It's not hard to see why Johannesburg quartet BLK JKS have attracted favourable comparisons with Brooklyn visionaries TV on the Radio, such is their dexterous manipulation of genres, sounds and moods, but there's much more on offer from their expansive debut album After Robots – produced in New York by Secret Machines' Brandon Curtis – than mere imitation.
Indeed, pinning influences on the record as a whole is a troublesome assignment. Progressive rock, noise, shoegaze and traditional African pop offer pertinent signposts but no more than that. Songs evolve, build and mutate in a variety of unorthodox ways, and though it's not always an easy or immediate listen, it's ultimately one that's well worth any effort invested.
Lindani Buthelezi's predilection for switching the language of his delivery from English to Zulu adds to this kaleidoscopic feel, while the album's snappier, more accessible numbers Lakeside (perhaps the band's defining moment to date) and Skeleton bookend its most difficult and expansive, Kwa Nqingetje.
After Robots reveals BLK JKS as a group who deal in soundscapes rather than songs, one for complete immersion and not casual spins. Their sound pays little mind to conventional band roles, with Tshepang Ramoba's multifarious percussion often taking the lead while the two guitars duelling around and above the rhythm section.
Guitarists Buthelezi and Mpumi Mcata are clearly prodigious players but their interlocking melody lines illuminate rather than dominate for the most part, eschewing a traditional rhythm/lead setup. When they do solo, though, it frequently approaches Hendrix-esque levels of technical brilliance. Opener Molalatladi offers a great example of this sonic blueprint, buoyed – as elsewhere – by a horn section courtesy of NYC's Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.
Listeners with the patience to penetrate After Robots' dense exterior, then, will find an accomplished debut album that stays just about on the right side of difficult. That its reference points prove so elusive is simply an indicator that we're dealing here with an increasingly rare breed – a modern band with their own distinct, unique musical vision. For that, they should certainly be applauded. --Rob Webb
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