Slam on the CDJ: The Best DJ Sets of May, 2023

Michael McKinney's Slam on the CDJ column returns with the best DJ sets of the past month, featuring Bitter Babe, Optigram, Ploy and much more.
By    June 8, 2023

Image via Michael McKinney

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One of the joys of running a DJ-mix column lies in challenging popular conceptions of what the format can sound like. There’s a long and proud history of mixes on the dancefloor, of course, but it can be so much more than that, too. Since this column started in early 2020, it’s paid host to any number of alternative visions of what a DJ mix can be: spoken word and folk-music collagery; twisted-up blends of bossa nova and modern classical records; ambient-trap world-building; industrial-din noise and metal; screw-faced Middle Eastern drill; Polish electroacoustic experimentalism; synth-pop belters; and dozens more besides that. The format offers endless room for experimentation and play, with many of its best names diving deep into highly specific rabbit holes and coming up with things that are downright bewildering. It’s joyous, it’s heady, it’s endlessly surprising, it’s beautiful.

But, sometimes, you need to set all that aside and grab a skull-cracking kick drum. To put it bluntly: if you’re coming to this column looking for an ambient fix, you’ve got slim pickings this time around. There’s two sets on the lower-key end of things, each pulled from contemporary listening bars—chilled-out ambient, bossa nova, and folk music from Luis Martin Gonzales, and a wide-ranging exploration of folk, progressive-electronic experiments, and disheveled vocal cuts from Elina Tapio & Lou.

If you’re willing to turn things up a notch, there’s plenty more to love. Escaflowne, mixing live from Nowadays, turned in a masterclass in the art of opening up a club night; on the other side of the globe, Berlin’s Barker explored the genre acrobatics happening in 140-160 BPM club music. Over in Australia, Reptant introduced a new tech-house alias and showed off just how much joy there is in a well-laid drum pattern, and Oakland’s Faited traced the intersections between trance, techno, and breakbeats. Kahn & Neek, two critical names in the fields of dubstep and grime, dug deep into the genres’ scuzziest corners, and Bitter Babe showed off the percussive pile-ups that have turned Miami into a club-night hotspot. Huerco S. and Ploy both turned in anything-goes sessions that underlined the sheer joy in modern dance music, vaulting between gut-twisting techno, light-speed acid wigglers, trunk-rattling rap records, and just about anything else liable to cave in a dancefloor.

The Carry Nation and Bouffant Bouffant, long-time fixtures of queer club scenes—New York and New Orleans, respectively—offered up two meticulously crafted sets: the former leaning into the fast-and-sassy tradition of New York house music, the latter going decidedly oddball, with plenty of delightfully left-field picks and an undeniable groove. East-coast selector boxofbox dug deep into early-’90s rave-record cuts for their latest session, crafting a sweat-soaked time capsule in the process; Phil in a Maze, mixing from Prague, dug deep into modern dancehall tools, leaning hard into ragged and sharp-edged rhythms. In a session on NTS, Calm Stiege tapped into the rich history of R&B white-labels, crafting an hour of dancefloor heartbreakers; for their turn on the airwaves, Optigram pulled up WhatsApp, taking a deep dive into the tectonic-plate rhythms of gqom.

On the heavier end of the spectrum, DJ Pacifier slammed together Rihanna, Radiohead, and Shrek in a rapid-fire and memetic set for Fact magazine. Over at Bang Face 2023, several DJs went faster and messier still: NTS Hard Crew, in preparation for the festivities, turned in a steamrolling session of drum-and-bass; at the festival proper, Hanka pulled off a similar trick with a slightly more old-school edge. Indian Junglist, a fixture in modern breakcore scenes, showed off their light-speed drum machine trickery, and DJ Bus Replacement Service found the sweet spot between Eurovision cheese and industrial-techno stompers. Lucy Stoner turned in a delirious, kitchen-sink set of modern hard-dance tools, delivering left hook after left hook, and Saint Acid, the festival’s founder, leaned into happy hardcore, vintage breakbeats, and riotous refixes.

