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Beyond Robots

Beyond Robots

by Roger Young / 05.11.2009

Before I write this review, before I even listen to the Blk Jks album I must definitively state that I think there is a good chance that the Blk Jks are being overrated right now (please note: I said “are being” not “are”). I say this not because I know anything about the music but because I sense a certain mood or feeling in most of the stuff I’ve read about them that strikes me as a little hysterical. The root of this mood seems to be coming from two angles, both on a patronizing theme. There is this idea that the Blk Jks as some kind of revelation mostly because they are black guys who play rock, even those that say the album is only just good, not excellent, go on about the promise of this band.

Mystery EP

It seems to me to be less about the music and more about the fact that to some of these writers the Blk Jks represent a kind of hope that there is a future where black people will stop making that confounding, kwaito, hip hop, afrobeat stuff and just all play rock music. The other distinct feeling I get from all this praise is the overwhelming sense that some people are amazed that black people can actually like rock music, that they’ve actually heard of it. As if taste, intellect and choice is limited to class and race. It’s disturbingly patronizing and the only reason I see it is because I have fallen prey to it myself. Like I won’t name the critics and other musicians who have spoken about the Blk Jks in this way, I won’t mention the young black rock Goth band I fell in love with for three gigs earlier this year. I was so blown away by the fact that they were black Goths that it took me a full two and half gigs to realize that they were just a posy substandard Jesus and Mary Chain. So it’s with all these things in mind that I proceed to listen to After Robots by the Blk Jks…

After Robots

1st Listen: It’s really murky. I can’t actually listen to it. I cannot. It’s basically horrible. It’s a rolling-drum, wall-of-sound mess. The worst part is that you can hear the good songs under the moan and rumble, some of the tracks off the previous EP have been murdered by the hipper than thou prog rock-esque production.

2nd Listen:  This time I make it three songs in before I lose interest, I have to concede that through the noise there is a hypnotic feel to it, it’s almost compelling, but not enough to make me want to sit through it and do a proper review, or ever hear it again. I get the feeling that I might prefer them live in the same way I prefer Lark and KIDOFDOOM live, for the aural assault aspect.

3rd Listen: I’ve had the album for weeks now, editors are making threats, I do not want to listen to it but I force myself again. I am however nowhere near a decent sound system and I am forced to listen to through headphones. I zone out and am not listening anymore when it strikes me, somewhere around the second time I hear “Skeletons”. I start to get it. The chugging skanky beat, The scattered “townshippy” whistles, the booming bass, the hypnotic chanting, the picking lilting guitar of  “Cursor”,  “Molalatladi”’s muted brass and jiggy frenetic background vocals and beat.  This is not a record to think about, this is music that you let overtake you. And then it loses me again as it veers off into guitar wankery. For a brief moment I got it and then it was gone.

After Robots is desperately and purposely murky and inaccessible, in the moments that there is a door into it, its actually not bad, I can almost understand the This-Band-Has-Promise arguments, but not enough to think I will ever listen to it again.

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RESPONSES (51)
  1. Doctor L. says:

    ‘Christ’

    That was horrible.

    “It seems to me to be less about the music and more about the fact that to some of these writers the Blk Jks represent a kind of hope that there is a future where black people will stop making that confounding, kwaito, hip hop, afrobeat stuff and just all play rock music”

    +

    “The other distinct feeling I get from all this praise is the overwhelming sense that some people are amazed that black people can actually like rock music, that they’ve actually heard of it. As if taste, intellect and choice is limited to class and race”

    Wow, are you for real with this?

    Damn.

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  2. AT says:

    think the review pretty much sums up their live gigs as well. each one i’ve been to has this glimmer of hope, sunshine poking through the clouds, where you think that you finally get it, only to get enveloped in the murky, inaccessible, almost un-listenable music you refer to. but as guilty as many of us are for liking them because they’re a black rock outfit, so too are they, and their international manager and label, guilty of milking it to the extreme.

