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First impressions of 2017 are that this could really be a year for rookie producers to step up and fill the gaps left by the ever-increasing numbers of departing big names. One of the big motivations behind In Praise of Shadows was to inspire new producers with the spirit of the past decade or so, but it’s very likely that CODEX is what’s most responsible for giving many of the Japanese crew the final push towards a DAW.

pld is the most prolific of the new faces on the scene, with an obvious taste for the Finnish and Japanese styles that has developed nicely over the past year. His most recent upload, Blitzkrieg, might be my favourite so far, thanks to some very atmospheric, consistent sounds and satisfyingly nasty filtering. It also crucially has that ‘surprise element’, a couple of melodic touches that I wasn’t expecting, immediately taking it up a few levels.

Another new track is Greed from 4nkoo and Gil, a track that starts quite strongly and then gets better with each new element. Very clearly Hyphen inspired, the second half of the track manages the impressive feat of improving on the breakdown, finding a nicely emotional spot that bodes well for future tracks.

Mokoko’s Neuro is a shorter track and apparently a first step into freeform production. Personally I’d prefer a grittier, less ‘clean’ sound, but there is some really nice filtering on the leads and a U-F SEQUENCER-esque style that I always enjoy. The lack of an outro or full intro means Neuro is more of an experiemnt than the others, announcing Mokoko as another name to keep an eye on.

I’m sure we’ve mentioned the Smiling Corpse Slack group before? If you were previously signed up to the now-departed Freeform Forum then you likely received a recent, gentle reminder that the Slack is the new place for freeform folk to gather. There’s definitely potential there and discussion seemed very lively when I first signed up, even if the time difference between Japan and Europe/the US makes it trickier for me to really take part. I’ll definitely be popping back now and then, and hopefully this link (thanks Sherkel!) will lead non-members to a sign-up page – with freeform awash in releases for an apparently shrinking audience, anything that solidifies the community a bit more is very welcome indeed.

Thought I’d make the most of this quiet spell for new sets by posting up another favourite from the Golden Age. This time it’s the very beginning – Alek Száhala playing at Säde, almost 14 years ago. That a good few of the tracks would still be in my all-time top ten says it a lot for Alek’s production, but this set is extra special for the live edits and interesting transitions that we don’t see much of from Live PA artists these days. Imagine hearing Invitation suddenly leaping into this set, back in 2003, or the atmosphere during the Afternoon Owl – Man Eaten mix.

Believe it or not, over the past few months I’ve actually been making more of an effort on the production front, putting in a few hours each week. Not quite the daily grind that I remember Aryx and Substanced both recommending, but I’m determined not to only have the Hell’s Gate remix to my name and it’ll hopefully end up leading somewhere. Seems like I’m not the only one, as the forum has woken up slightly with the first hoover/leads production discussion.

What with freeform being such a niche affair, videos that show the producers at work are an absolute mine of inspiration and guidance – some classics are of course Alek’s Ziggurat, Aryx’s Galaxis and Solar Flare, and Qygen’s Past Blaster. Now we can add Hyphen’s AWAKE remix to the list, doing for FL what the previous guides did for Reason users.

Hyphen’s YouTube channel already has some very nice tutorials and a look into his track Laser Fusion Reactor, but this video goes way deeper with almost 30 minutes of back and forth through the track, including detailed looks at the synths and piano rolls. This will massively benefit anyone, no matter the DAW, and whether you’re looking for a more uplifting sound or not this is surely the best introductory freeform tutorial so far.

The last couple of choices have just been submitted, and so it’s now time to share the Japanese scene’s favourite tracks of the past year. As with the 2015 edition I’ve added links to as many of the tracks as possible, hopefully helping those who want to hunt down the unfamilar choices.

In an effort to keep mine unbiased I’ve ruled out any tracks that appeared on In Praise of Shadows. Although that made things tricky (had the compilation appeared on a different label all of my choices would very likely have come from there) it was good fun to dig through the rest of the year’s releases. The three I’ve gone for are still excellent tracks of course, and would have been challenging for a place in the list either way.

As always, I hope you enjoy the look back – with such a strong year of releases it’d be great to see some Horser choices in the comments, too.

GULD (NRGetic Romancer)

  1. Aryx – Aurora (GULD remix) [TYFTH]
  2. GULD – Perkele! [TYFTH]
  3. Alek Száhala – Enuma Elish [TYFTH]

Hyphen (SOLIDBOX RECORDS)

  1. Substanced – Afterlife Penance (Transcend & Cyrax remix) [FINRG]
  2. Transcend & Cyrax – Unleashed (Substanced remix)
  3. Grimsoul – Badass Geeks (Lost Faith & Spectrum remix) [ReBuild Music]

Alabaster (M&C Recordings)

  1. Synthwulf – Not Your Angel (Synthwulf bootleg) [Justice Hardcore]
  2. Alchemiist – Triple X Rated [FINRG]
  3. Morita Yuuhei – The Ghost [TYFTH]

Morita Yuuhei (Illegal Wave Records)

  1. Nomic – Caldera [TYFTH]
  2. Substanced – Rise From The Darkness [FINRG]
  3. Kokomochi feat. Setsunann – AWAKE (Hyphen remix)

Kokomochi (FutureProof Sounds)

  1. Substanced – Rise From The Darkness (Original mix) [FINRG]
  2. Alabaster – Galaxy [TYFTH]
  3. Hyphen – Hell & Heaven [FutureProof Sounds]

Raqhow (CODEX, Freeform Bros)

