The Head Outweighs the Heart on DJ Koze's 'Knock Knock'
DJ Koze's commitment to avoiding easy four-on-the-floor dance music, his unwillingness to whack at synth pads for an hour and call Knock Knock an experimental ambient album, is commendable.
4 May 2018
The DJ in DJ Koze's very name is almost satirical at this point. While Stefan Kozalla may have started as something closer to your typical DJ, whose mission was to get you to dance in any way possible, the modern incarnation of Koze is one that has more in common with IDM acts of the late '90s, with production sensibilities and lessons learned from the current century-so-far mixed in to taste. Sure, some of Koze's latest album Knock Knock will make you dance, but mostly, Koze is going for headphones, aiming at the brain, trying to get neurons firing rather than feet moving. Knock Knock is a transfixing bit of genre-hopping, an outer-space travelogue with just enough grounding to keep us interested for the entirety of its gargantuan 78 minutes.
At first glance, it's hard not to be drawn to the sample and guest list that Kozalla has assembled for Knock Knock. Contributing vocals to the album are such past and present luminaries as Róisín Murphy, Kurt Wagner of Lambchop, and none other than Speech of Arrested Development. Bon Iver shows up in sampled voice (on the cheekily-titled "Bonfire"), and the one and only Gladys Knight is sampled for "Pick Up". It's tempting to treat Knock Knock like a mixtape, or an album whose entire purpose is collaboration.
To do so, however, is to entirely discount just how much glue DJ Koze brings to the proceedings. Knock Knock is very much his album, not just in the tracks on which he goes solo, but in the ones that feature guests. Justin Vernon's voice has been creeping into releases all over the place of late -- aside from being Kanye's favorite falsetto voice, he's shown up on albums from Vince Staples and Mouse on Mars -- and he's one of the most recognizable indie singer-songwriters out there. "Bonfire" features a sample from Bon Iver's "Calgary", but mostly, it's twisted-up house music, a straightforward beat and some twinkly synths that get swallowed up by a twisted, syncopated, dubstep-style bass synth and some bizarre sounds that don't quite belong to anything. Vernon's voice is in there, but it's just a quiet wail, drifting in and out like any other sound. He's recognizable, but this is clearly not his song.
The same could be said for the guests who provide new vocals, though Koze does work around those vocals a little more. The clean electric guitars of "Colors of Autumn", on which Speech guests, place the song's genre as something between jazz and R&B, though Koze makes sure you don't forget he's there, with more of those wobbly bass synths and plenty of whistles and swoops over the top. Speech comes off something like Pharrell with more chill, languidly delivering sing-song lines that draw in the listener without really saying too much at all. Still, Koze asserts his presence, through a digital bassline that worms its way through the entirety and high-pitched buzzes and pseudo-melodies float through.
Whether DJ Koze is putting together a quick dance track or a slow, thoughtful one, he's bending synths, he's morphing the sounds, he is letting you know that he's there even as he doesn't say a word. Late album track "Baby (How Much I LFO YOU)" would make a killer beat for a hip-hop tune, but he lets an old-timey sample do the singing instead. "Pick Up" starts off like the disco side of Daft Punk but uses Gladys Knight's voice (a sample of "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)") for melancholy. It's a mix of beat-oriented dance-ready euphoria and terrible, aching sadness, and the juxtaposition is the point; a cynic might say that's the joke, that Koze is having a laugh here.
What might be more likely is that Koze is trying to express the idea that easy answers are not only exceedingly rare but boring as well. If we don't see the beauty in pain, the struggle in the bravery, the autumn in the spring, well, we're missing a piece of the puzzle.
This makes for a very weighty, very heady listen, especially given the sheer length of Knock Knock. This thing goes for over 78 minutes, and while the observation that it pushes the limits of CD length is becoming less relevant by the day, it's still an awful lot to take in all at once. Somewhere between the smashed-Bon Iver of "Bonfire" and the sci-fi weirdness of final two tracks "Seeing Aliens" and "Drone Me Up, Flashy" -- the latter featuring an oddly robotic Sophia Kennedy -- we lose the plot a bit. With so many directions, so many emotions happening at once, a little bit of listener hand-holding might be in order.
That said, Koze's commitment to avoiding easy four-on-the-floor dance music, his unwillingness to whack at synth pads for an hour and call it an experimental ambient album, is commendable. It aims for the head more than it does the heart, and that's fine. It's an approach that makes it an easy album to appreciate, even if it is tremendously difficult to love.