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

Barker – 3024 Tapes 005

In the interview that accompanies 3024 Tapes 005, Barker made his modus operandi quite clear: he’d focus on club-ready tracks that fell between 140 and 160 BPM, looking for tracks that don’t have straight-ahead kick-drum programming. That structuring might read a bit rigid at first, but in practice, it’s downright chameleonic. While 140-BPM and 160-BPM club tracks generally occupy a few distinct styles (garage, dubstep, and grime for the former; footwork, juke, and jungle for the latter), the space between is a bit of a no man’s land, offering enterprising producers a chance to stretch well-trodden styles into fresh territories.

This genre-bending, as well as his focus on unusual kick-drum programming, is of a piece with his other work: Utility, his remarkable solo LP from 2019, takes techno idioms but jettisons obvious rhythms in favor of something far more spaced-out. With 3024 Tapes, the Berlin techno wizard aims his sights straight at the dancefloor, applying his left-field rhythmic sensibilities to club-night rollers. The mix offers a window into this world of dancefloor puzzlers, shuffling between fifty-odd tracks that sit somewhere between techno, jungle, and dubstep-adjacent experimentalism. There’s any number of oddball combinations here—bone-crunching drum breaks and elliptical trance, screeching dubstep and fleet-footed kind-of-techno, starry-eyed jungle and worryingly quick 2-step—but Barker keeps things tight, mixing tracks with a veteran’s touch and without a scuffed blend in sight. You could see 3024 Tapes 005 as an exploration of an undersung and wildly exciting corner of modern electronic-music production, or you could just see it as a red-hot celebration of UK club music’s million histories. Either way, you’d be right.

Bitter Babe – Dekmantel Podcast 430

In recent years, Miami’s club circuit has undergone a bit of a glow-up. The city, once known as a grim mecca of bottle-service tech-house, has molted into something else entirely, as long as you know where to look. This renaissance is headlined by a core group of DJ-producers who, nearly to a tee, pull from the sounds of Latin American dance music—reggaeton, raptor house, kuduro—and fuse them with techno and breaks. Even with a recent move to Berlin, Bitter Babe, alongside like-minded names—Nick León, Coffintexts, Jonny From Space, INVT, Danny Daze—is a key player in this sound, and it looks like the world is finally catching up.

With Dekmantel Podcast 430, Bitter Babe offers a window into her take on nu-Miami dance music. She opens things up with a shuffling dembow-ish track that feels like it’s moving in three tempi at once, which is indicative; this session is all about polyrhythmic play. It doesn’t take long for her to go full tilt, and much of the set is spent with peak-time head-spinners: speedy dembow with skull-caving kicks, post-everything dubstep synths crashed into Miami-bass synth lines, steamrolling techno paired with whirlwinding tri-toms and space-age keyboards. The whole thing’s downright delirious, but it’s aesthetically right, too—no matter the particulars, everything here is about the way that drums grow and shift and engulf each other. With Dekmantel Podcast 430, Bitter Babe shows off the wild-eyed energy that makes Miami’s club scene so critical.

Bouffant Bouffant – Live From Savage

About halfway into Live From Savage, Bouffant Bouffant queues up something remarkable. The track in question, a bouncy and effervescent house cut, pairs a four-on-the-floor kick with some inspired accompaniment: first, an insistent jaw harp; then, a loopy flute line, an acid-house synth lead, and a manic woodwind solo to cap it all off. It’s a bit delirious and thoroughly joyful, which could double as a description of the rest of the set. Bouffant Bouffant has been spinning buoyant and off-the-wall house records from New Orleans for quite some time; he helped found Gimme a Reason, a monthly queer party based in the city, over nine years ago. In that light, it should come as little surprise that Live From Savage is immaculately selected and carefully blended, with plenty of oddball grooves turning towards something like ecstasy. Highlights abound: alien disco rubs against bleary-eyed deep house, with vocal loops echoing atop vertiginous synth lines; no-nonsense pumpers crash into hand-drum whirlwinds; and he even makes time for a few left-field bootlegs of some vintage pop hits. It all makes for a downright ebullient session which shows the power of house music at its most playful.