  1. Morita Yuuhei – Now or Never
  2. Kokomochi – Iron Sky [FutureProof Sounds]
  3. Kevin Energy & Cube::Hard – Voice of Carme (Transcend remix)

NONAKA+CHIN (SPREEMO, Freeform Bros)

  1. Alias A.K.A. – Techn8 (Qygen Remix) [ALIAS A.K.A.]
  2. Nomic – Shattered [ReBuild Music]
  3. Substanced – Into the Light (Original mix) [FINRG]

ASAHI (CODEX)

  1. Freakangel – Not A Love Song (STUDIO-X Hard Dance Remix) [Alfa Matrix]
  2. KSHMR & Marnik – Bazaar [Spinnin’ Records]
  3. Don Diablo & Khrebto – Got The Love [Spinnin’ Records]

PlasmaDancer (TYFTH, FINRG, CODEX, NRGetic Romancer)

  1. Mellow Sonic – Psychokinesis [Cosmicopia Records]
  2. Qygen & Novaturtle – Ecumenopolis (Spacechase Version) [Stellar Circle]
  3. Alchemiist – Triple X Rated [FINRG]

Hyphen’s quick off the mark this year with a new showcase set, especially noteworthy for 2017 edits of three (!) tracks. My favourites are the Yuki Kajiura bootlegs, but all six tracks here show off a nice variety of styles, confirming (as if we didn’t know) that Hyphen is definitely leading the way for Japanese freeform at the moment. Transition fans will also enjoy the track connections, showing off some smooth approaches to key changes that make the whole set a quality listen.

Time for the traditional ‘look back at a CODEX from months ago’ post – as the only Japanese freeform event of 2016, CODEX7 definitely deserves a proper recap. With guest cancellations and a last-minute change of lineup there was potential for calamity, but Raqhow and the rest of the crew managed to put on one of the best events of recent years. There was also the small matter of In Praise of Shadows’ release, and it was on sale at the event alongside the CODEX EP, Alias A.K.A.’s Freeform Remixes, and the new Tesla Tracks compilation.

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Sorry the year ended without a post, but the Top 3 Tracks are being gathered together as we speak and will be appearing soon, along with a couple of other delayed bits and pieces. For now, let’s start 2017 with my favourite sets of last year.

2016 was a funny one for the scene – surely more releases than we’ve seen since the golden era of FINRG and Electronica Exposed, but not many events at all (other than in the UK) and fewer recorded sets than we’re used to. Hopefully all these releases in 2016 will have given DJs the ammunition they’ll need for the next twelve months.

On to the favourites from 2016, then. Most of the best sets arrived too soon for a lot of this new material, instead showing a familarity with older tracks that lends itself to more ambitious mixing and cohesive set construction. There’s still a long way to go for the scene in general (in comparison with DJs in some other genres – a thought I’ll save for another time), but there were some more really promising steps forward in 2016.

3. Nomic – Lucky Lotus Online Electronic Music Festival 6

Nomic’s set for Lucky Lotus 6 was one of his very best, not only thanks to the combination of very old and very new, but also the subtle approach to blending tracks and carefully switching key throughout the set. Neptune into Rule Breaker is a nice example, and it does wonders for the atmosphere. That aside, it’s another masterclass of melancholy into aggression and an absolute must-listen.

2. Solvynt – Lucky Lotus Online Electronic Music Festival 6

Solvynt was on top form last year with his Lucky Lotus 5 set, so I was obviously looking forward to number 6 as soon as he was confirmed on the lineup. It doesn’t disappoint, featuring some of darkest atmospheres and interesting transitions of the year. I mentioned at the time that the set suffers a slight dip after a very (very) strong start but then quickly picks up again, which is the only reason it wasn’t my number one choice. Listen and learn from Superstition – Purple – Tendrils of Reality though, that there is how the creativity of a DJ can not only link together, but actually add something extra speacial to the hard work of the artists themselves.

1. Shimotsukei – The Techno Shark Guest Mix

There was no stopping Shimotsukei in 2016, with a pretty staggering amount of mixing across all sorts of genres and even some very promising steps into production. Her end of year Le Dos-0n/Hyphen set came very close to defeating the Techno Shark, but in the end it was hard to deny two hours of excellently mixed tracks that match the TYFTH mission statement word-for-word. The first third-or-so of NRG is as good as you’ll hear anywhere, with some superb, ambitious mixing that maintains the atmosphere brilliantly. The length of the set means that things eventually have to start switching up more abruptly, but even among the freeform tracks there are some special transitions that make the whole two hours an exciting listen. Also worth mentioning what an excellent intro to the two genres this is – if you’re ever out proselytising among the non-believers, Shimotsukei’s set would be ideal.

Honourable Mentions

GULD, Hellfury, Midas, Orphic, Shimotsukei, Shimotsukei

What was already the strongest year for releases in a long time just keeps improving, as Futureproof Sounds’ first compilation has just sneaked in before the end of 2016. A UK label with a taste for the darker side, Futureproof has given strong support to the Japanese scene in FS Vol 1, with tracks from Hyphen and Kokomochi.

I’m not sure I’ve heard the Hyphen track yet, but judging from the collection of preview clips Kokomochi’s Iron Sky leads the way in the rest of the lineup. One of those Hyphen/ikaruga/Falchion-esque tracks that goes heavy on the melodies but anchors things with some nastier sounds, it sounds like a track that could fit into a lot of sets.

The rest of volume one features some interesting melodic tracks without heading too far into darker territory (Transcend and Cyrax’s Forever is a nice example), but the release is definitely one to keep an eye on. It’s available now from the Futureproof site with a very limited run of 100 copies.