Issue #177: After Robots by BLK JKS
September 3, 2019
Released On September 8, 2009
Released By Secretly Canadian
All music fans are, to a certain extent, in dialog with their younger selves, constantly checking back to see if the sounds that meant so much to them still hit the spot years later. This is even more true of music writers because our previous opinions are right there, in black and white. For me, that written timeline began nearly 10 years ago, on December 28, 2009, when I published the inaugural post on my blog, AnEarful, so named because I was always giving people an earful about music. Because I was launching close to the end of the year, I thought it made sense to kick things off with a “best of” list, which immortalized my favorite records of the year. Looking back, I can say that I’m proud that I started right from the jump by honoring my eclecticism with a list that included indie rock, indie pop, Americana, metal, classical, electronic, and three albums that might have been termed “world music” (I now prefer “global”). My number one was one of the latter, being the debut of the South African rock band known as BLK JKS. That album, After Robots, is itself celebrating its 10th anniversary right around now, on September 8th, 2019. In honor of this confluence of past and present, opinion and object, I thought I would literally have a chat with my 45 year-old self through my original review of After Robots.
“If the ability to astonish over and over again is not a prerequisite for greatness, maybe it should be.” This remains a core value of my listening today: I like to be surprised. I also like when it sounds like a band or musician is surprising themselves. As David Bowie famously said, “If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.” BLK JKS, at the time consisting of Lindani Buthelizi (vocals and guitar), Mpumelelo Mcata (guitar), Molefi Makananise (bass), and Tshepang Ramboba (drums), seem to thrive in that space, always seeking a higher gear and never afraid of going too far, whatever that means.
“After hearing them live on WNYC’s Soundcheck, I fell in love with their reverb-drenched EP, Mystery, and found myself slack-jawed at their titanic SXSW concert as broadcast on All Songs Considered.” Back then, I listened to Soundcheck all the time, sometimes live, sometimes on a podcast downloaded to my iPod, always enjoying John Schaefer’s ever-intelligent, always musically curious outlook regardless of what I thought of the music itself. Even though he was booted off WNYC, Schaefer still has a presence in my life through New Sounds, either on the website or through live-in-studio performances on Facebook. I owe a lot of listening to him! I think I was already intrigued by the discussion, but didn’t know what to expect when they finally launched into Lakeside, which immediately captivated me with it’s combination of a reggae-like verse and a chorus that incorporated a more African idiom derived from the sounds of township jive. Their use of reverb even in a live context was notable, and I remember some people complaining about it at the time. I just thought it was a way to make their sound bigger than the four of them, rather than a shroud to cover up uncertain technique.
I don’t listen to All Songs Considered anymore, mainly because I felt their interests, led by the wishy-washy taste of Bob Boilen, had grown far too prosaic. Show after show would go by without any revelations. But in 2009, they were on the cutting edge and I followed their SXSW coverage assiduously. I’m happy to say BLK JKS’ appearance in Austin is still “titanic” — watch them achieve liftoff about halfway through this performance of “Summertime,” another song from that first EP.
“The album shows them taking their Hendrix-Dub-Prog-South African blend to a deeper, richer place.” While Hendrix is surely one of the most well-recognized musicians of all time, it’s rare that you hear people actually trying to incorporate the sound of a furious, busy rhythm section and soaring lead guitar — especially in 2009. In the last decade, my appreciation for Hendrix has continued to grow and I respect BLK JKS even more for having the guts to bring him into their world, which they do brilliantly on the opening cut, “Molalatladi.” As for dub, that’s something that will always grab my attention, as it did when I heard “When Jah Come” by Devon Irons on Gil Bailey’s show while falling asleep one night in the early ’80s. The echo and space, combined with rich bass and expertly-manipulated tape, fills a need in me — don’t ask me why!
