No band on the planet right now is overplaying with the titanic, fearless, stupendously excessive gusto of South African art-rockers BLK JKS, an alternately gorgeous and grating jazz-prog-dub-metal behemoth that makes the Mars Volta look like austere, timid minimalists. Onstage Tuesday night at S.O.B.’s, a small but rapt (or terrified) crowd (the woman cheerfully dancing with her fingers jammed into her ears sums it up nicely) looking on with a volatile mix of awe and exasperation, the quartet (pronounced “black jacks”) basically comes across as four dudes soloing respectively, perpetually, simultaneously, with only occasional regard for each other, or the song, or you. Occasionally, one of them will glance at his bandmates with what seems to be genuine bewilderment, uncertain as to what they’ll do next, and when they will finally stop doing it.
This is apparently very much by design. “It’s better when we’re not on the same page,” explained magnificently-spaced-out guitarist Mpumi Mcata to The Fader, describing an evidently wildly successful recent recording session with cohorts Tshepang Ramoba (drums), Molefi Makananise (bass), and frontman Linda Buthelezi. “There’s parts where we play for, like, 35 minutes of not listening to each other. Like, Molefi’s checking the tone on his bass, and just so that it doesn’t make you physically sick, I’m checking in the same key. Tshepang is doing his thing on the drum, getting everything set up, and basically what you hear is the most beautiful thing.”
Totally agree with most of this, the “not listening to each other” bit especially; as for “the most beautiful thing,” well, that depends on your mood and duration of exposure. And to clarify, “checking the tone on his bass” refers to the band’s odd habit of more or less just whacking their instruments for 90 seconds or so between songs, Mcata sliding his left hand up and down his guitar’s neck idly, Makananise lightly slapping at his bass strings with his right, and Ramoba metronomically whacking his snare drum with one stick, as if testing to make sure there’s enough pulverizing reverb on it. (Yes.)
This appears to rejuvenate them, and soon, it’s off to another languid, liquid funk groove rudely decapitated by a thrash-metal breakdown, or a noise-rock drone interlude, or a hypnotic dub meditation, or yet another barreling and muscular drum solo from Ramoba, his dreads flailing to and fro, shirtless by the second song though it’s not at all warm in here. Buthelezi, meanwhile, has a gorgeous voice, heavy with mournful portent, but light and fluid, flowing easily from a booming baritone to an elegant falsetto. It’s all deeply impressive, this torrent of unhinged, polyglot virtuosity, but there is very little room to breathe. None, actually.
Better to start with their records, all one and a half of them. The four-song Mystery EP has the beautifully melodramatic “Summertime” (“Sweet summertime/Burning cancer in my skin,” Buthelezi moans), but the excellently named full-length After Robots, for which this S.O.B.’s gig is serving as a release party, has a dense, yearning, gothic air, all those busy basslines and rumbling drum rolls and wheedly-deedly guitar fugues working with, rather than against, one another. “Standby” is a first-rate South African art-rock power ballad, dolorous but propulsive, complex but never losing its head, devolving into soulless technical-ecstasy shredding even when it speeds up and gets agitated. Even the surlier tunes are punctuated by calm, meditative, mercifully uncluttered passages, full of funereal horns and delicately twinkling pianos, a respite BLK JKS allow neither themselves nor their audience in person.
Which is not to say the S.O.B.’s excursion doesn’t have its charms: Ramoba is an exuberant percussive whirlwind even if you’d rather he knock it off after a while, and Buthelezi has the regal bearing and 1,000-yard stare of a Hollywood leading man, a deeply alluring brooder unparalleled. Mcata, meanwhile, occasionally interjects loopy stream-of-consciousness monologues: “Somebody once said it’s all about the journey. Journey on, journey on. On a rainbow to the new republic.”
It’s a fascinating dynamic, even when there’s really no dynamic, when it’s all show-offy dissonance, nobody on the same page, nobody listening to each other. But even that works somewhat as a contrast, because the rare occasions when they do listen to each other can be breathtaking. The show’s highlight is also After Robots‘: “Skeleton” is a spare, appropriately skeletal dub creeper, evoking the Police at their least obnoxious and most ominous, anchored by a blessedly simple and repetitive guitar figure and punctuated by reverb-heavy blasts of snare, an uneasy lullaby finally derailed by yet another thrash-metal breakdown that this one time doesn’t feel completely random and gratuitous. It points to a possible, promising direction for BLK JKS to head in, once this initial wave of hysteria subsides, once they stop trying to go in every direction at once. Just the one will do.