BLK JKS After Robots (Secretly Canadian)
After Robots is best devoured as an album of moments. BLK JKS, a South African gang of four, is not concerned with the ideas of symmetry in composition or easily digestible patterns of progression. Instead, they slice through genres, rip and reposition shards of language, and attack their instruments with such maddening, erratic tenacity that the concept of a “song” as a coherent, soluble portion is quickly damned. BLK JKS revel in the possibility of exploration and it is that desire to explore that both elevates After Robots towards excellence and leaves the album without a sense of direction.
The strongest moments, as they course through After’s nine tracks, are arresting in their scope. In terms of voice, both “Molalatladi” and “Lakeside” are wonderfully unusual: in the latter piece, the title is repeated like a line of prayer whereas the second features chants that resemble the calls of geese. When “Kwa Nqingetje” begins, guitars grow to grind and charge but by the track’s extended end, brash tones degenerate into murky, ghostly warbles. Near the conclusion of “Taxidermy,” drums rise to a majestic rumble, sounding like a 747 about to take off. “Banna Ba Modimo” is propelled by a virile blast of horns. Each instrument is afforded the opportunity to shine.
However, this approach also means lots of non-moments: for every other fierce solo, portions of unimpressive fluff pad the rest of the track. For After, this is a dilemma that lessens the effects of showmanship.
Now, to slow down: BLK JKS (pronounced “Blackjacks”) are from Johannesburg and write in both English and Zulu. As if the complexity of interwoven tongues wasn’t intimidating enough, their English verses resemble snippets from a William S. Burroughs poem; I encourage you to decipher this serving of word salad from “Skeleton”: “If there’s a skeleton in your pocket, what could it be?/ An uncanny color with no ID?.” With no stylistic allegiances, the group makes an industrious, hyperkinetic mesh of free jazz, psychedelic, progressive, classic rock, and African music. A distant cousin in the American sonic spectrum might be early Mars Volta but even that comparison feels cumbersome when After Robots shows some peerless flourishes. Should BLK JKS inject some coherence into their bombastic ambitions in the future, I’d be very willing to give their head-rush of a sound another go.