I think including “prog” in my description was shorthand for the multipart epic-ness of songs like the second track, “Banna Ba Modimo,” which also included some incredibly tight unison work by the two guitarists that reminds me, then as now, of jazz fusion/prog rock masterpieces like The Inner Mounting Flame by Mahavishnu Orchestra. Prog is more well-respected these days than it was a decade ago, perhaps in part due to that New Yorker article, which makes me wonder if BLK JKS will make even more sense to people in 2019. The “deeper, richer” sound may have been due to stripping away some of that reverb, perhaps a decision made by producer Brandon Curtis, whose own bands Secret Machines and School Of Seven Bells boast a very clean sonic profile.
“The brilliant horns add a new dimension and, while there is less reverb than on their debut, they still find ways to explode in tsunamis of sound that are nearly overwhelming, releasing the tension like a gun battle in a John Woo movie.” Including the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble was indeed brilliant, adding heft to the central quartet and, while excess is a part of the BLK JKS ethos, it is equally matched by restraint and dynamics, so the horns are never overused. I had discovered John Woo about 20 years before, when I somehow caught wind of something outrageous called The Killer playing in Chinatown. My longstanding interest in the use of violence in movies made it a must-see and I was shocked and inspired by Woo’s bold blend of saccharine emotions and operatic gunfights. The way BLK JKS deliver those seismic payoffs on After Robots still flashes across my personal IMAX like Chow Yun Fat trying to redeem himself for blinding Sally Yeh. Unlike Woo’s tragic vision, however, songs by BLK JKS come to satisfying resolutions, leaving nothing but excitement and musical satisfaction in their wake.
“Johannesburg spawned a monster.” Maybe not the best choice of words, when you think about the real monsters who oppressed millions for decades in South Africa. But I still think the band is monstrously talented! And back then I expected them to only get bigger, at least in the firmament of indie rock. I imagined a string of albums, gigs at the Mercury Lounge and then Bowery Ballroom. National tours. Collaborations. Performances on the Grammys, etc. I’m still waiting. There was another EP, Zol!, which seemed a bit like an artistic retreat, then silence. Wikipedia tells me that Buthelezi and the other three grew “estranged” and he left the band in 2012, which may have stalled things for a while. There have been occasional glimpses, whether the time they opened for Foo Fighters on a South African tour in 2014, or just last year, when they joined forced with Sal Masekela to pay tribute to his father, Hugh, by recording a cover of his classic jam, “The Boy’s Doing It.” The video is a delight and I watched it several times last year, soaking up the vibe of the guys in the studio, which included two new members, Tebogo Seitei on trumpet and Hlubi Vakalisa on saxophone and keyboards. Maybe there’s a little more gray in their beards but they still have the fire — and I still have hope.
“Download a free ‘Mystery Megamix’ and get more background here.” The website is still there but it hasn’t been updated since 2009 and, unfortunately, the link to the “megamix” is now broken. If I was writing this now, I would point people in the direction of Instagram or Facebook, where some exciting news was announced about two weeks ago: a new single is coming soon, to be followed by a new album. I don’t know exactly what they’ve been up against that’s made it take so long, but revisiting After Robots has me just as excited as I would have been if they announced their next album in a more “reasonable” span of time. Their music spoke me then and, despite all the changes I’ve been through and all the music I’ve heard in the ensuing years, it still speaks to me. May you find something of yourself in After Robots and in whatever comes next from these adventurous, boundary pushing — and, yes, astonishing — musicians.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
South African afropunks distilling experimental & progressive concepts through soaring compositions.
