“It feels as if I’m leaving my body.” So goes a snippet of muffled conversation that tees up Stefan Kozalla’s sprawling, soft-focus, self-styled “Sgt. Pepper”, and the immediate assumption is that this is a snatch of film dialogue, most likely from an obscure ’90s arthouse about European club culture. The indistinct background noise probably indicates a smoking area outside a venue, while the contented sighs and dopey tone suggest a gentle drift away from reality as substances begin to take hold – I mean, the other character directly mentions “that pill should be kicking in right now,” so it’s beyond doubt, right? Wrong. The hissing is nitrous oxide, the pill is a tranquilizer administered by a dentist, and the curiously familiar voice is that of Louis CK; this is a recording taken from the first season of his show. DJ Koze is fucking with us. DJ Koze is always fucking with us.
It’s not as if correctly identifying that 15 second fragment in the aptly-titled “Track ID Anyone?” is the final piece of the puzzle in a wider narrative arc, or suddenly recontextualises the record; it carries little weight beyond quite literally opening proceedings. But in a roundabout way it neatly underscores three of the core components that makes sure the 78-minute Amygdala never outstays its willkommen, and moreover remains such a delight: firstly, it is supremely playful, full of character in a manner generally reflective of Koze’s own personality — idiosyncratic but accommodating — that is a rare in a genre hardly renowned for its sense of humour. Secondly, the notion of transportation away from reality appears to be something that Koze buys into heavily, having spoken previously about trying to creating a special kind of common experience in his DJ sets, and that fondness for crafting a transcendent space to work within translates on record too. That he is so successful is down to the pivotal third element the clip espouses – exceptional attention to detail on levels both micro and macro, something which is undoubtedly Koze’s gift.
The most immediate thing that stands out is how well-rendered the entire album is; subtle and ornate, but equally lush and organic in a way that allows for immersive listens that retain a personable intimacy. This is down in no small part to Koze’s open-ended approach to songwriting. Even the very best releases as of late within the associate genres of microhouse, minimal techno and woozy electronica — Christian Löffler’s A Forest and Recondite’s On Acid being two of the strongest from last year — feel quite boxed-in by comparison, enchanting and enthralling in their own right, but structured as you’d expect. What sets Amygdala apart is the wealth of little moments occurring in each song, chipped shards of Koze’s own imagination, dotted liberally throughout. They are what Nile Rodgers handily labelled “one-time only events that happen throughout the course of a linear journey”; he was referring to the formation of early disco in one of Daft Punk’s propaganda promos, but the description fits equally well here. Crucially, however, none of these elements – be they minute rhythmic imperfections, occasional bursts of brass or flutters of twinkling synths — feel unnaturally shoehorned in, instead skirting across the gossamer surface. The mix is spacious and never over-cluttered, but busy enough to retain the capacity to surprise after multiple listens.
It helps too that Koze isn’t venturing out alone, either. Nine out of the thirteen tracks include a guest spot, many of whom are prominent names, but each one is utilised superbly, playing very much to their respective strengths: Dan Snaith’s soft vocal contribution on the opener sits well with the marimba, expanding gently in a manner reminiscent of Swim‘s algorithmic constructions, as opposed to the rough ‘n ready cuts on JIAOLONG; Apparat finds himself typically balancing a melancholic hook with delayed, shifting pads that slowly rise to a warming conclusion on “Nices Wölkchen”; Pampa’s own Ada lends her delicate voice to “Homesick,” perhaps the most out ‘n out pop song here, one which rolls along with a slo-mo R’n’B bump and bears more than a passing resemblance to Imogen Heap, bizarrely. But it is application of Matthew Dear that takes the gold medal, popping up twice in markedly different roles. Pre-circulated single “My Plans” is a relatively direct number, fizzing away with curiously Eastern-sounding instrumentation in the background as Dear’s warped, alien voice muses upon the futile nature of frustration. “Magical Boy,” conversely, has a steady knock set against his spluttering, choked robotic mutterings, before a glorious sunburst of upright bass rips the track wide open, transforming it completely as Dear rounds off proceedings, sounding entirely reinvigorated as he sings about “climbing lemon trees of feeling.” It is an utterly masterful slab of melodic techno, imbued with heavenly choral vocals, saxophone and a gentle piano lead as it winds down. It has all the hallmarks of a widescreen epic to close on, but is only the fourth track in.
Truthfully, while they certainly compliment the record and add depth, feature spots do not make this a standout. This is DJ Koze through and through – for a man who began his career in hip-hop ensemble Fischmob as one of many incarnations, there is no shortage of variety across the board, all refracted through a kaleidoscopic filter. There’s a faintly detectable aural hint of Kraftwerk present, in both the Hutterian vocal lines on “Das Wort” and a blippy “Radioactivity”-style hook pushing the propulsive “Marilyn Whirlwind” along over a buzzy, fat bassline, but the unhurried pace throughout reflects a tangibly German mindset. That inclination for tidy microhouse does lead to some less-than-captivating moments, however: “La Duquesa,” clocking in just short of ten minutes, fails to go anywhere particularly exciting, placing the record in auto-drive at the halfway mark; similarly the title track is perfectly pleasant, but a little plain. Both tracks feel like retreads of Minilogue, or lesser Kompakt artists, and it is when Koze is at his most restrained that he begins to lose momentum. On the other hand, two deviations from the minimal blueprint wind up as considerably more successful: the nimble finger-picking, faint vinyle crackle and reversed pianos on “Don’t Lose Your Mind” are so refreshing as to be almost cleansing, cradled as always by a perfect bassline, and the plodding closing number “NooOoo” is almost unbearably cute, a Mellotron lullaby that guides the album into darkness.
It’s difficult to write about Amygdala because it inherently defies easy categorisation, with no two songs bearing even a faint resemblance to one another stylistically. There are a handful of minor missteps, but considering the multitude of sounds found across the record, Koze retains a remarkably high strike rate. It seems purpose-built for lazy Sunday afternoons, but I’ve witnessed firsthand at least four tracks set dancefloors alight in the past month; something not achieved properly in this field since Kompakt’s early ’00s dominance. On paper the album could have been a total mess, but he balances it all perfectly, putting his faith in the power of economy. The record is unshowy on the surface but layered deeply with revelatory spots of pure genius. Nothing here is overtly thrilling but ultimately the record is a real joy to listen to. On Amygdala DJ Koze has crafted a miniature cosmos, miles removed from the staid sounds of clubland, both a shelter to retreat to “when the world is falling apart” and a whimsical, immersive space for leaving one’s body; either way you choose to use it, you’re in good hands.