When South African art rockers BLK JKS earlier this year released their debut EP titled Mystery, that’s exactly what they were—a mystery. It wouldn’t be long, however, before the group’s story became one of the year’s most compelling. Having remained relatively anonymous to audiences in the Northern Hemisphere for ten years, the band caught the attention of Diplo (of course) and ultimately Brandon Curtis of the Secret Machines, who then recorded the band’s first material released stateside. But even more compelling was the adventurous, progressive rock sounds displayed on that debut EP, mixing rock, jazz, Afrobeat and a number of other musical styles into something wholly unique. With a mere four songs, BLK JKS had made one hell of an introduction to an American audience, but only provided a sliver of a glimpse into their ever-shifting sonic persona.
With debut full-length After Robots, BLK JKS make a big leap from the springboard their prior EP provided into a more accessible and more diverse sonic pool. Where Mystery found the group largely showing preference toward loosely flowing and improvisational structures, often drifting into ambience, After Robots is more of a rock album, though by no means a traditional one. Their adventurous and exotic spirit is still well intact, and shifting its malleable shape as each of its nine tracks transitions to the next.
“Lakeside” is the sole holdover from Mystery, and as such makes for one of the album’s most immediate standouts. It’s easily one of the band’s tightest songs, and certainly one of the catchiest, its soaring chorus making for a joyous peak in the album’s first act. Yet from there, BLK JKS transform and flex into various shapes, hammering out some formidable grooves on one end and easing into tender balladry on the other, with a series of pleasant surprises to be found in between. Leadoff track “Molalatladi” is a fierce Afrobeat-meets-rock track with stunning horns provided by the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. Likewise, “Banna Ba Modimo” is a tightly wound prog rock number with cascading riffs and guitar flash galore. It’s the one and only time the band could bear a passing resemblance to The Mars Volta, to which they’ve sometimes been compared, if mostly inaccurately.
“Taxidermy” is one of the album’s most intense moments, opening with a squall of feedback and noise before ushering in a high-speed psych-rock rhythm. In another surprise change in direction, the band opts for a dub-reggae rhythm to kick off “Skeleton,” only to once again switch styles to usher in a monolithic chorus. Yet one of the album’s most jaw-dropping moments comes in the epic ballad “Cursor,” which is equal parts Genesis and The Cure, and thoroughly stunning. Yet the album’s other ballads don’t offer quite as massive a thrill. “Standby” lacks the same energy, and “Kwa Nqingetje,” though certainly bold and dramatic, is a few minutes too long. However, closer “Tselane,” meditative and stripped down, is gorgeous in its juxtaposition of acoustic strums and ringing keyboards.
That BLK JKS have been playing together for 10 years shows on After Robots. These four musicians, not to mention the guest brass, display a proficiency that few possess, and even fewer manage to incorporate into such fantastic songs. With so many different sounds leaping forth from the speakers, After Robots can be an overwhelming listen, but one that yields a lengthy reel of highlights.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.