Sometimes, standing on the edge of a cliff or bridge, the sheer height overtakes me and I feel the urge to jump, to freefall down into the air, embrace the height and the terror and just succumb. Though safe at home in my cozy couch when listening, I still felt l’appel du vide once After Robots began to play, allowing myself to safely fall into the space, the richness, of the album. Dramatic and sweeping, the opening track “Molalatladi” sucks the listener down into the vortex that is After Robots. There is no reprieve, no catching of your breath; noodling bass line with guitar punctuation in “Molalatladi” soon give way to the urgent, heroic vocals of Lindani Buthelezi soaring over background chants. So much sadness and emotion is packed into that strong voice that one always feels like he is a man on the verge of something, ripping open his shirt in a downpour, watching his lover die at the hands of his enemy, striding across the desert to avenge the death of his parents. In addition to the several languages sung on the album, the amazing musical landscape does nothing to detract from this perspective, either. Pulling from jazz, prog rock, reggae, dub, ska, probably a million other genres, BLK JKS creates a vision of their musical heritage, weaving together threads of songs and bands heard in their youth. Too many homages are here to count, but veering away from pastiche and parody, the band manages to create something truly new in their acknowledgements, inviting the listener into their lives, memories, and minds with this winding journey. The South African band reaches across a stunningly wide variety of genres and sounds to create this patchwork album, but somehow it all comes together.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
North Americans, I believe, are used to a very specific narrative pattern. Whether it’s music, film or any form of media designed to evoke an emotional response in its audience, we’re used to the intro, the slow build, the high middle, followed by a break. After the break, we resume with the climax, and the piece that can often vary in content but usually not in tone: the finale, be it happy, tragic, or simply a meandering slow fade away. Sure, there are exceptions, particularly in genres such as metal and hardcore but even in the most extreme cases of that, things usually start with a whimper rather than a bang. BLK JKS’ 2009 LP After Robots, launches into tumbling rhythm and an already heightened sense of urgency. It’s unexpected out of the gates and by the time you’ve made it through 1/3rd of “Molalatladi,” the hook — if that’s what it is — is forlorn and urgent. It’s hard to call it a hook as many of the songs on the album seem to follow more jazz-like improvisational patterns. Melodies are in tight loops and usually buried under layers of cascading rhythms and meandering basslines and freeform horns. This is 9 tracks of a sort of melancholic bombast. It’s easy to forget that just because we’re used to a certain framework, an artist is always most appreciated for their innovation and experimentation. As you roll through “Banna Ba Modimo,” one gets the sense that the album has been a long journey — you’re tired, upset, and afraid and whatever is happening here is a serious and increasing threat. That’s what you realize you’re only on track 2. The album is not without its reprieve, however. “Standby” is a far more mellow track with a beautiful if somewhat freeform vocal melody which, for me, evoked memories of Serj Tankian if he were a folk singer fronting a jazz band. I believe that the term “indie rock” is an unnecessarily broad label in much the same way “alternative rock” was in the ’90s. If taken on its face, the term “indie” simply means a band that has not been signed to a major label. Add the “rock” to it and you merely lop off all the accordian and pan flutes players and leave a (still massive) list of guitar-oriented music. If you do your homework, you realize that many formerly “indie rock” bands are now signed to major labels. In the same way that “alternative” reached a point where it was no longer the alternative, indie rock, or at least the indie, is no longer meaningful. Supposedly, BLK JKS are a South African indie rock band and I get it — that parks them neatly in a place where people who are open to previously unknown rock bands might check them out. But let’s be clear about this — there’s a lot more going on here than rock. The patterns are complex — the tempo, melody, and patterns shift, speed, spin and decelerate like leaves in an autumn wind storm. The experience of After Robots has a similar effect on your heart. And how does it end? On a tragic or a happy note? I am certainly not going to spoil it, but I will assure that it doesn’t follow the usual narrative.
Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage
I think where Americans miss the mark in terms of musical diversity is that we just want to see a wide array of people performing American music. Yes, it sounds really stupid and self-centered to say it out loud, but it’s often the truth. I think we as Americans, in general, lack an appreciation for cultures outside of our own, and particularly the art of those cultures. I don’t want to hear a funk band from Ghana try and recreate an American sound, I want to hear how they do it. I want to hear records like “Molalatladi” that incorporate native chants as the main vocal elements layered over familiar building blocks of rock & roll. It’s a new sound, at least to us, that can only be found by expanding our musical horizons. I absolutely loved the string and horn arrangements on “Banna Ba Modimo” that give the song a middle eastern feel. I could certainly hear this track as part of a new James Bond score. What sticks out to me about After Robots is that no two records sound the same. It’s a series of left turns that crests at the reggae-rock-wall-of-sound that is “Skeleton,” an awe-inspiring arrangement of everything but the kitchen sink. Producer, writers, and artists with this kind of ear for the diverse should be a major asset on the American music scene, but unfortunately, in my opinion, our narrow worldview prevents us from enjoying these records and we don’t even know it.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
Splicing together dozens of vibrant & striking shots just like BLK JKS’ sound.
I am bad at taking recommendations, but excellent at giving them. You will rarely find me taking a one-size-fits-all approach to them, because it offends me when people do that to me. I pay attention to what my friends like and dislike, and will only suggest something if it ticks off multiple boxes on the personalized Likes List I carry around for each person in my head (yes, my brain is a busy place). But for as bad as I am at taking recommendations, my husband is worse. He knows I know what he likes. He knows I know what he dislikes. But I can’t ever just say “hey, we should watch this, I think you’d like it.” No, I have to arrange to have it playing when he’s in the room and paying enough attention to not leave for at least an episode. And then offer to start it over if he wants (this has worked every time). I can’t just say “Hey, you would totally dig this band, you should check them out.” We were together for 11 years with me saying “you would really like Clutch,” before I snuck a few of their albums on his phone so they’d play occasionally when he hit shuffle. When he came home singing “Abraham Lincoln,” I knew I had him. And that was 10 years ago, but he hasn’t listened to a recommendation since then, even though he now has all of their albums and listens to them regularly. When I started playing BLK JKS After Robots the other day, I knew right away this was something he’d enjoy, but now he just listens to Pandora and Spotify and YouTube playlists, so I can’t sneaky fucker it onto his phone anymore. I’m working on a plan where I just play it loudly when he’s in the other room often enough until he decides to Shazam it instead of asking me. I don’t think it’ll take very long. But, shhh, it’s a secret, so if you know him, don’t mention it.
50 Foot Pop Queenie
After Robots is sort of all over the place, but in a good way. This goes beyond the fact that Lindani Buthelezi sings in three different languages, one of which I had never heard of before looking into BLK JKS. In no particular order, I found hints of dub, alt-rock, post-punk, ambient, and jazz. They’re even kind of a jam band in some places. I’m sure that I’m missing a few, too. The album is cohesive within the context of being so scattershot. In fact, I’d argue it’s cohesive because it’s scattershot. It’s an album in the sense that all the songs were released together, but I wouldn’t say it’s an album the way that, say, The Dark Side Of The Moon is an album. There’s no overarching point or theme, except for the lack of one. It’s unifying through its lack of unity. It’s a mixtape — of sounds, at least — but since it’s only a single artist, I don’t know what you’d call that. After Robots might be closer to a primer or a ‘This Is’ Spotify playlist that’s usually a good introduction to an artist. Interestingly, After Robots would only make for a good introduction to BLK JKS up to that point, because the ZOL! EP that followed the next year suggests they had more places they wanted to go (including metallic and psychedelic sounds). So I have no idea what to call what BLK JKS does or what After Robots is. I guess ‘interesting’ to either one is probably good enough.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
BLK JKS’ After Robots may have been released all the way back in 2009, but there’s nothing dated or old about it. A refreshing take on just good ole’ fashioned rock n’ roll, this South African band definitely deserves more than they have every gotten as far as exposure goes. They braid so many different genres, elements, and influences into a single piece of music, creating a sound that is truly unlike anything I have ever heard before. After Robots is all over the place as far as tempo and vibes go. Each song seems to have a different feeling attached to it and, although all over place, each song is so distinctively BLK JKS. I put this album on early in the morning and just let it play through as I did my morning chores of feeding the cats, feeding myself, and doing the dishes that I neglected last night. All of those chores seem mundane, but After Robot‘s gave these mundane tasks a new life. Beyond the amazing way the group weaves in so many modern influences into each song, my favorite aspect is the almost traditional South African vibe that comes in and out throughout each song. Whether it’s in the lyrics or instrumentation, there’s always a subtle reminder that this band doesn’t care what you think of them and want to make their heritage known while still keeping current with everything else going on in the world of music. They are here to show you a glimpse of their traditions while making a whole new tradition of their own. Reading up on this group, it sounds like they have gone through multiple line-up changes and really aren’t doing much as far as shows, touring, and new music is concerned. It bums me out because this is a group that I would love to see perform live and I am left kicking myself for not getting on the BLK JKS train sooner.
