There’s more Shimotsukei to talk about soon, but before that a quick mention of this three (!) hour NRG session that ticks plenty of the TYFTH boxes. Although there’s already an endless supply of recordings on Shimotsukei’s SoundCloud, it really does add to the enjoyment of live sets when you can see what’s going on. Plus in this case there’s the very helpful overlay to answer any tracklist questions and a pretty lively chat that’s worth keeping an eye on.

If NRG’s your thing then this really is an essential listen – it’s very likely you’ll hear some forgotten classics as well as some more obscure selections. As things move into freeform territory it’s also a good chance for fellow DJs to check a few Before the Dawn tracks in a (well) mixed environment

I’m slow (of course) to mention the most recent FINRG podcasts, but even if you’ve heard them before they’re well worth a revisit as DJ case studies.

Listening to these sets you can hear right away what freeform means to each DJ, with both featuring some similar tracks as part of two very different atmospheres. JNKS’ 64 minutes goes from happy/UK hardcore to some solid gold FINRG and back again, while Alchemiist plays some surprisingly melodic freeform, connected to neurofunk and hardcore by a few darker oldies.

JNKS’ selection is spot on, with a huge number of later-era happy anthems (including remixes to keep veterans of the early 90s happy), while the potentially hazardous transition into the FINRG section is very nicely handled. You really can’t beat the gritty sound of tracks like Killer Instinct and Illuminate, and of course it’s nice to see the obligatory Alek appearance.

Alchemiist’s steady progression into the non-freeform final third is just as well handled, but the standout section of the set was a more conventional one. I might prefer the original PVC, but the transition from Ghost of Jupiter into Lost Soul’s remix is still top class and a worthy centrepiece to the set. Absolutely lovely stuff.

Both essential listens then, as is the entire podcast series so far.

Yet more release announcements, this time for the huge, freeform-only Lucky Lotus compilation, Before the Dawn. I can’t the only one who’s been hoping for something like from LL for a while now, and this is a high quality cross-faded preview. Also an impressive tracklist, with some veterans anchoring things in amongst the new faces and a lot of Japanese representation. I haven’t heard the full tracks yet, but going on this preview and others I’ve heard Kounta Kulture’s Cannibal Girl might be the most immediately promising. Definitely looking forward to a leisurely listen of the whole release, though.

The other good news is that the compilation will be released in little over a week via the LL bandcamp – the official date is 10th March.

I know, you’ve very likely heard all about this already. This post is a public service announcement for those not up to date with freeform on social media, as preorders are open for Substanced’s already legendary solo album. With the scene the way it is these days it’s impossible to guess how quickly the 300-copy run will last, but for such a long-awaited release it might be best to err on the safer side and order soon.

Respect aplenty to A.B and Stamina for taking on the release – preorders are open now on the Stamina site. No sign of a release date or even a tracklist yet, so that’ll also be the place to stay up to date on both.

This was the first of Hedonistik Ritual’s live sets that I was able to catch for quite some time, but even a quick skim through should be enough to convince you that this one deserves a proper listen. Stretching a full two hours, it’s another one of those mixes that really shows what HR is all about.

Some harder UK tracks alongside plenty of rock solid Japanese and Finnish classics make for a really nice atmosphere, while the excellent use of some happier vocal tracks add another surprise element. In the wrong hands that could be the recipe for a right old mess – that this set works so well speaks to some high quality selection and nicely judged mixing. Finish things off with subtle effects and mic use for that live feel, and you have a streamed set done the right way. Check out the set on Youtube, along with the past Hard Tranceformers shows.

This’ll be of interest to many here, I expect – Lab4’s latest release is appearing on Hard Trance Europe, and the label is running a remix competition with a release on the label as the main reward. Of course that would probably meaning sticking to the hard trance genre in some form, but there’s surely a ton of potential for a more NRG-style track here too.

If you can stomach a touch of social media blackmail to get the files themselves then you’ll quickly be up and running. The competition runs until the end of next month.

