Thanks to the ubiquitous work of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, dark, melodramatic art-rock isn’t the first thing that pops in your mind in relation to South African music. Which is why South Africa’s BLK JKS had to come to Brooklyn to make waves; hardly anyone in the Sub-Sahara was hip to their sound, but the New York indie-rock mob is a perfect audience for the band’s debut album, After Robots. After all, BLK JKS represent the international malleability of music, and particularly that art-rock knows no international borders.
After Robots is the follow up to BLK JKS’ (pronounced “Black Jacks”) hype-building Mystery EP. Like the EP, After Robots is produced by Secret Machines’ Brandon Curtis, whose own prog-rock fingerprint is on the album. And like the EP, BLK JKS sound like Africa’s answer to TV on the Radio on After Robots, doing expansive, nervous, end-of-the-world jams for uncertain times. Or like a friend once put it, music for that primal dance orgy scene at the beginning of Matrix Reloaded.
After Robots kicks off with the frenetic “Molalatadi” (it translates as “rainbow”), but doesn’t take off until “Standby,” a sprawling ballad with lyrical allusions to decaying empires, wanderlust, and about not being seen or heard. It’s the first song on the album where Curtis’ production lets the song breathe; the somber and buzzing guitars intermingle with the percussion and vocals for full emotional impact.
Those tracks are just great palate testers for what’s to come, however. After Robots’ highlight is the song that broke BLK JKS (and the EP) wider acclaim: “Lakeside,” a bubbling, hopeful, howler that stands among the best rock tracks of 2009. There are so many layers that it takes multiple listens before getting around to appreciating how complex the drum part is and how great the choral moans are, and that’s before you can even get to the densely metaphorical lyrics about a search for happiness. Its closing minute suggests that “Lakeside” would be a monster live; the explosive guitar solo at the end could be lengthened considerably and the song wouldn’t lose any of its power.
Apart from the song titles and singing in Zulu as often as English, BLK JKS’s most conventional nod to African musical traditions is closer “Tselane,” a ranting lullaby where one of the JKS (they all sing) talks in Zulu over a simple acoustic melody. But because of the colliding worlds of BLK JKS music, it fits in as well on After Robots as a dub track (“Skeleton”), a soaring U2 track as played on a beach (“Cursor”) and a relatively straight forward Pink Floyd-esque pysch-out (“Kwa Nqingetje”).
When they first started making the rounds two years ago, it would have been easy to write-off BLK JKS as having a too-perfect back-story that would be used to snag them at least an indie-label record deal. But After Robots more than answers the call to hype; it breaks down the borders between countries and scenes, and it bears a message that it’s just as possible to create progged-out songs of unending complexity if you’re from Johannesburg as it is if you’re from Williamsburg.