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  3. anastassia says:

    i appreciate your side not where you say “are being” and not “are” overrated.
    they’re a band, who obciously enjoy playing music together.
    It doesnt have to be anything specific, but if we all say the music is blue and some-one comes along only to point out its green, is it the music’s fault?
    Also, black, white, pink, sunburnt, whathaveyou – there just seems to be a lot of garble/pop on the market at the moment being labelled as “rock”. it hurts.

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  4. acoustic anarchy says:

    Sometimes I wonder if those who go on and on and on about the brilliance of the Blk Jks even listen to the music.
    Or, if they do, am i just mishearing the music, as unfocused and loose and inaccessible? do i just not understand it’s brilliance?
    Why is discordant noise music supposed to be some kind of high art?

    I think playing music which is purposefully off key and noisy is probably easier than those who make this kind of music let on. To me Blk Jks just sounds like afro-jazz played with distortion and absolutely no discipline.
    At least punk musicians are honest enough to accept that they are musically limited and just play three chords.

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  5. Isolation says:

    Fair enough Roger, so they don’t do it for you. Shit man that’s a shame.

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  6. Isolation says:

    Couldn’t disagree more, but then I’ve had my say. I think your argument about “being patronising” is a pretty weak way to dismiss the critics who like the JKS music. What are you saying, the only way you could like this music is if you’re a “patronising” wanker who can’t get your head around the fact that Black kids can rock, jesus really! Why do you have to bring a band that represents the future of SA music in a way none other has before down to that stereotype. I’m sure there are people like that around, but I’m also sure that all the people raving about this unique and fantastic band are not that easily pigeon-holed!

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  7. ROGER YOU'RE A DUMB CUNT says:

    Roger – why not climb off your mom and go fuck yourself for a change. Oh, and here’s your whiney whiteboy lame dick ‘criticism’ back – the black man can only rock if he obeys the rules?

    It’s awesome owning the complete Watershed back catalogue hey cunt?

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  8. anastassia says:

    the merit of a good band should be that they can perform equally well onstage and instudio.

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  9. anastassia says:

    that came out all wrong, what i meant to say was that the black (really brown) man can only rock if he obeys the rules, and the white (at times brown or pink) man can only rock if he obeys the rules (which historically is to generally disobey the rules), but just make minfuckinglybeautiful energetic hard-core energy releasing music. thats what i was really trying to say. (PS, i apologize for leaving out the coloured man, the indian man, the chinese man, the porugese man, the woman et al…but this guy who commented before me seems to want a point to be made, and i didnt want to give him too many shades, lest it be too complex).

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  10. djf says:

    Anastas(s)ia, have YOU been following your prescription correctly?

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  11. Andy says:

    I think many have been guilty of wanting to love the Blk Jks for what they represent and for their potential – but it’s all a bit premature. They’re not there yet. And over adulation of immature artists is bad for them, and bad for us. Blame it on our post-apartheid conditioning. We all want to be part of the new wave of truly progressive, post-race, South African experience. We so badly want to leapfrog all these problems that we jump the gun and start praising the green shoots instead of giving them a chance to grow, mature and flourish. Same can be said for sports, business, politics and most other facets of SA life. However, it does show that the many, many people want to kick things forward and are desperate for a ‘new way’ – which is positive in and of itself. Thank you. Good night

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  12. Doctor. L says:

    Truthfully, the whole thing is just glib.

    Who exactly is Roger setting himself up against? A little evidence before leaping into a rhetorical spiel might help. Just seems like ‘against the grain’ anti-racialism racialism to me.

    He might as well say the same thing about Freshlyground, 340ml, Mtkidu (they ‘love Zulu girls’), Sweat X, Ree-burth etc. What’s important is the music – you should start there, not the criticism. Engage and then engage with us.

