi B edit courtesy of UNIIQU3 herself. Much like the best Jersey club, it’s a piledriving session of breathless club sounds that, no matter their hyper-regional roots, are suited for club nights the world over.

Zara – Animix Fifty One

On one extreme, drum-and-bass can be a thing of rip-roaring snares and surging basslines; on the other, it can be so subtle that it threatens to dissipate entirely. Animix Fifty One offers a survey of that range. Across eighty-six minutes, she moves from dreamy ambience to blistering breaks, slowly cranking up the heat until the whole thing returns to languid synthetics. As with plenty of drum-and-bass mixes, the sound is simultaneously ancient and strikingly immediate. Even the most well-worn drum patterns are rendered with enough heft to make each kick drum land like a gut punch. That sort of precision engineering makes even the most outré gestures hit: basslines that sound like wobbling dubplates, acid-drenched almost-techno, a brief dip into unsettling spoken-word otherworldliness. By celebrating drum-and-bass in all its forms, Zara offers up a gnarled and daring vision for what it can sound like.

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