boxofbox – Mood Uplifting Eucalyptic Tricks

Deep in the tags for Mood Uplifting Eucalyptic Tricks, boxofbox laid a skeleton key to fitting the whole set together:“#fitness.” The set, which runs just north of six hours, is a long-form workout indeed, stuffed with dance music that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on exercise VHS tapes. From many DJs, a move this unabashedly retro might be a bit of a left turn, but from boxofbox, it’s par for the course: their introduction to this column, the jaw-dropping Sorry 2 Go – Party Pack Vol. 1 – 4, was framed as a love letter to the early-’90s moment when new jack swing, disco, and R&B all melted together. (That set, which also runs for about six hours, is well worth your time; it landed at #2 on this column’s 2021 year-end roundup.)

In that context, Mood Uplifting Eucalyptic Tricks might initially seem to be a bit of a retread, but that’s not exactly the case: if Sorry 2 Go zoomed in on a hyper-specific vision of dancefloor music—amped-up hip-hop and club-ready R&B—then their new session broadens things a bit, folding in all sorts of styles from early-’90s club nights. Here, they’re playing vintage hi-NRG and freestyle records; there, it’s chuggy house tracks and full-on Italo belters; elsewhere still, it’s no-nonsense acid rollers and souped-up breaks. The result is both wide and hyper-specific. Mood Uplifting Eucalyptic Tricks is a sweat-soaked time capsule that avoids the traps of pastiche through sheer joy; it is a celebration of bygone club sounds that’s liable to light up any club today.

Calm Stiege – My Heart Broke Into 140 Pieces

Sometimes, DJs are kind enough to give away the game. With My Heart Broke Into 140 Pieces, London’s Calm Stiege takes the twin traditions of screw-face UK dancefloor music and lovelorn R&B, twisting them around each other until they’re nearly indistinguishable. This is hardly new—DJs have been flooding the dancefloor with tears since the first white-label landed—but longevity has only given the approach a wider vocabulary. Calm Stiege understands this, taking all sorts of seemingly disparate sounds and trusting they’ll fit underneath a uniformly moody umbrella. To his credit, it works.

Scan through 140 Pieces and you’ll find a crash course in the past several years of tears-in-the-club music: souped-up Destiny’s Child cuts and tectonic-plate dubstep, heartrending grime records and chopped-up UKG-R&B. Beyond his iron grip on aesthetics, it helps that Stiege blends with a practiced precision, finding the seams in drum patterns and vocal runs only to split them open with each new selection. My Heart Broke Into 140 Pieces is at once a celebration of bass-heavy club music, downcast balladry, and the countless stylistic conversations blaring out of any proper soundsystem.

The Carry Nation – Full Tilt Carry

For lack of a better term, it’s worth saying it straight. At this point, The Carry Nation, a.k.a. Nita Aviance and Will Automagic, are icons of New York’s queer club circuit. Their music skews towards the tough-and-playful sounds of ‘90s New York house music, but they’re hardly stuck in the past; they’ve got a packed calendar, and many of their selections double as ways of putting on newer names. Full Tilt Carry, the latest recorded offering from the duo, is as a good a primer as any: it’s seventy minutes of deliriously playful four-on-the-floors, all funky synth leads, shuffle-and-swing percussion tracks, and unabashedly sexual dancefloor fodder. The one-two punch of Paurro’s “Mi Viejita” and Evelyn’s “Freakee” set the stage appropriately: the former, an odyssey of breakbeats and dial-up synth riffs; the latter, a wiggly and funked-up house jam suited for its titular dancers.

From there, they stick to the bones of what makes New York’s house scene great, leaning into hedonistic peak-time bombs, chest-rattling kick drums, and anthemic vocals. On paper, it’s nothing new for The Carry Nation, but that’s simply a product of how long they’ve been around. In practice, it’s a wild-eyed hour-plus of house-music jubilee—yet another session of dancefloor firestarters in a career filled with them.

