BLK JKS - After Robots
Secretly Canadian
Jazz/Prog Rock, World Music
9 songs (45:47)
Release year: 2009
BLK JKS, Secretly Canadian
Reviewed by Goat
Surprise of the month

Proof that reading a newspaper is sometimes worth it, I came across South African Prog Rockers BLK JKS (“black jacks”) after a positive review in The Guardian had me busy researching, and many listens to the band’s debut full-length After Robots later I’m more than convinced of their worth. Imagine The Mars Volta with a heavy Afrobeat influence, the Latin elements replaced with forays into Jazz, and you pretty much have it, but BLK JKS are far too individual and original to be a mere clone act. The members are highly skilled, creating a kind of controlled chaos at times that as violent as it can get is never allowed to slip away from the band’s tight grasp. It’s quite impressive that there are only four members, with a backing horn section to add colour, and the songwriting is excellent, keeping you on your toes without ever becoming dull. Opening cut Molalatladi alone proves a surprise to the ears, complex guitar lines and technical percussion mixing with melodic group vocals and trumpet flourishes in a strangely epic yet extremely physical, grounded assault. The vocals and drums are unmistakeably African in style, yet the searing psychedelia of the guitars is western, taking the King Crimson template and reimagining it from a completely different perspective.

The sheer drive shown is impressive, Banna Ba Modimo opening with brass trade-offs and leading into a laid-back but jazzy meander that never loses its focus. Whether it’s the gentle acoustic guitar that opens Standby, soon becoming a rather beautiful ballad, building up in a melancholic fashion, or the percussion-driven Lakeside, Lindani Buthelezi’s graceful voice coming into its own as he croons above the majestically chaotic instrumentation, the band perform to the highest standards, and After Robots is an album that will be played again and again. Taxidermy alone is the sort of gently experimenting song that shoots out melodic vibes without ever becoming challenging to listen to as deep and intense as the instrumentation can become, and Kwa Nqingetje is a seven-minute stroll through gently progressive territories that is wonderfully structured, fascinating from start to finish. There is, overall, more calm than storm about After Robots, but the band’s energy is constant, and the musicianship never fails to impress.

If there’s a poor moment here then it’s closing track Tselane, simpler in structure than other songs and with a slightly annoying falsetto performance from Lindani. However, as the weak point on an otherwise terrific album it’s more than bearable – BLK JKS have made something genuinely unique here, Fela Kuti on a Prog Rock jam with Sun Ra and his Arkestra in a damn good display of musical skill. Metalheads who enjoy the twists and turns of complex Prog a la The Mars Volta will find much to appreciate here; certainly one of my pleasant surprises of the year.

Killing Songs :
Molalatladi, Banna Ba Modimo, Lakeside, Taxidermy, Skeleton
Goat quoted 86 / 100
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