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DJ Koze - Knock Knock Music Album Reviews

DJ Koze - Knock Knock Music Album Reviews

Listening to Stefan Kozalla’s latest is an essential experience. He finds the moments that express wistful longing, burrows into them, and then blows it all up to color-saturated widescreen.

Far away from mundane reality lies the music of DJ Koze. The German producer builds a fantasy world where aesthetic beauty soaked in memory can hold life at bay for an hour or two at a time. Given his dreamy predilections, his music never strives for relevance and it doesn’t care about the shifting fashion of the moment. He’s only competing with himself. Across a handful of albums, not to mention many dozens of remixes and a few full-length DJ mixes, he combines the crunchy propulsion of French touch, the liquid warmth of ’70s soul, the precise structure of Kompakt-style minimal techno, the head-nodding funk of boom-bap, and the nameless desire of dream pop. The thread through it all is a very specific emotional state: Sifting through his library of samples and pieces of original music, he finds the moments that express wistful longing, burrows into them, and then blows it all up to color-saturated widescreen.

Knock Knock, Koze’s new full-length LP, is his first since 2013’s Amygdala, though in 2015 he released a mix for the DJ-Kicks series, and the label he founded, Pampa, put out a sampler in 2016. For listeners, the lines between a new Koze album, a new Koze mix, and a label sampler he’s curated are blurry. Koze bends the rules of each form so that they come close to meeting in the middle. The mix and compilation included many tracks with Koze’s careful and effective edits, and his tweaks made each production sound more like his own. On his albums, he chooses an array of vocalists and essentially creates a sort of “mixtape” with all new music, where individual tracks are heavy with samples and feel as referential as a DJ set.

Knock Knock has a few familiar names among its cast of vocalists: Róisín Murphy, José González, Kurt Wagner of Lambchop, and, a name we haven’t heard in a while, the rapper Speech from ’90s hip-hop outfit Arrested Development. The guests are generally used in ways that fit within the context of their own work—Wagner’s contribution finds him soaked in Auto-Tune, as on the last Lambchop album, for example—but Koze has a way of making the contributors seem like they were born to sing over one of his tracks. And if Knock Knock is a more conventional album than the more psychedelic and twisted Amygdala, it’s also a more affecting one. The fact that some of the guests appear more than once (Murphy gets two turns, as does Sophia Kennedy, the vocalist who released her strong debut album on Pampa last year) lends cohesion, and the production is extra lush.

Some of these collaborations help to situate Koze’s music more broadly as far as genre and scene. “Bonfire” features the sampled voice of Justin Vernon, from the Bon Iver song “Calgary,” and it illustrates something essential about Koze. He may be an in-demand DJ who works the big-room European dance circuit, but he’s also a records-obsessed indie head finding connections between Arthur Russell, krautrock, shoegaze, and disco. Koze’s melodic accessibility differentiates him from his beat-focused DJ peers, and explains why he has many fans who don’t follow the political and aesthetic conversations happening on the global dance floor.

That said, Róisín Murphy’s feature on “Illumination” shows his deep facility with groove, as long stretches of rhythmic tension are gloriously released in short bursts. “Pick Up,” with a swoop of strings and guitar reminiscent of Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better With You,” prominently features a sample of soul legend Gladys Knight, showing how a vocal lead can come from a contemporary singer or someone from Koze’s record collection and the differences between the two can feel irrelevant.

But more atmospheric moments are just as revealing. The gorgeous “Music on My Teeth,” featuring José González, brings to mind the decayed film-strip warble of Boards of Canada or the Avalanches, and its arrival on the album feels like a forgotten dream slowly drifting into a consciousness. Even the one stumble on the record, on “Colors of Autumn,” the track with Speech, captures something important about Koze’s music. Voices for him carry information through phrasing, inflection, tone, and grain; the “meaning” of the lyrics is secondary, which explains why he can use vocalists using different languages so effectively. Speech’s contribution is mired in specificity, with an offhand reference to Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. Still, it’s far from a fatal turn, and the song’s viscous production is warm and inviting. While the function of each track on Knock Knock is different, Koze finds the connections between them and stitches it all together into a coherent whole.

To get back to the feeling I mentioned earlier, that sense of longing and the power of fantasy: Koze’s music can be melodic and funky and playful, but it’s not often dark or mysterious. It’s a balm, a way to patch yourself up after experiencing the trauma of the world. And there’s something uncanny about the way Koze evokes something so hard to pin down. The best way I can think to describe it is to say that Koze’s music twinkles, and in that gesture, we feel both comfort and yearning. Some of that is his fondness for swooping romantic Disney-style strings (see Knock Knock’s lavish opener, “Club der Ewigkeiten”) and lo-fi filters that impart a feeling of nostalgia, bleaching the colors and upping the contrast like an Instagram filter. And some of that is his general mischievousness—when eyes twinkle, it’s a sign of a connection, signifying both warmth and humor.

But Koze’s twinkle ultimately feels more existential. An object that twinkles moves between bright and dark, representing the beauty of what is in the present moment, but also its fragility and impermanence. You know that in a flicker, it could be gone. The impossibly moving instrumental coda at the end of Knock Knock’s closing track, “Drone Me Up, Flashy,” brings the album’s deep sense of wonder home. Its delicate, high-pitched drone brings to mind Brian Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent)” from Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks; now we’re thinking of space, contemplating it, feeling small and empowered simultaneously. The twinkle also suggests an illusion of scale, and how something so distant and vast can feel so close. A star is among the most massive bodies in the universe and it sits an incomprehensible distance away, but when we see it from Earth, it’s tiny, it’s ours, and we give it a name.

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