Release Date: Sep 8, 2009
Record label: Secretly Canadian
Genre(s): Indie, Rock
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.
Straight out of South Africa come these post-apartheid post-rock tyros, first championed in OMM58. Forget hi-life vibes: this psychedelic trip takes you from Jo'Burg to Brooklyn and way, way beyond..
It may be no great novelty any more to hear alt-rock bands taking on African influences (cf Yeasayer, Vampire Weekend et al), but it's still uncommon to hear it happening in the other direction. This terrific Johannesburg band are one such, taking on the forms and functions of proggy, left-field rock as a means of making something new from the music they grew up with - dub, jazz, afrobeat, South African mbaqanga. The result is a dense, towering sound characterised by wild, squalling guitars and galloping, kaleidoscopic rhythms that hover compellingly between frenetic tension and joyous release.
A lot has been spoken about BLK JKS. Too Much. Although the band formed in 2000, the last 12 months has seen the South African quartet receive what would probably approximate nine years worth of press coverage for the average indie band. It has been less an insight into the band and more the wizardry of the global PR machine, a machine that would label BLK JKS the African TV On The Radio.
Once critical acclaim and attention has been generated, it becomes a struggle to maintain, especially for as odd an entity as BLK JKS. Following this year’s Mystery EP, the South African progressive quartet return with After Robots, an exquisite mood-altering genre combo that showcases the band in fits of proggy mathematical invention which more or less exchanges TV On The Radio comparisons for Mars Volta ones. I disagree with both, as I think BLK JKS carry far too much authenticity and passion to be discredited as similar to either band, but I digress…After Robots wears some of the excesses that would lead one to believe it’s meant to outshine its predecessor.
Thanks to the ubiquitous work of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, dark, melodramatic art-rock isn’t the first thing that pops in your mind in relation to South African music. Which is why South Africa’s BLK JKS had to come to Brooklyn to make waves; hardly anyone in the Sub-Sahara was hip to their sound, but the New York indie-rock mob is a perfect audience for the band’s debut album, After Robots. After all, BLK JKS represent the international malleability of music, and particularly that art-rock knows no international borders.
The '80s had Graceland, the '90s had Rusted Root, and the new millennium had Vampire Weekend, so at this point it should be no surprise when North American pop music embraces South African sensibilities. However, with BLK JKS' highly hyped debut, Afro-pop is presented in a different light. Instead of being a U.S.-minded album created with the help of African musicians, it's one created by African musicians.
In a vacuum, BLK JKS are a competent, at times thrilling band that is equal parts of soar and sway. But we don't live in a vacuum. BLK JKS-- Fader cover stars before releasing a lick of music in the U.S.-- have been introduced as a savior of sorts with a zippy hook: "African TV on the Radio." That's a fool's game and that much was clear the minute the swirl started.
Talented South African rockers overdo it on full-length debutThough they’ve taken nine years to put out an album, Blk Jks still haven’t learned one of the most important lessons in music (and life): Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. On After Robots, the South African band strives for a sound as vast as the continent it hails from, and succeeds, but the music’s emotional impact is lost in the process—drowned in a bombastic, reverb-muddied free-for-all. Lack of musical ability isn’t the problem here; the drumming is complex, the bass bounding and the guitar blistering, and Blk Jks’ fusion of dreamy Coldplay-style stadium rock, Floydian psychedelic flourishes and African pop has immense potential, but the kitchen-sink sonics are aurally exhausting.