Its always astonishing when you realize that you have neglected an entire countrys musical merit for most of your life, at least as far as rock music is concerned. It sounds ignorant when written out, but its not always so obvious that a nations rock music even exists. Dont get me wrong, Im sure Estonia is crafting up some wonderful sounds, but over here we surely arent getting a heavy dose of them. Theres simply so much music out there, that within the realm of indie blogdom, its pretty hard to step outside the bubble of the Western World when it comes to whats next on the check out list. This being said, the lovely nation of South Africa may have just unleashed an open invitation. It has come in the form of BLK JKS, an eclectic four piece from Johannesburg. With After Robots, the newly signed Secretly Canadian band is certainly drawing in some ears. Though not perfect in any sense of the word, After Robots has enough going for it for anyone who appreciates the beauty of genre synergy to take note. While we may be familiar with the more native sounds of Lady Smith Black Mambazo, my guess is most have never heard music like this come from South Africa.
Though it often bothers me when critics describe a groups sound by lazily likening them to more familiar artists, now seems like a fitting time. BLK JKS are really best described through their apparent influences. Their African rhythm bearing, jazz infused arena rock, sounds like Radiohead and TV on the Radios lovechild. On After Robots, theres some Reggae, some straight up rock and roll, some grandiose production, and some intensely soulful vocals. Take the albums immediate highlight, the gorgeous Lakeside. Its loud soft play, climactic nature, and general style come together as what youd get if you combined OK Computer era Radiohead and TV on the Radio with Zulu tribesmen providing sweeping backing vocals. Yeah, I know. Whoa. But, if youre feeling dubious, try me.
The music isnt at all devoid of the native South African influences, but the method through which the various alternative rock ingredients are stirred into the mix suppresses the South African sound, making for a grandiose rock album that seeps with influence, both native and foreign. Album opener, Molalatadi features ruthless, Jonny Greenwood-esque, quick fire solos over tribal percussion, smooth horns, and soulful vocals. Banna Ba Modimo sounds like that time TV on the Radio wanted to be U2 for a second. Standby is a Jeff Buckley ballad turned spacey jam. Lakeside is a reggae jaunt, turned tribe song, turned noise freakout, turned post rock explosion. And, most of what follows retains variations of the aforementioned sounds. But, therein lie some of the albums shortcomings.
While BLK JKS seem to have a stronghold on sounding like everybody they like, After Robots is lacking in other necessary departments, particularly theas contradictory as this soundsdiversity department. As musically diverse as the band sounds on the whole, the album can get a little redundant after a few songs. The record begins to slow down notably about halfway through. The seven plus minute Kwa Nqingetje for instance, appears to have little direction and drifts into spacious nothing. Its not that the music starts falling apart as the album progresses, its just that the albums sequencing and song pairings dont make for a great solid listen. For an album relatively short in length, its not so easy to get through BLK JKS debut, even given the bands interesting sound. I guess what Im getting at is that once you get BLK JKS, there really isnt much else to discover. In fact, after the records outstanding first half, you might set the headphones down and say, to borrow from [Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s] Larry David, Okay. We got it. This isnt to say that the record is bad either, its just that it isnt as outstanding a record as a band with this cool of a sound is clearly capable of making. Theyve got their sound down, now they just need to craft some tighter songs and make things flow a little better.
BLK JKS are definitely an interesting new band, drawing attention to a country that isnt famous for its great rock music. After Robots is cool in every sense of the word, but dont be surprised if you end up getting a little bored with it. As much influence as the band brings to the table, they manage to do about the same thing with all of that influence on each track, making for a record that starts off awesome and ends just okay. Though Radiohead is a huge influence, After Robots is no OK Computer; its really just OK. The band, however, should not be neglected and would kill in the live setting. Theres great potential in these four, and maybe whatever comes after After Robots will be more representative of that.