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BLK JKS - After Robots

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Artist: BLK JKS

Album: After Robots

Label: Secretly Canadian

Review date: Sep. 8, 2009

Process music can be great, but it’s really, really hard to explain why a contact microphone capturing the sound of an ice block melting from the inside is worth a listen. Context always helps, but I tend to justify my interest by looking to the individual behind the work: what is inside of this person that caused them to produce the work? The more I listen, the easier it is to pick out the artists who are taken by a scene and just wish to participate from the ones who are trying to express a worldview or explore a problem that’s been nagging them for years. Setting aside sonic decisions, the melting is interesting if you can tell that the guy was obsessed with some serious ideas and needed to hear what an ice block melting from the inside sounds like. If you can tell, it’s worth a listen.

That spirit is also behind the sort of pop music that I get into. Anyone making music in 2009 is inescapably aware of 50 years of pop progression. If you’re picking up an instrument to take your place, you should have a good reason, or at least people should have a reason to listen to you over the hundreds of thousands of others who are doing the same thing. The best hip-hop is a track where you can tell that the producer is trying to completely outdo himself and everyone else. It’s a personal quest. At some point, influences are left behind and a unique voice begins to emerge.

BLK JKS create bad pop process music. Combining different styles of music that interest you is not enough, though the album’s press might lead you to think differently. The hype behind After Robots points toward process: Diplo’s “African TV on the Radio” remark; a South African band recording indie-prog in New York with a brass ensemble; multiple languages, the works. Throw the band’s elements into the blender and you’re bound to get something revelatory, right?

Unfortunately, there’s nothing to the band besides the concept. Far from ramshackle, exploratory fun, the songs are paint-by-numbers melodramatic nonsense with a few interesting genre gestures. It might be expected that an eight-minute track like “Kwa Nqingetje” would develop some kind of propulsion or reach several peaks, but the only way it and other songs could work would be if the band didn’t telegraph each movement. They do. It’s all coated in mildly bombastic, faux-natural production that sucks the energy from the performances. Akron/Family, though overly self-conscious, are far better at this sort of thing; at least you’re unsure of where they’re headed. Watch the Talking Heads’ Live in Rome concert from 1980 and it becomes painfully apparent how little personality BLK JKS bring to their mix.

That’s the sad thing about After Robots. All of the press comparisons are dead on, but there’s no ‘there’ there. If I’ve learned anything about BLK JKS from this album, it’s that they like all sorts of ambitious music and really want to ape the effects, which sort of defeats the purpose. In postmodern times, this might be an inevitable trap, but if Akron/Family can find a solution, so can these guys. BLK JKS’ hip-hop fire is nowhere to be found.

The album’s final track hints at what BLK JKS could do if they just stopped trying so damn hard. Featuring native language vocals over sparse guitar, “Tselane” is simple, pleasant and effortless. You can hear all the musical connections being made, rather than having them shoved down your throat, which, in the context of After Robots, is a huge accomplishment.

By Brad LaBonte

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