    The man disparages an over-arching narrative only to throw out more of the same. Fact is these assumptions no longer hold. It’s surprising even, thought Mahala was ‘aware’ of a globalized South Africa.

    I mean, ‘Lakeside’ and ‘Tselane’ are murky and inaccessible? Fair enough, the language might elude you but Jesus H. Tapdancing Christ that was lazy!

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  13. Andy says:

    in comparison to the version of ‘Lakeside’ on the Mystery EP it is murky and inaccessible – and the producer has done everything he can to wash out the kwela guitar and the whistles…

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  14. Troll says:

    Dudes, I heard one of their tracks on the radio and thought it was worth the purchase. I was wrong.

    “The worst part is that you can hear the good songs under the moan and rumble, some of the tracks off the previous EP have been murdered by the hipper than thou prog rock-esque production”

    Couldn’t be more right. It’s a very inexperienced album wheras they want to throw everything into it. The recording is crap and you can barely hear the lyrics. When you do it’s not bad.

    I was amped that an SA band was trying their shit in the states and was open to their music. As dissapointed as I was with the album, I’m still intrigued to hear this very different type of SA rock band. With the rise of Afrikaans rock and different persepective they bring, I quite like the fact a black crew are stepping away from all the kwaito kak.

    My suggestion – rip the album from a friend. I hope this album gets enough attention that they manage to hook up with a good producer who can polish this very rough coal-potentially-diamond.

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  15. green eggs and ham says:

    the tragedy is that you spend so much time listening to pale and tepid local bands that you wouldn’t know good music if it was a tall woman with great breasts who asked you to go home with her.She’d ask you once and you’d say “It’s really murky. I can’t actually listen to it. I cannot.” She’d ask you again and you’d reply opaquely: ” I have to concede that through the noise there is a hypnotic feel to it, it’s almost compelling, but not enough to make me want to sit through it”. I dunno why but she makes the proposition one last time and while you chew your tongue in panic she leaves with a bass guitarist from Soweto. You say forlornly: “For a brief moment I got it and then it was gone.”

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  16. anastassia says:

    djf, my medication is in cape town and i am in durban, but im working on it.

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  17. Doctor L. says:

    @green eggs and ham

    Holy shit! That was hilarious!

    To the point and on point. Witty, too. Kudos. Very enjoyable.

    @Troll

    “I quite like the fact a black crew are stepping away from all the kwaito kak”

    What is this? 1993?

    “My suggestion – rip the album from a friend”.

    Wow.

    I think the Blk Jks would actually appreciate not having someone like you as a fan. Can’t imagine any South African artist ‘worth anything’ wanting to have you as a fan, for that matter.

    FACT: Mystery EP comes packaged with After Robots.

    FACT: Progressive does not equate wackness.

    QUESTION: Are you afraid of change, already, ‘young’ South Africa?

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  18. Spider-Mangina says:

    I’d love to give this album a listen, haven’t been able to catch them live either, but yeah.. it’d be nice to check them out, I’ve heard all the hype, now I want to form my own opinion.

    On the topic of Roger’s quote…

    I do agree that people go a little overboard on the whole “but it’s black dudes from the townships!” vibe, c’mon… a musician is a musician, and deserves credit where credit is due, regardless of social status, skin colour or sexual prowess.

    People tend to forget that black Americans invented the blues and thus are the forefathers of rock and roll.

    The band who (in some opinions) started the fusion of heavy metal and hardcore “metalcore” genre, Zao*, had a black guitarist, Russ, and Killswitch Engage have a black frontman, Howard Jones. Let’s not forget the all black, rastafarian hardcore punk rock group Bad Brains, or God Forbid, one of the heaviest bands on the planet, featuring black members.

    Then again, those are American bands.

    It’s not often you see black people in “white sounding” bands here, it’s something that I’ve always found incredibly frustrating. The growth in coloured, Indian and black band members is something I’m quite stoked about, but I don’t think that just because a band has members of colour they should be put on a pedestal, they should be praised for their talents.