DJ Pacifier – Fact Mix 907

Even in hardcore DJ sets, it’s not uncommon for things to start a bit subdued: you’ve got to have somewhere to build to, or so the logic goes. At this point, the structure’s a well-earned trope—ambient to start out, some form of quick-and-hot dance music to close. That’s by no means always the case, though. On Fact Mix 907, DJ Pacifier throws that structure out entirely, opting for full-throttle club stormers from the jump. In both sound and form—quick, memetic, and unabashedly heavy—it brings to mind works from all sorts of internet-addled hard-dance masterminds: DJ Fingerblast, Minor Science, Lobsta B. How else could you explain opening things up with a footwork-jungle bootleg of Kid A?

Things only get stranger from there as DJ Pacifier leans ever further into playful and messy bootlegging: there’s a light-speed edit of C&C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now,” a car-crash breakbeat take on UK drill’s self-proclaimed geezers, a healthy shot of low-end bassline scorchers, a riotous techno-breaks “Sandstorm” refix, a screeching-breakbeat Shrek flip. (That’s just the first twenty minutes.) It’s the kind of memetic and everything-goes hard-dance that’s a bit risky; the line between dancefloor humor and cheap jokes is a thin one indeed. But DJ Pacifier lands their blends more often than not, rocketing between sounds and reference points with a wink and a smile. Why spend time building towards a climax, they seem to ask, when you could just stay there instead?

Elina Tapio & Lou – murmur

For the first eight minutes of murmur, there’s almost nothing playing at all. Elina Tapio & Lou open their set with a shot of disorientation: a barely-there hi-hat and keyboards shimmering in the distance, forming a cloudy background while a crowd of whispered voices turns to a blur. It’s a fitting start to the set, which, over the course of nearly four hours, conjures entire worlds out of stomach-twisting emptiness. Much of the mix is composed with material that you could loosely call “folk” music, stretching across oceans and centuries in the process. This approach, which is simultaneously meditative and a bit freewheeling, recalls a few others who use the DJ set as a form of historiography: Time Is Away, with folk, classical, and ancient musics; JD Twitch, with dub and dancehall; and Jake Muir, with ambient and turntablism.

For their contribution to this canon, Elina Tapio & Lou spend murmur chasing ghosts of music long gone, finding connective tissue between all sorts of styles. There’s pointillistic electronic experimentalism and ramshackle guitar selections; there’s throttled-saxophone free-jazz freakouts and militant drone records; there’s harpists playing something close to jazz and something that finds the intersection of breakbeats, frenzied bebop, and spaghetti-western siren songs. murmur is the sound of two DJs pushing each other into ever stranger territories, digging kaleidoscopes out of their crates along the way.

Escaflowne – Nowadays Nonstop

There’s an art to the opening set. Once a club night gets going, anyone getting behind the decks is tasked with taking the reins on an already lively room; they need to take the sound of the previous performer and fold it into their own aesthetic. But the opener has an entirely different task: warm up a room, offer an entry point for any dancers that filter in, and set things off right. Escaflowne—a.k.a. New York DJ-producer Brandon Terral—handled the opening hours at a recent party at Nowadays, and it’s a masterclass in the subtle art of getting a dancefloor primed. Terral opens things up with a bit of low-slung techno: dial-up synths and lightly smacked snare drums laid just so, the whole affair coming off as pleasantly analog even as synthetic voices mutter atop the whole affair.

From there, it’s all about a slow build. Early on, this means slow-and-low downtempo and muted techno, but Terral slowly turns things up: given enough time and dancers, he can throw down with the best of them. Eventually, he’s working with riotous neoperreo and white-knuckle bass tools, but that transition is anything but obvious. Terral’s blends are smooth enough to be downright disorienting, and he routinely puts seemingly contrasting BPMs, energies, and styles in conversation, folding genres into each other until the whole thing’s boiled over. Nowadays Nonstop is a remarkable bit of tone-setting: from moment to moment and from hour to hour, Escaflowne carefully sets up an atmosphere and proceeds to turn it inside out.

