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Every month, Philip Sherburne listens to a whole lot of mixes so that you only have to listen to the very best ones.
September is back-to-school season, so it seems fitting that many DJs took their skills back to the drawing board this month, reimagining dance music’s creative possibilities. Recent sets from Beta Librae, Via App, CCL, and Pontiac Streator suggest that something very interesting is afoot on the fringes of the American electronic underground. Also on deck: ever-so-slightly more regimented sets from club experimentalists RP Boo, Barker, Lena Willikens, and Aphex Twin himself.
Aphex Twin – London 14/09/19
“Braindance,” rather than “IDM,” was always the genre term preferred by Richard D. James’ Rephlex label, and while Aphex Twin’s music often emphasizes the cerebral half of that construction, his recent set at London’s Printworks put most of its chips on the corporeal. A sort of hybrid DJ/live affair, it leans heavily on pounding techno, electro, and breakbeat hardcore, fleshing out classic records from Future Sound of London and Underground Resistance—plus recent fare from AQXDM and ZULI—with his own synth, drums, and noisy manipulations. Early on, the pianos of Shadows J’s Manuel Göttsching-sampling song “Hip This House” spark a cheer, perhaps fooling punters into thinking they’re about to hear “Sueño Latino”; toward the end, he puts his machines through the paces for a 15-minute stretch of live performance. The most spellbinding moment of all might be when a 160-BPM blast of overdriven drum machines gives way to Aphex Twin’s SAWII classic “Stone in Focus,” a beatific breather before he plunges back into a pummeling finale of jungle and noise.
Lena Willikens – Discwoman 78
Lena Willikens’ club sets lie far to the left of most DJs’ deepest experimental detours, so you can bet that when she puts together a set of tunes she says she doesn’t get a chance to play in clubs or festivals, it’s going to be interesting. This hourlong Discwoman showcase is as ominous as her work usually is—streaked with soot, soaked in echo, slathered with post-industrial effect. But without a dancefloor to please, she gets to stretch her tempos at both extremes, from funereal torpor to frenzied electro. Long passages have the feel of a lenticular image: Heard one way, they’re slow and measured, while heard another, they’re head-over-heels fast. And a minor detail, but a fun one: This is surely the first time that anyone has ever blended 2000s garage-rock cosplayers the Horrors with Slikback, reigning king of the East African avant-garde.
Beta Librae – Oscillate Recording No 09
I don’t include many mixes longer than two hours in this column, for simple reasons: Life is short, and there’s a ton of music out there to get through. Plus, for home-listening purposes, not a lot of DJs can really craft a convincing narrative over such a considerable span. But this three-hour session from Brooklyn’s Beta Librae is an exception. Though recorded during the afternoon in the outdoor garden of Berlin’s ://about blank club, it feels more like a basement set, the eerie sonics reminiscent of clammy pipes and cascading plaster. The mood turns spiky and odd about 30 minutes in , and from there, her shapeshifting techno just gets darker and trippier, the tempo climbing gradually to a 140-BPM climax. Like the best, most ambitious club sets, this one really is a journey.
RP Boo – Crack Mix 308
RP Boo mixes a lot like he produces, whipping woozy sub-bass and insistent loops into a thick, viscous current. It’s a portrait of footwork at its most unhinged, streaking wobbly polyrhythms with chopped-up vocals and instrumental samples made radically strange. The highlight comes just five minutes into the mix, as a dizzying rework of Yazoo’s “Situation,” an early-’80s synth-pop classic, gets flipped into a double-time edit of Tweet’s eternal “Oops (Oh My)” from 20 years later. Moments like these make footwork’s particle-accelerator speeds seem positively supernatural.
Barker – FACT Mix 720
Sam Barker’s Utility is one of the year’s most captivating electronic releases: A lion disguised in the softest, wooliest sheepskin, it’s a techno album made from ambient materials, but no less forceful for the lack of drums or hard edges. This set, stitched together out of passages from Barker’s recent live club sets, isn’t quite as ethereal; particularly in the second half, the percussive elements are more pronounced and the impact is heavier. But it’s still a bewitching fusion of ambient, dub techno, and IDM that, in its best moments, feels like floating on air.
Via App – Crack Mix 307
This set from New York’s Via App comes cloaked in an unmistakable sense of menace, and no matter how many times I listen, that undercurrent of danger never quite abates. Shifting between passages of glowering noise and club music, it’s a real head-fuck from start to finish. Just when you think you’re in for an extended session of power electronics, rolling house and grime from Bergsonist and Scratcha DVA & Nan Kolé cut a path to the dancefloor; just as you get used to those rhythms, the pendulum swings again. Whatever the hell is happening around the one-hour mark—as an edit of Missy Elliott’s “Throw It Back” gives way to drum’n’bass and then pummeling hard techno—makes for one of the most intense segues I’ve heard in a mix this year.
CCL – Unsound Podcast 56
Like Lena Willikens, Seattle’s CCL plays fast and loose with tempo in a podcast ahead of their appearance at Krakow’s Unsound festival. Kicking off way down in the 90 BPM doldrums, they set up an exploration of a range of unusual grooves, as slow-motion breakbeats collide with digital dancehall and hard-charging drum’n’bass flips seamlessly into ’80s electro-funk with a Compass Point feel. By alternating between slow, steady cadences and double-time permutations, CCL teases the illusion of flitting back and forth between two parallel dimensions—a heady sensation accented by the otherworldly qualities of these percussive jams.
Pontiac Streator – Motion Cast Vol. 36
Philadelphia’s Pontiac Streator has a slim discography so far, but in the past 14 months he’s put out two records with Ulla Straus on Huerco S.’s West Mineral Ltd. label—an association that goes some way in helping to orient his oblique, slippery sound. Much like Huerco’s music, Pontiac Streator’s work resists being pinned down: It’s full of lumpy grooves on the verge of pulling apart and falling to pieces, and its surface frequently seems coated with a fine film of residue. His set for Motion Ward’s Motion Cast series is no different. Wobbly, elliptical rhythms blossom into deeply satisfying ambient dub techno before disintegrating pulses are ground back to dusty abstraction. Even after four or five listens, it still leaves more questions than answers.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork