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TBTS Reviews: BLK JKS, After Robots

October 19, 2009

As the 2000’s begin to fade into the 2010’s, we’ve seen a marked increase in music tagged with the “post” prefix.  Post-rock, post-indie, even post-music, there seems to be a morbid fascination with what comes after rock and roll, particularly in the media and out on the blogs.  It’s as if the prognosticators sense a sea change coming a lá Elvis or The Beatles that will change the face of popular music as we know it and create something totally new.

This sense of a coming musical gestalt shift has many pundits searching eagerly for the artist(s) that will push the reset button and change the musical landscape.  Radiohead, Tortoise, and Wilco all have been tagged as not only great bands, but “game changers” if you will, all hailed for expanding the sonic landscape.

I for one wonder if the lasting impact of this decade might be less about expansion and more about integration.  As the years pass, it becomes harder and harder to pigeon-hole bands into one simple category.  Bands like Beirut try on different musical styles as if they were different sets of clothing, others like Animal Collective or Grizzly Bear put divergent styles together in a musical gumbo that is innovative yet familiar.  But through it all, you can hear how the fifty-year history of rock music has informed and influenced a generation of musicians that don’t see rock as the music of the revolution as much as just plain music.

But there’s always an exception that proves the rule, and so we have South Africa’s BLK JKS (pronounced Black Jacks).  The predominant reaction that I’ve seen in the media regarding the BLK JKS is one of astonishment.  One of the great scholars of rock music Tom Moon recently described them as “organic” and “fiercely original.”  I have heard others describe their music as a “beautiful mess.”  But one thing is certain:  If you want to hear what the future sounds like, listen to BLK JKS.

After Robots is the first proper LP from BLK JKS and was released in September on Secretly Canadian records.  Even the title of the album suggests a view to the future.  The music itself is chaotic and melodic at the same time, and although there are certainly prog-rock tendencies present, basic pop melodic structures are never forsaken.   This makes the album an easy listen despite all the strangeness.

The JKS open with straight-out rockers “Molalatladi” and “Banna Ba Modimo”, both rollicking trips through multiple musical styles that prove this band has heft.  If they were an American band, I have no doubt they would be accused of pretentiousness, but whether it is that or just self-confidence, it is obvious that this group is willing to take risks that few other bands would dare to on a debut album.

The third track “Standby” steps back into a more acoustic mode, complete with a piano movement that serves as the underpinning of the entire song.  But just as soon as you think you’ve got them figured out, the song shifts into complex double-time polyrhythms about a third of the way in.

Every track pulses with a kind of menace.  In “Standby” it’s the shifts that never allow you to get comfortable and the cryptic lyric “Sometimes a monster is what you need to be.”  In “Lakeside”, the band builds tension through the 3 note refrain that moves behind the verse but never really gets resolved.  In “Taxidermy” choppy guitars and rhythmic shifts battle with more mysterious verse:  “Don’t you cry if we all survive.”

Surprisingly, the album ends on two relatively somber tracks, “Cursor” and “Tselane”.  The former is about as mellow as the JKS get, and even then the song bristles with an energy that is barely contained.  “Tselane” is a six-minute acoustic lullaby that is built on a four-chord, five-note progression that is both sweet and foreboding at the same time.

Despite all the complexity and beauty of After Robots, one gets the sense that the BLK JKS are still a long way from their peak.  This album is an anomaly on the musical landscape and ultimately that works in the JKS favor, but don’t write these guys off as some sort of parlor trick band.  They are amazing musicians that write amazing songs and I expect they’ll improve their craft as time goes by.  It’s that potential, even more than the excellence of After Robots, that catapults BLK JKS in front of many of their contemporaries.

The final word is that I highly recommend this album to anyone who isn’t afraid to challenge their eardrums.  If you usually listen to American indie rock, this album will sound weird but it’ll have enough of the familiar to hook you in.  If you’re already a fan of African music, you’ll find more American rock influences that you’re used to hearing in afrobeat or highlife.  But once again, After Robots should be just different enough to be intriguing and multiple listens will reward you with some interesting sounds.  If you want to try these guys out before buying, After Robots is streaming over at JamBase for free.

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