    So, like I said, I’d dig to hear the album and check them out live.

    * Zao also wrote a wonderful song about people who spend too much time causing trouble and asserting their self righteous bullshit on other people on the internet. I’d love for quite a few of you to go find the song, read the lyrics, and then eat some dick. I love how people hide behind their computer screens, haha.

    Spider-Mangina.

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  19. Spider-Mangina says:

    Oh, another point… I’ve heard a lot of people comparing them to the Mars Volta. This worries me, because most people think any band using more than two effects on their Fender Telecaster at once sounds like the Mars Volta. Uh. Yeah okthanxbaai.

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  20. last time i checked we were all entitled to our own opinion... says:

    Doctor L:wishes and or knows someone personally in the band. wat a sec, he used the word Kudos. enough said.

    Isolation: wishes he was in the band.

    anastassia: please would someone just strum her face with a bass guitar.

    green eggs and ham: pppssssstttttt…..your girlfriend secretly loves pale males, i’ve seen those wondering eyes, they tell no lies.

    Troll:: he started his paragraph off with “Dudes”.once again….no surprise here. enough said.

    Spider-Mangina: 3 to 1 odds…Gordan Laws. any takers? :]

    end.

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  21. Spider-Mangina says:

    Uh. No, this is Brett. Who is this Gordon Laws, and does he do dry cleaning?

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  22. Roger Young says:

    Last night i was furiously dressed down by another music critic for this opinion. They defended BLK JKS vigorously. Then told me they hadn’t listened to the album.

    3 things:

    1. I don’t like being told what to like

    2. I like music that I don’t have to struggle to access. Very few things grab me on first listen.

    3. I express this publicly under my own name.

    also – Watershed? What an appropriate assumption. JFGM!

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  23. Jason says:

    The Dears have a black front man too. But they’re Canadian.

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  24. djf says:

    Quote: ” I like music that I don’t have to struggle to access.”

    Roger, does the same apply to your tastes in literature, cinema and other artforms? If not, what does this say about your expections of music in terms of innovation and the degree to which you are prepared to meet the artist half-way? Would you concede that groundbreaking works from decades gone by have sounded “murky”, “discordant”, “inaccessible” and a whole lot of other adjectives used in this post when they were first released? Are you doing them and music in general much justice if they are dismissed out of hand because you don’t like stepping outside of your comfort zone?

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  25. Roger Young says:

    There is lots of murky and discordant stuff I like, in music, literature and film, I don’t really have a comfort zone in terms of this stuff. When I talk about struggle to access I mean I don’t like to put my back out trying to enjoy something that doesn’t speak to me. Call me Crazy.

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  26. djf says:

    “I don’t like to put my back out trying to enjoy something that doesn’t speak to me” sounds an awful lot like a self-styled comfort zone to me.

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  27. Roger Young says:

    djf. So I must make an effort to like everything all the time no matter how uncomfortable? You sir, are an ass.

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  28. djf says:

    Roger, your crude oversimplification of this argument is perhaps yet another symptom of this comfort zone I’m alluding to. You appear to be a very open-minded person when it comes to general issues of culture (especially those involving sexuality and subjects that more conservative people regard as taboo), yet I’m constantly surprised by the regularity with which music of a certain non-semantic complexity does not appear to “speak” to you.

    Hey, I could go on a lengthy diatribe about this and question whether your interest and listening initiative covers a wide range of genres, but instead I rather explore a practical example. Have you heard “Bitte Orca” by The Dirty Projectors? Do you have an opinion on it that you would care to share with us – especially regarding its relevance to the forces that are meaningfully shaping popular music today? Maybe a review?

    And no, I don’t think you’re an ass or anything else of a similarly derogatory nature.

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  29. Roger Young says:

    djf.

    1. You were put out when I reviewed Au Revoir Simone and Wilco because they weren’t local. Now you want me to review the Dirty Projectors?

