by Robert Kerstens
Through his past few releases, DJ Koze has quietly established himself as one of techno’s most eccentric figures, painting vivid, club-ready dreamscapes with a colorful palette of sounds and samples. Whether he’s spinning techno, house or hip-hop, Koze is a wizard at conjuring up a vast depth and range of emotions, often weaving contrasting emotions together in the same song. His tracks can be euphoric, manic, fearful and deeply bittersweet, often all at this same time. On his last full-length Amygdala, named after the brain’s emotional processing center, Koze crafted a strange and deeply psychedelic techno journey across the emotional spectrum, with hypnagogic grooves and bizarre, unsettling vocals from collaborators like Matthew Dear. On his next release, his entry for the DJ Kicks series, Koze drifted from techno into the realm of soul-sourced hip-hop beats. The resulting mix was incredibly joyful, breezy and nostalgic, like the memory of a warm summer afternoon. Koze followed that up with Pampa Vol. 1, another highly emotional mix that served as an introduction to the genre-ambiguous DJs on his Pampa label. On Knock Knock, Koze goes 4 for 4, diving deeper into the wistful nostalgia of his previous releases and creating his most breath-taking musical pastiche yet.
The album is both more meticulous and unified in scope than his previous releases, without losing the emotional potency that made Koze stand out as a DJ in the first place. It’s an easier listen than albums like Amygdala, where Koze really let his oddball instincts off the leash, but no less intricate or surprising in his choices of textures, sounds, and samples. Koze really flexes his range here, blurring the lines between minimalist techno, French house, hip-hop, soul, disco and even folk. Pairing the sun kissed sounds of the 70’s with digital textures and rippling sub-bass, the album is firmly rooted in the past yet boldly futurist in its vision.
The opening track “Club der Ewigkeiten” creeps into focus with some eerie string textures and distant rumbling bass, before a vocoded wail cuts through the fog carrying a euphoric wave in its wake. Warm swells of flutes and digitized vocals glide over a mesmerizing string loop. The track sets the tone for the album with its delicate balance of dread and ecstasy. Even at the album’s most blissful moments, there’s a vague undercurrent of melancholy just beneath the surface, like realizing that every good thing that happens to you will one day be but a fond memory.
“Bonfire” begins with chilly, atmospheric synths and a minimalist techno rhythm, thrashed by a growling bass wobble and anxiously clamoring bells. Justin Vernon’s spectral vocals, lifted from the Bon Iver track ‘Calgary’, float through the gloom like a phantom. While outwardly cold, the track still manages to shimmer with optimism, a strange tension that gives the track an other-worldly feeling. Like many tracks on the album, “Bonfire” succeeds by progressively layering sounds and textures to give the track momentum, building gradually to a climax of emotional ambiguity.
The evocative lyrics on this album are rich with imagery that echo the sentiment of the instrumentals. On “Moving in a Liquid,” over a sunny, blissed out house beat, Eddie Fummler sings about reality feeling like melting pieces of golden sand, sifting through his cold clenched hands, as waves of joy pull him under. Later on “Muddy Funster”, over a ghostly, twinkling ambient techno beat that feels like a slow motion death in outer space, Kurt Wagner sullenly croaks about one day simply closing his eyes and nothing happening. It’s one of the bleakest points on the album, yet hauntingly beautiful.
“Colors of Autumn” features Speech from Arrested Development on a gorgeous piece of maximalist R&B. With fluttering flutes, ephemeral vocal clips and bird coos, delicate strumming, a milky bass groove, and a slinky guitar sample repurposed from the opening track on Koze’s DJ Kicks mix, the track has all the trappings of a feel-good summer song from the 70’s. Yet despite the warmth of the instrumentation there’s still an unmistakable sadness. With the imagery of falling leaves, a colorful reminder of summer’s end, Koze evokes the fleeting nature of happiness. That same transient sentiment reappears on the album’s lead single “Pick Up” as a sample of Gladys Knight sings mournfully about “neither one of us wanting to say goodbye”. There’s an upbeat disco beat swinging behind it, but even the warm swells of guitar and string are detuned and tinged with sorrow.
Jose Gonzales lends his ethereal vocals for the feather-light “Music on my Teeth”. It’s one of the album’s dreamiest moments, with jangly guitars filtering through a haze of sticky sweet ambiance, faded like an overexposed polaroid. The track’s heady nostalgia and folk sensibility make it sound like it could be a B-side of the Avalanches’ Wildflower, in the best way possible. Other tracks find Koze adopting the out-of-focus analog spookiness of Boards of Canada, or the alien atmospherics of Aphex Twin. But no matter what influences shines through, Koze retains his unmistakable voice across the album.
Knock Knock knocks throughout, but the biggest banger of them all kicks in half-way through with “Illumination”, a luxurious house track with satiny vocals from Róisín Murphy. The track is irresistible but silky smooth, with punchy drums and organs propelling the track forward as fluttering strings of pearly synths percolate through. “Jesus” is another banger that, in a surprise twist, sounds like a Timbaland beat from 2007, with washes of vocoder crooning over shuddering bass and crisp percussion.
At 16 tracks, Knock Knock had the potential to be a bloated listen. And with such a vast range of musical lineages running through the sonic fabric, it probably would be a bloated mess in the hands of less dexterous DJ. But DJ Koze’s knack for synthesizing intangible moods from disparate elements hold the 1 hour 18 minute behemoth together to the point where no track feels out of place. The music inhabits the grey area between the cardinal emotions we learned in kindergarten, and hints at nuances in feeling that words cannot express. It’s an ambitious project epic in the scope of its sonic richness and diversity, but the music never feels overproduced or impersonal. No matter how many layers of synths, samples, and warped vocal clips he piles onto a track, each element feels deliberately placed to touch a nerve you didn’t know you had. Not to only is it a beautiful and emotionally powerful album, but it’s also an undeniably fun and danceable record that will be sure to be featured on DJ mixes for years to come.