Faited – Ever Afters 2023

Melbourne’s best DJs have, at least as of late, been triangulating the spot between trance, techno, and progressive-house records: chuggy, technicolor, and plenty playful. At the sound’s best, it’s tough to tell if you’re listening to something from 1992 or 2023. So it is with Faited’s opener of choice: Adam Pits’s “Cosmic Confession,” a zonked-out bit of trance-techno, every steamrolling kick drum offset by synthesizers that glimmer like starlight. A set filled with this kind of thing would be more than welcome, but Faited does something far more impressive, spending the next hundred-odd minutes slipping some sneers in with the snares, taking an ebullient sound and thoroughly curdling it.

It’s hard to precisely pinpoint when this happens: is it during the switch towards acid techno, the bit where she first grabs 2-step snares and slides some drum-and-bass underneath, the turntablist change-ups between spindly techno and white-hot breaks? It’s tough to say precisely, but at some point the session turns to a full-on rager. Faited eventually brings it full circle, easing the BPMs back down and landing in the prog-trance record bins she started out from. Ever wily, she’s still got one more trick up her sleeve: a blissed-out coda of experimental ambience, scraggly electronics, and, lastly, astral-plane techno. It’s a fitting way to close out the set, which sees Faited taking Australia’s club-music vernacular and launching it into parts unknown.

Huerco S. – Podlasie, Chicago

Huerco S. may have made his name on head-spinning ambience, but in recent years, he’s made a point of fighting against that reputation. Nowadays, he’s playing tougher, and stranger, material: plugg, left-field baile, blown-out reggaetón, inside-out techno. It’s frequently primed for the dancefloor, but it always zigs where it ought to zag, and he’s got a predilection for deep-fried dance music pulled from the farthest reaches of SoundCloud. This is confrontational stuff; it’s what happens if producers took the idea of “IDM” literally; it’s club music as something that can bend brains while keeping ravers moving. With Podlasie, Chicago, he offers up an hour and a half of avant-dancefloor fuel, keeping his eyes on the rave even as he pushes into deeply strange territories. At first, that translates to scrambled, kitchen-sink synthesizers, which coalesce into a series of stagger-stepping drum workouts: alien 2-step, wiggly dubstep, drunken techno.

Huerco S. follows this thread—to put it simply, zonked-out drum tracks—for the rest of the session, tracing a line between all sorts of dancefloor histories along the way. Near the end, he even folds in a bubblegum-laced Sicko Mobb cut; in the process, he underlines just how short the line is between Autechre, juke, and Chicago rap. It’s perhaps the set’s most audacious blend, but it’s by no means an outlier. Podlasie, Chicago is the sound of a relentlessly innovative DJ stretching drums into new forms yet again.

Kahn & Neek – 2nd May 2023

A decade after their debut, Kahn & Neek are still on the move. The dubstep innovators have maintained a monastic dedication to low-end dancefloor music throughout their career, taking a seemingly uniform pallette—stomach-churning bass cuts—and stretching it as far as possible. To celebrate the release of their first full-length record, the pair took over the NTS airwaves to show off their crates, underlining their allegiance to tooth-cracking dubstep and grime along the way. It’s filled to the brim with the usual suspects: mechanical and alien drum programming; a dimly lit and vertiginous low-end; and a murderer’s row of grime MCs. It’s a striking aesthetic, bridging the distance between horror-flick scores, no-nonsense club tools, and hard-nosed rap. Khan & Neek could ride that out for hours, and it would be enough.

But they dive down blind alleys anyways: midway through the session, they jump-cut into a few turgid Memphis rap records, arguing, quite effectively, that their low-end rumble isn’t that far removed from grime and dubstep. And then, slowly, they work their way back towards Bristol, turning up the bass but keeping the lights dimmed. Kahn & Neek no longer have anything to prove, but on 2nd May 2023, they act like they do, offering up a masterclass of skin-crawling dubstep and grime.