Langen Goldstien (@girlatrockshows)
Queen Of Everything Loud & Nostalgic
How many kinds of world music are there? A zillion? As many as there are musicians, multiplied by the number of distinct traditions for them to tap into? What if I told you there were just three? Hear me out. The first way to use the term “world music” — the one that’s gone way out of style, and for good reason — is to lump anything not derived from the Western tradition into a nonspecific “other” category. Gross, right? The second is the new-agey, vaguely spiritual worldbeat that superstars like Sting were making in the 1990s, which was actually fairly specific in terms of its sound, like music’s version of Esperanto. I’m not knocking it; there are some jams in there. But I’d argue there’s a third, post-Internet kind that’s more mixture than solution — where styles from different parts of the world are incorporated generously and empathetically without leaving distinctiveness behind. That’s what I hear when I listen to BLK JKS — a conversation among polyglots, both literally and figuratively. Don’t get me wrong; there’s plenty of South Africa in After Robots. Guitar and bass flourishes throughout echo the sounds BLK JKS grew up hearing. And the fierce energy in the album’s overall sound puts a whole new spin on “the indestructible beat of Soweto,” given the way American metal (especially Tool, though they may just be front-of-mind for me these days) helps the mixture hang together. But so many other styles are given an opportunity to take center stage. I hear in “Banna Ba Modimo” and “Taxidermy” the same blistering guitar work that made me fall for the desert blues of Mdou Moctar. “Skeleton” has all the bounce of reggae with dub’s electronic elements, while “Kwa Nqingetje” camps out on the fifth and sixth notes of a minor-key scale in the same way a Flamenco guitarist might. A quick side note: This past Friday, I attended the Vampire Weekend show in Norfolk, Virginia with a few friends, including fellow Off Your Radar-er Kellen Ford, who had accepted an extra ticket at the last minute. With a bright green and blue globe looming over the stage, I tried to describe the music they make, which is indebted to South Africa in its own way. I hesitated when “world music” came to mind. Maybe I shouldn’t have.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Most fearless in this record is BLK JKS’ willingness to make each songs outliers, yet central to their identity.
I’ve never heard another album that sounds like this one, and while I’m not trying to push the idea that I listen to a bunch of music, or all kinds of music, I can say that I do my best to get around. The merging of cultures and genres on this record are brash and unapologetic. It seems as though no attention was paid towards making sure that the sonic focus of the album stayed in view. Regardless, the album feels cohesive and fluid, which is almost amazing considering how insane the music sounds. At some points, there’s alternative influence, then heavy metal, then there are distorted guitar sounds that almost remind me of anime opening and closing sequences. You can’t understate the amount of talent it must take to pull off a record like this one. There’s something incredibly surreal about the listening experience for this album. It’s always nice when a record can take the listener somewhere beyond a normal state of consciousness and into a thought-space that they don’t normally inhabit. This album certainly did that for me, just by shocking me out of my ear coma. An ear coma, by my definition, occurs when you spend too much time listening to things you’re familiar with, until you become desensitized and your passion for music starts to fade. I’m happy to be able to say that this album snapped me out of my ear coma, for a while.
