Modern post-apartheid South Africa can be a confusing country. Loud, exuberant, astonishingly diverse and at the beginning of the process of transcending its troubled past, it can sometimes seem to present an overload of voices, opinions and whole ways of being.
Johannesburg’s BLK JKS – Lindani Buthelezi, Mpumi Mcata, Molefi Makananise and Tshepang Ramoba – embody these qualities in so many ways that they are a band that truly could have come from no other place.
The opening track of their debut album After Robots, Molaha Hadi, is a rush of drum rolls, chanting voices, crooning vocals and afrobeat rhythms. Dramatic, attention-grabbing yet slightly over the top, there seems almost too much happening for just one track, and the listener’s introduction to the album at that.
The same can be said of Taxidermy, with its mixed English and Zulu lyrics, alternating afrobeat and hard rock guitar, and, to a lesser extent, Lakeside, although the latter just about manages contains its eclecticism to form something coherent and all the more effective for being – just slightly – reined in.
This sit-up-and-take-notice album’s calmer tracks tend generally to work better by allowing the listener to get a handle on their general direction. Standby, with its acoustic guitar, tender melody and beautifully delivered melancholy vocal, is outstanding. The closing track Tselane – also acoustic, pared down and featuring a gentle spoken-word narration mixed in with the singing – is another highlight.
Elsewhere the juxtaposition of different styles and genres is part impressive, part bemusing. Progressive rock can be heard in the sense of high drama with which Molalatladi, Banna Ba Modimo, Taxidermy and Cursor are infused, whilst the vocal on Lakeside sounds distinctly reminiscent of 1970s AOR.
Arabic twists of instrumentation and melody crop up on Banna Ba Modimo and (to a lesser extent) Cursor, combining sometimes effectively, sometimes jarringly, with the western electric riffs and afrobeat found elsewhere. Skeleton, meanwhile, is driven by a ska beat, with the brass accompaniment sounding jazzy in places, but in others more like that of a show band. Synthesisers are not much in evidence, but are used to enjoyable effect on Kwa Nqingetje, swooping in and out and adding yet more texture to the band’s complicated array of sounds.
Exciting as this all is, it does also, at times, become a little overwhelming. The twists and turns and changes of pace, tune and rhythm not only between but also within tracks like Banna Ba Modimo, Lakeside and Taxidermy risk, cumulatively, leaving one with little to grab on to. There is often a sense that this is a band with just too many ideas, which they have tried, by hook or by crook, to cram into this album. Perhaps a little more editorial control, or restraint, would have permitted the material to emerge a little more clearly from the heady broth.
That said, however, it cannot be denied that this is an impressive, attention-grabbing debut. Noisy and chaotic, passionate-sounding, complicated and confusing as it is, it nevertheless emerges as something a bit more than the sum of its manifold parts. Something, in fact, that holds an appropriate and apt mirror to the Rainbow Nation from which it has been born.