Luis Martin Gonzales – inis:eto

Spend enough time digging through the inis:eto archives and a throughline starts to emerge. The “deep listening party,” based in the city of Naha, Japan, has been hosting an irregular mix series since 2018, and they have predominantly played host to names that make, as it’s called in club circles, “listening music”: material that simply wouldn’t work on the dancefloor, unless selectors are feeling particularly brave. (In general approach and aesthetic tendency, the party is in line with listening bars, which originated in 1950s Japan but have seen a resurgence across the world in the past few years.) For his turn behind the decks, Luis Martin Gonzales bridges the gaps between sun-kissed bossa nova, hushed folk music, half-remembered dream pop, and cloudy ambience. It’s a canny choice: even his bleariest ambient cuts carry a bit of a groove, and every guitar line here feels a bit haunted.

That aesthetic throughline holds everything together as Gonzales flips through his crates, threading all sorts of ancient-sounding music together along the way. In one particularly arresting segment, Gonzales grabs a bit of dream-logic drone music—and few tones on an organ held into infinity as synthesizers swirl around it—and folds it into a track of fingerpicked guitars and barely there vocals; in that moment, it sounds like the ghosts of bossa nova. Much of inis:eto moves like this: histories braided around each other until they are nearly indistinguishable.

Optigram – Gqom Special

On its face, gqom is a simple proposition: loop any drum pattern enough times and it starts to sound like infinity. But the twentieth repeat often bears little resemblance to the first; sheer repetition has a way of changing the way something lands. (Just ask any of the 20th-century giants of minimalism.) But the best gqom complicates the proposition further, often by cranking the dials until every drum hits with an earth-cracking intensity. On Gqom Special, Optigram goes deep into the darkest ends of gqom, leaning into elliptical and heavyweight electronics. Griffit Vigo’s “Bush Makheninkha” sets the stage: a clatter of drums, a looped vocal echoing into the distance, militaristic snare patterns, and a cragged low-end that sounds like creaking tectonic plates.

From there, it’s all pitch-black and elliptical club stompers, full of drums chasing each other into increasingly elliptical and hefty territories. By leaning into such a particular corner of gqom, Optigram turns in a veritable survey of the scene, making equal space for WhatsApp gems, Durban mainstays, and critical names from the global stage. This, like so much of the best gqom, is function-first club music taken to its logical extreme: drum loops laid just so and stretched into infinity.

Phil in a Maze – Hell and High Water

The appeal of Hell and High Water is simple. In eighty-odd minutes, Prague-based DJ Phil in a Maze offers up an apocalyptic vision of dancehall and dembow tools, with roughshod rhythms riding atop queasy ambience. It’s a potent combination and it’s no stranger to this column; to name two examples, look to Mexico’s Sueuga and Brussels’s Ojoo Gyal, the latter of whom was behind one last year’s best mixes. Hell and High Water is a potent addition to the canon of modern industrial-riddim sessions. For one, its tracklist is a veritable survey of the scene that shows just how far it’s spread: bugged-out dub records from Gloucester’s Rider Shafique, million-limbed drum workouts from Egyptian producer ZULI, livewire hard-drum tracks from Stockholm’s Peder Mannerfelt, maddening “speed dembow” from Parisian producers Siu Mata and Amor Satyr.

You’d be forgiven for missing just how geographically varied the session is, though—Phil in a Maze keeps their focus on corrugated-metal rhythms throughout, seamlessly connecting even the most disparate cuts thanks to their iron grip on aesthetics. The resultant session is a testament to just how far dancehall’s borders, and sounds, have spread: it’s simultaneously vertiginous and riotous, filled with rough-and-tumble MCs, creeping drums, and industrial-din sonics.