Joel Worford (@joel_worford)
Confused & Confusing Since 1965
Honestly, I cannot believe that September is finally here. I’ve always felt that the last few weeks of August feel like a giant Sunday in a way — still enjoyable, but Monday is looming. Same way that you’re still enjoying the summer, but September is just around the corner. A new season, a time of change, September has always felt like more of a time for new beginnings for me personally, than January ever has. Maybe that’s just the mindset I’m in right now, needing a change and using the change of season as fuel in a way, to keep me motivated before the cold, depressing winter sets in. I find that I am reflecting on a lot of “this time last year” moments, and that may be for a variety of different reasons, but I need to try and really just be in the present moment, not think back, or look too far ahead, because it’ll either upset me or stress me out, and I don’t want that. That’s why this album is great. The instrumental sections and the melodies of the music, to me, sound hopeful. They provide a great soundtrack for times that are changing. In this regard, “Lakeside” stands out to me because while it does have a bit of a darker sound, it still has hope, making me feel like there is something to look forward to. The singer’s voice sounds like a mixture between Gord Downie and Matt Berninger (from The National) which gives him such an interesting sound that I could listen to for hours, deepening the connection between dark and hopeful. So while it is upsetting that yet another summer is coming to an end, I am grateful for the change and looking forward to all the good things that the autumn will bring.
Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast
A big deal was made about The Mars Volta when BLK JKS first burst onto the scene in the late 2000s, so much so that you couldn’t read a review without someone comparing the two, or even listen to an interview without the host trying to coax BLK JKS into mentioning them. It seems superfluous now, but as I listen to After Robots, I can fully understand why people were so quick to make the connection and so adamant that it persist in the conversation about the band. Almost immediately after hitting play, I’m hit with flashbacks to the mid-2000s when I discovered De-Loused In The Comatorium, The Mars Volta’s magnum opus, and spent many a night lost in the catacombs of musical experimentation they built. Opening track “Molalatladi” starts off mid-stride with an uneven, yet hypnotic groove reminiscent of classic Mars Volta “chase” songs, ones that suck you in at their core before adding the random fragments that infectiously live in your brain for weeks and months to come. Here, it’s BLK JKS’ use of punctuated horn parts, tribal vocal arrangements, and irregular melodies, which somehow transcend the notion of “earworm,” that elevate BLK JKS central groove to something fanatical and imposing. It’s eerie how much this all reminds me of The Mars Volta, but even spookier is how BLK JKS is able to put a “new” spin on this. Whereas The Mars Volta’s sound seems buried, tunneling underneath with furtive adventurism, BLK JKS’ music seems out in the open, sprawling from one metropolis to the next. The Mars Volta finds an opening in the ground beneath them, burrowing deeper and deeper and shifting their direction whichever way the ground allows them, whereas BLK JKS are racing through alleyways, big and small, following the constructs built before them, but using them to their advantage to get to their destination in a much more efficient and satisfying way. (Just compare the 46 minute run-time for After Robots to the 61 minute ordeal of De-Loused.) Even the slower songs feel flipped in this regard — “Standby,” the third track on After Robots, and “With Twilight As My Guide,” off Octahedron released in the same year, both bear the weight of their introspective themes, but BLK JKS’ approach seems much more rooted in approaching this reflection with eyes wide open, peering in the abyss, whereas The Mars Volta approaches it blind… “with [darkness] as my guide,” if you will. While neither approach is better, per se, this helps explain why optimism seems to be much more reachable within the sonic world of BLK JKS, whereas The Mars Volta often feels intentionally locked within their own musical dungeon. BLK JKS are free to explore in this design, and explore is just what they do on After Robots, a record that soars over the hallmarks of 21st century prog music in an audacious feat of musical excellence.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Rip It Up by Orange Juice
Chosen By Laura Burroughs