[3 September 2009]
The buzz over BLK JKS has been building steadily since the vowellessly-named quartet released its debut EP, Mystery, in March. It’s not just the group’s homeland—South Africa—that has raised eyebrows, but also the band’s growing reputation for explosive live performances and songs that deftly combine the brash, the arty, and the worldly—elements sorely missed in today’s world of instantly accessible and easily marketable rock/pop music.
Fortunately, the hype over BLK JKS has been more than well deserved. After Robots, the band’s full length debut, is a significant achievement, an anthemic and soaring work filled with sensitivity, intelligence, and honesty.
Equal parts lo-fi garage, raw post-punk, and artful album rock, After Robots is noticeably retro: extended proggy, psychedelic passages tread comfortably on Pink Floyd territory; dueling guitar lines and pummeling power chords recall the Stooges and Television; and funky singalong choruses and pulsing horn accompaniments evoke any number of Motown artists. But, as its name suggests, the album is also incredibly forward-thinking, which is manifest in the band’s ability to seemlessly flow between the aforementioned styles while also adding other elements like reggae, dub, and traditional African folk.
The band’s closest modern relatives might be TV on the Radio, Sleater-Kinney, or Tool, though the lo-fi, earthy production and world music influence on After Robots make BLK JKS sound more immediate than any of the aforementioned groups.
Album-opener “Molalatladi” is a prime example of BLK JKS’ ability to comfortably combine and switch between different styles. The song’s double-time feel, bleating horns, and polyrhythmic drumming are reminiscient of 1970s East African soul jazz. The haunting background chanting led by vocalist Lindani Buthelezi reflects BLK JKS’ more traditional African roots. And guitarist Mpumi Mcata’s blistering atonal guitar soloing throughout evokes Sun Ra or Jimi Hendrix at his most experimental. The result stirs the soul in more ways than one.
“Banna Ba Modimo” and “Lakeside”, the only holdover from the Mystery EP, showcase BLK JKS at their proggiest, with Rush-like tempo changes, roaring vocals, and intricate guitar passages that ooze psychedelia.
“Standby” and “Kwa Nqingetje” are dense ballads, filled with unpredictable time shifts, experimental meanderings, and churning, angular atmospherics that force listeners to pay attention for fear of missing any of these exhiliarating subtleties.
“Cursor”, the second-to-last song on After Robots, is perhaps the album’s best track. A slow-boiler, the song gradually works its way into your pscyhe with swinging drums, percolating bass, and tender guitarwork. Buthelezi’s crooning gets more and more excited as the song builds up to a frenzy of distorted mayhem. Throughout, the song’s nuanced harmonies jut in and out of your consciousness with reckless abandon.
After Robots exudes an energy and a lack of self-consciousness that is exciting and refreshing. The four members of BLK JKS wear their influences on their collective sleeves, and then tear those sleeves off. It’s a feeling that is palpable throughout After Robots, making it thoroughly enjoyable and interesting from start to finish. If anything, the album proves that there’s still new ground to be explored in rock, and BLK JKS may be at the forefront of this exploration.