Ploy – 5-7 Closing @ The White Hotel

Early on in 5-7 Closing @ The White Hotel, Ploy pulls off something remarkable. The session is pulled from a closing-time slot, so it’s already high-energy, but he kicks things to another level, taking a steamrolling techno cut—little more than a hefty kick drum, muffled hi-hat, and droning synth lead—and blending it into a breakbeat edit of DJ Chose’s “Thick,” a raucous rap track that might as well be a Jersey-club tune. It’s a confrontational blend, in part because he holds it out for so long. The sonic friction—a stuttered chorus held against a bleary wall of kicks and keyboards—is delirious in its own right, and it makes it all the more gratifying when the breaks finally kick in. These sorts of blends—manic and thoroughly planned, with an unerring eye towards the dancefloor—is characteristic to Ploy’s style; he’s made a career out of wild-eyed stylistic car-crashes.

The real surprise, here, is where he ends up: Ploy’s sessions are often fueled by a kitchen-sink energy, but it’s typically on the darker end of things. This time around, he starts there but gradually turns up the lights, slowly folding in piles of old-school UK club rollers from across the hardcore continuum: screw-face garage, scream-along vocal house, shoulder-rolling breakbeat cuts. Never mind the shift in energy, though: Ploy’s wild-eyed blends are still at play, and, even if things are a bit sunnier, it’s still packed with left turns. 5-7 Closing @ The White Hotel captures one of the UK’s most striking DJs in peak form, diving down blind alleys even as he lights the amps on fire.

Ulo S. – ani/live Twelve

It’s easy, and perhaps tempting, to make fun of tech house. The style, a fusion of EDM’s two largest exports, requires a big tent, and big tents often strip styles for parts with little regard to their origins or histories. But take issue with the audiences, narratives, and producers—the style itself is innocent. There’s a reason it blew up, after all: sometimes, all you need is a rock-solid groove, and tech house honors that above all else. Reptant, a.k.a. Melbourne bass wizard Lucas Hatzisavas, understands this. ani/live Twelve, his debut release under the alias, is predominantly composed of unreleased tech-house cuts. It’s little surprise, then, that his trademark sense of play is on full display: it’s an hour of squiggly synth lines, no-nonsense kick drums, and deep grooves. The result is an off-kilter and joyous session of effortless head-nodders, full of squelching keyboards and shuffle-and-skip hi-hats. ani/live Twelve is a celebration and exploration of tech house, with a healthy splash of acid thrown in for good measure.

NTS Hard Crew – Soup 2 Nos (Bangface Special) / DJ Bus Replacement Service – Bang Face 2023: Eurovision-o-Rama / Hanka – Bang Face Weekender 2023 / Indian Junglist – Bangface Weekender 2023 / Lucy Stoner – Bang Face 2023: Long May She Rave / Saint Acid – Bang Face Weekender 2023

To a certain chunk of ravers, Saint Acid might as well be next in line for the monarchy. In 2003, the English DJ founded Bang Face, a monthly club night in London that focused squarely on hardcore dance music: gabber, drum-and-bass, techno, breaks, and just about anything else that threatened to melt speakers. In the twenty years since, Bang Face has turned into a veritable institution. Its flagship event is an annual weekender, which doubles as a who’s-who of hardcore. Critically, it doesn’t take itself too seriously: ravers are encouraged to show up in themed costumes each year, and DJs seemingly have a license to play anything at all, as long as it’s sufficiently tough.

In preparation for this year’s festivities, the NTS Hard Crew—a.k.a. aya, Jennifer Walton, xin, Nymity, and Kast—took over NTS for a fittingly maddening hour, cackling and egging each other on as they pulled up increasingly manic drum-and-bass tracks. The whole thing starts hard and only gets harder as it runs on, eventually peaking with a barrage of screw-face Amen breaks and a peak-time Red Hot Chili Peppers flip. It’s the kind of tough-and-cheeky mixing that characterizes the festival, and it makes for a riotous pregame. For her session at the festival proper, DJ Bus Replacement Service went further still, fusing two of her musical passions: hard-nosed techno and Eurovision. Perhaps surprisingly, it works. Eurovision cuts shift styles and energies at a moment’s notice, but they’re often immaculately crafted so as to not induce whiplash. This gives her plenty of stylistic wiggle room, which could be dangerous in a less skilled DJ’s hands. But she anchors even the strangest swings with tough-as-nails techno, keeping the dancefloor moving even as she throws curveball after curveball: a heart-rending ballad laid atop million-ton donk drums, perhaps, or a straight-up aria reimagined as a gabber vocal.

