Save for a handful of singles over the last 18 months in the lead up to this album’s release, it’s been pretty quiet on the BLK JKS front, since their impressively eclectic debut After Robots came out, all the way back in 2009. Taking an extended hiatus after the landslide of critical acclaim that the record elicited seemed to overwhelm them, in the decade that passed, they found their title as Africa’s most interesting musical dilettantes under threat from newer performers like Songhoy Blues and fellow South African Desire Marea from the FAKA art collective, but the Johannesburg quartet have revived their purpose and are back to claim their throne.
Lesser bands would no doubt have struggled with an 11-year absence between releases and the possibility that time out of mind might render them irrelevant to fans. To their credit, and largely down to the exploratory magpie nature of their sound, BLK JKS with Abantu / Before Humans remain as startling as before, but the album feels less messy than their earlier work. They’ve obviously spent a long time industriously rehearsing this material, and they’ve morphed into a controlled unit. Yet frivolity is never far away. The opening drums that suddenly barrel out of Yela Oh! And run into recent single Running-Asibaleki / Sheroes Theme bizarrely recall the tumbling intro to Green Day’s catchy Longview single but the brass heavy ode to femininity and fertility, both creatively and biologically, that they beckon is as far removed from bratty Californian angst ridden pop punk as you can get.
With its ominous chanting and gaudy constitution iQ(w)ira-Machine Learning VOl.1 seemingly riffs on director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s cult Holy Mountain movie and aborted Dune project melding rock shamanism with visionary and boisterous science fiction elements. Similarly the mouthy Yoyo! – The Mandela Effect / Black Aurora Cusp Druids Ascending is a riposte collision of ideas that exists without ever being obviously indebted to one particular source, shredding as it does Rage Against The Machine style socio-political math rock commentary with Sun Ra indebted Afrofuturist spiritual free jazz.
Spirituality bursts out of album standout Human Hearts as the entire band; guitarist Mpumelelo Mcata, drummer Tshepang “RMBO” Ramoba, bassist Molefi Makananise and trumpeter Tebogo Seitei take turns professing their love for humanity’s capacity for kindness. The magnetically blissful and crudely assembled crashes of their earlier work may have been switched out for more economically structured concerns this time round but the unique compassion of their staccato vision remains elastic and unbroken. As they did once before, BLK JKS have crafted an album that‘s as vibrant, misunderstood, passionate and vastly captivating as the place from which it came.