As I’m danger of falling behind recent big announcements I’ll break with tradition and catch up with a few of the main ones in a single post. Good training for the hopefully regular appearance of some longer writing on the site this year, too.

Heading the post is the opening track from Proteus’ upcoming artist album. Rather than NRG or anything like it, instead this sounds very much like something that could have appeared on Platipus back in the day, which is of course high praise. The second track, Gute Nacht has also gone online and shows a more familiar darker style – if the previews maintain this standard then it’s going to be quite the release. Plus there’ll surely be some older-school, pacier tracks in there somewhere.

Possibly the biggest freeform announcement is the recent release of Future_Proof Sounds’ second compilation, a strong collection of tracks with Japanese representation from Hyphen and Kokomochi. Kokomochi’s If Not Machine has shades of ikaruga_nex and is a fine follow-up to Iron Sky.

We’ve also got another label entering the scene in the form of Skeny Tracks – it might lean towards melodic freeform and UK hardcore but the first release Retrofuture features a really impressive selection of newer artists from around the scene. Hyphen’s here of course, but watch out too for Sanaas’ Beastout.

Finally for now is an excellent hour of mixed tracks from BRK. Featuring a full tracklist of his own material plus a solitary remix, this is quality stuff and another clear step up for his productions. The collab tracks with GULD and NEON give the set some welcome variety, while Kaos Lodge is one of his strongest tracks for some time and a well-chosen finale.

Last year was much heavier on releases than we might have expected, resulting in a decent number of sets that tried blending old and new. Even if there were fewer ‘dark side’ DJs doing the rounds in 2017, there was a lot to enjoy and making these final choices was quite a challenge.

1. Shimotsukei – Future_Proof Sounds mix series 005

Shimotsukei has been single-handedly propping up the scene during its quieter spells – it wouldn’t have been that hard at all to pick a Shimo-only top 3. This set for Future_proof is my choice though, thanks to its more considered, ‘studio’ feel than her (still generally top class) twitch sessions. Some of the strongest Shimotsukei mixing of the year can be found here, as well as a quality structure that’s sparing enough with the melodies to make for a very welcome, darker set. Make sure to hang in there for a really excellent final third.

2. Solvynt – Lucky Lotus Online Electronic Music Festival 7

Most ambitious set of the year was definitely Solvynt’s Lucky Lotus submission, with the strongest tracklist you could possibly ask for. Melding some of the trickier tunes isn’t always successful here, but when it works, it really works. Perkele! into Shine remains the best transition I heard last year, and there are many other highlights to look out for.

3. Substanced – FINRG PODCAST 003

Third spot was a close-run thing, but in the end I went for Substanced’s masterclass in how to mix newer freeform with the old. Understandably heavy on his own, newer productions, the way they blend with a couple of classics is an encouraging reminder that the FINRG spirit is still very much intact. Some of the strongest mixing of the year, great cross-scene promotion, and hopefully a sign of things to come in 2018.

Honourable mentions

Hedonistik Ritual, Carbon Based

If you’re in the market for some melodic freeform then Nonaka+Chin’s FutureProof Sounds set might be a good one to check out. I often think of Nonaka as the Midas of the Japanese scene – his mixing level, thoughtful selection and taste for the Finnish sound alongside the UK freeform means there’s always something to enjoy.

This one is excellently mixed with some nicely considered transitions, and even if there’s a lot of UK freeform that I can’t name (not laziness, there’s actually no tracklist here) the set is also a fine showcase of Japanese tracks with artists from ikaruga_nex to Hyphen, via Alabaster’s Galaxy. I found myself wishing for some darker sounds but that’s clearly not what the set is aiming for – instead this is the place for some well-selected melodic highlights of the current scene.

Another addition to the growing list of interesting BRK collabs, this one features UK freeform’s Eryk Orpheus. An unexpected combination of artists, and the clip is very promising – not sure about release info yet but it’s one to keep an eye on, for sure.

I also should have mentioned BRK’s Love Like This, a collab with very occasional producer NEON that definitely sounds like both had plenty of input during production. Featuring one of those never-ending hard dance breakdowns, the track makes very good use of it with a really nice drop.