Sometimes, though, you just need a pile of drum breaks. On that front, Hanka more than delivered: in a blistering sixty-minute set, the DJ dropped a seemingly unending series of drum-and-bass, jungle, and hardcore bombs, keeping things hot and varied throughout. But, no matter the variety in sounds and styles, it’s clear where her allegiances lie: early in the session, she drops a mashup of several vintage Prodigy cuts (“Smack My Bitch Up”; “Firestarter”; and “Voodoo People,” if not more). It’s sonic collagery rooted in a manic and wild-eyed vision of dance music, which prioritizes red-hot breakbeats above all else. The rest of the set follows that throughline to consistently winning results. Indian Junglist, a mainstay over at the always-critical breakcore hub Suck Puck Records, went faster and tougher still. In their set for Suck Puck’s takeover, they went deep on chopped-and-scattered drum kits, scrambling up snares and hi-hats at a dizzying clip. The set starts fast and a bit vertiginous—kick drums and synth stabs plodding along as snares move in quadruple-time atop. Critically, Indian Junglist spends the next hour upping both sides of that equation, finding a queasy balance between blazingly quick percussion and bizarro ambience. The result is both impressive and deeply strange: it seems to move in three tempi at once, repeatedly breaking apart only to reform in unrecognizable forms. It’s breakcore for falling down a black hole.

But never mind all that. Just as you might need a wall of breaks, sometimes, you need a million left hooks. Lucy Stoner opened her Bang Face session by hurling a javelin: first, a recording of a few ravers saying that they went to a “weird EDM” show; second, a slow-motion trap bootleg of “My Heart Will Go On.” It’s an audacious way to start a set, and it would only work if followed up with increasingly bizarre blends. Fortunately, that’s exactly what happens. As the set runs on, Lucy Stoner turns Busta Rhymes into a Mario brother, crashes Darude bootlegs into Black Eyed Peas deep cuts, and reimagines The Champs’s “Tequila” as a trap-EDM screamer. But look past all the memery and you’ll find rock-solid mixing; the session doubles as a survey of tough-and-fast dance music, from hardbass to drum-and-bass, gabber to donk, Baltimore club to psytrance.

Saint Acid, the originator of everything Bang Face, turned in a fittingly playful closing set for the weekender. Here, he looked towards the sounds that have been lighting up warehouses for decades: MID-keyboard breakbeats, TB-303s and Amen breaks, and lighters-up vocal cuts. It’s not entirely retro-minded, though. As the minutes tick on, Saint Acid gradually ups the BPM and intensity, moving into tougher and wilder blends along the way. It’s not long before he’s pulling off all sorts of rubbernecking party tricks: a mid-session vault into light-speed ragga jungle, eye-popping rap-rock bootlegs that move at triple-time, piano-house stompers given a blast of caffeine thanks to high-velocity techno kicks. In his most audacious bit, Saint Acid pulls out two separate bootlegs of Bebe Rexha & David Guetta’s “I’m Good (Blue),” itself a rework of Eiffel 65’s infamous Europop belter. But it’s Bang Face. The second time it comes around, it’s a little maddening—it’s rare for DJs to return to a source in a single session, let alone in the span of twenty minutes. But it’s also riveting: where else will you hear a gabber refix of a rewrite of an old-school piece of hardcore cheese? In its own way, it underlines the anything-goes spirit that has made Bang Face an institution. Here’s to another twenty years.

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