With a vowelless name and a genreless sound, the South African quartet BLK JKS (pronounced “Black Jacks”) forces a bit of reading between the lines. It isn’t just a matter of the music being too exotic for staid North American ears: These guys were too weird for most of South Africa to properly digest.
So begins the highly bloggable back story: Sent to wander from their homeland, the nomadic Jacks find some love from Diplo’s Mad Decent label, and later Indiana’s Secretly Canadian, plus a FADER cover feature, an upcoming SXSW showcase and other such marks of indie prestige. Mystery, a four-song warning shot of an EP, completes the cycle of hype. Duck and cover, y’all: Something wicked this way comes.
It’s no easy task to strain out the various ingredients at work in the Jacks’ recipe, but the foremost element is a pervasive sense of menace. The band bobs and weaves uneasily, never content to stay in one place for too long. Like the sprinting kids on the album cover, the Jacks seem to always have one eye over their shoulders, even as they forge ahead.
An ambient wash opens “Lakeside” before drummer Tshepang Ramoba’s stuttering, slithering high-hat pattern breaks the spell. With a ghostly choir moaning at his back, singer Linda Buthelezi sets the scene: down by the lakeside, paramedics, broken lesions, “Where did it all go wrong?”
And then the band suddenly zips into the only real “chorus” of the entire EP. With guitars chiming, Buthelezi and company break into a chant, which to my ears sounds like “Obama!” (there’s no lyrics sheet to confirm that one, unfortunately). Someone shoots out a staccato series of whistles. Amid the rest of Mystery’s murky atmospherics, it’s a singular moment of impromptu joy.
The title track most clearly tips off the band’s debt to dub stylings, its guitars drenched in reverb and its rhythm spiraling down toward the track’s cacophonic death. The standard BLK JKS song ending, it seems, requires the musicians to raze the foundation to the ground.
“Summertime” similarly builds from minor chords that could almost pass for the opening to George Gershwin’s jazz standard, before boiling into a frenetic instrumental rave-up. The comedown finally hits on “It’s in Every Thing You’ll See,” with its spare noodling and vaguely Arabic lilt.
It’s an understated end to a stunning display of the group’s musical dexterity. Rock critics often like to sign off on reviews by wondering how a band will develop. But for BLK JKS, it’s more than just a rote question. They possess enough competing strands of stylistic DNA that their future could explode in any number of disparate directions.
And that brings us back to the original appeal of these genre mutants: there are no borders, no set path. As listeners, we’re free to fill in the blanks.