To my knowledge, African prog-rock groups are few and far between. This isn’t to say that this isn’t a genre that deserves more recognition or investigation, but simply that it’s one that doesn’t get much play. BLK JKS may be working to change that.
My introduction to BLK JKS was one of simple circumstance. Not only was I the beneficiary of the it’s-a-small-world fact that the group had recorded their first full-length album in the town where I was attending university, but also the group had come to that same southern Indiana city for a set at its annual world music festival. By the time BLK JKS’ Saturday night showcase set rolled around, I had already developed a fascination with the group and purchased their CD. For music geeks like me festival lineup pages are enough to get excited about.
BLK JKS (pronounced “black jacks”) are a quartet from Johannesburg, South Africa that play a swirling blend of progressive rock,afrobeat, jazz, soul, reggae, and post-rock. Formed in 2000, the group grew their sound and following in South Africa for the better part of a decade before journeying to the U.S. to record their debut with the Bloomington, Indiana-based independent record label Secretly Canadian. Recorded in such a way as to really translate the fury of BLK JKS’ live show, and with cameos by the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, 2009’s After Robots is still BLK JKS’ only full release. Given the album’s singularity (and relative short tracklist), After Robots is all the more impressive for its wide scope and the wild abandon with which each track progresses.
Musically, BLK JKS are quite hard to define. The songs on After Robots generally would fall within the heading of “progressive rock”, but there is a distinct afrobeat flavor to much of the arrangements, and both rhythmically and melodically the songs often touch on jazz or reggae themes. One constant tends to be the band’s proclivity towards abrupt dynamic changes; at moment a song may be loudly sweeping with washy cymbals and distorted guitars only to break down immediately into an acoustic near-silence. Rhythmically this same idea is echoed, as time signatures and tempos are liable to jump forward or back or sway just as frequently as the volume swells. These traits identify this as incredibly difficult music, and leave the listener suitably impressed with both the band members’ talents, but also their arranging and composition of some of the more avant garde soundscapes that are laid around more straight-ahead melodies and songs. In many ways comparisons to The Mars Volta are apt, though BLK JKS expectedly replaces that bands’ vague Latin-American influence with a thoroughly African one. Additionally, The Mars Volta’s trademark quasi-falsetto screams are replaced by BLK JKS lead singer and guitarist Lindani Buthelezi’s ominous narrations. While all four members of the quartet fuel the music in their own ways, it is often Buthelezi’s guitar work or drummer Tshepang Ramoba’s well-placed accents that lead BLK JKS on musical odysseys through space and time. The group’s music is an exercise in anticipation: expectations are constantly subverted, and every time the listener has an idea of what will happen next the music takes a sudden turn in the opposite direction.
After Robots leads off with “Molalatladi”, one of the more afrobeat-tinged tracks on the album. Over a jumping drumbeat and staccato stabs from the horn sections, gang vocals in both English and Setswana chant a circular melody that keeps the song rotating on its head. Following “Molalatladi” is the intense syncopation of “Banna Ba Modimo”. Within the blender of odd time signatures that follows are lyrics that may sum up the group perfectly: “It’s the ominous and the disquiet” (the line where Buthelezi orders the listener to “Defenestrate the trash” is a close second). Even at the points where the song becomes easy to follow, “Banna Ba Modimo” is lurching over the bar line and into different times and feels. These tracks only lay the footwork for the rest of the album, which stretches from the ambient (“Standby”) to the acoustic (“Tselane”) by way of the scorching lead single “Lakeside” and the horror-reggae of “Skeleton”. Each progressive track makes the high points sound louder and bigger and the quiet sections smaller and more intimate. With a careful application of special effects and sounds to the undeniable musical prowess that the group boasts, After Robots becomes a true experience in listening.
When I saw BLK JKS live in the fall of 2009, they had just released After Robots and were just beginning to cross into American music scenes. Their tent was completely packed when I arrived partway through the set, and the whole room was filled with delay-overdriven noise. While special effects add a great deal to BLK JKS recorded sound, when the group plays live everything is put through delay pedals, linking every instrument and every note in one echoing wall of sound. The group doesn’t seem to be hiding behind their effects, as lives clips do exist of the band playing crisply clean, but the application of heavy amounts of special effects serves to unify the band’s sound. Whether this is or ever was BLK JKS’ intention, their live sound condenses everything into one level out of which bits and pieces of guitar, drums, bass, and vocals occasionally poke out to accent the heavy grooves underneath the psychedelic prog-rock the group lays out.
BLK JKS did release a five-song EP in 2010, led off by the title track “Zol!”. Recorded and released to accompany the South Africa-hosted 2010 World Cup, the EP features a more dance-influenced sound and straighter rhythms. With this exception however, BLK JKS have largely returned to their live roots. The group is actually somewhat difficult to track online, as the groups twitter handle @BLKJKS and page through the record label Secretly Canadian both link to blkjks.com…which appears to be a single page with a paragraph of Chinese characters. Nobody is listening to BLK JKS right now, and while their apparent online shortcomings don’t help, the group definitely deserves a listen. The group has been criticized as not living up to favorable comparisons to other groups, but I believe that BLK JKS’ relative singularity as a quartet of young Africans playing heavy experimental rock music makes them an interesting and worthwhile endeavor regardless of their similarities to other groups. BLK JKS should be judged by what they are as opposed to what they are not, and I can say that the group are a talented young band with a wild sound that couldn’t be classified as anything else I have ever heard.