    2. When I say refer to something as “speaking to me” I do not necessarily mean it has to be in a positive way but I do want to feel something. The BLK JKS are probably a bunch of really nice, easygoing musicians, they are obviously trying something different and obviously enjoying it. I think the problem ultimately is that they have been mired down by a producer who may not understand them totally and by the PR departments hype. I also think that, as evidenced by their staying power, they will shake free of all of that. I do think it is unwise to praise them too highly at this point because that will only prolong this process. The Album is murky and goes from showing great promise to being deliberately inaccessible. If that’s your cup of tea, excellent, but it is not mine.

    3. “relevance to the forces that are meaningfully shaping popular music today”. I think this statement asks us to define “Meaningfully” and “Popular” which are themselves subjective terms. Reviews are just that, subjective, however when I am writing about how I feel about music, I prefer to write about just how the music makes me feel and think. The relevance issue, in my opinion should be devoted to more lengthy articles that survey this in depth.

    4. I am an ass.

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  30. Jason says:

    So, what you’re saying is we’re not allowed to dislike a band, even though they are shit?

    It’s no coincidence ‘Prime Circle’ rhymes with ‘crotch rot’. But by your reasoning I better run out and buy all their albums! Personal taste be damned!

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  31. djf says:

    Jason, the problem comes when listeners jump to an immediate conclusion that a band is shit because they sound unfamiliar and not that entertaining. Could you honestly say that’s an issue in the case of Prime Circle?

    A thriving arts scene (as opposed to mere commercial entertainment) relies on a two-way process of initiative. Not only do artists need to push themselves to create more innovative and sincere work, but listeners need to meet them half way in accepting that what they are hearing does not always adhere to their preconceptions about what is desirable and of merit. Those listeners who do not accept the constant evolution of the artform and their need to adapt to this may end up disliking things for reasons that do them little good in the long run.

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  32. Roger Young says:

    djf

    I think the problem comes in when ANYONE starts trying to define what other people NEED to do.

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  33. djf says:

    Yeah, heaven forbid that anyone should try to offer constructive advice….

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  34. Roger Young says:

    djf

    Mostly I agree with you. But you do have a way of phrasing things that makes it sound less like advice and more like a prescriptive demand. Just saying.

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  35. death to interior decorators says:

    Have you girls finished bickering yet?

    @Djf: Your concern about our Roger’s depth of musical knowledge is touching. If the blind admiration that he and Andy have for Hugh Masekela is anything to go by then their knowledge of jazz as a genre is definitely up to shit. But all issues of musical taste aside, I have to tell you that Rog is spot-on in this case.

    Have you actually listened to After Robots? Better still, have you been to any Blk Jks gigs and heard them in the unadulterated flesh? That album is definately murky as all hell and the reasons for it are quite technical. The American who produced it has dressed it up in ridiculous levels of long ’80s style artificial reverb. That kind of thing is doable if the music is very sparse with lots of space to breathe, but the Blk Jks stuff is very busy with lots of variation and poly-rhythyms. The reverb chosen acts like a giant smudge and robs the sound of detail and intelligibility. Your guess is as good as mine why they did it. Maybe its a fashionable thing to do in the American indie scene these days and its a technique that has been known to cover up a lot of imperfections in the playing – very useful if studio time and production costs were limited.

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  36. Roger Young says:

    DTID

    shit i thought you were DJF’s alter ego. There goes that theory. Oh I don’t think i ever said I liked Hugh, I think I implied that he’s a great performer and that a lot of people call him Bra.My jazz tastes are a little more complex than that. Which is probably why I find BLK JKS so, well, nowhere, they reach for complexity and then when they fail they hide it in murk.

    In related news I am starting to actually like the album a bit more.

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  37. Jason says:

    Come to think of it, I should just tape all the Spar ads and then I’ll have most of their (Prime Circle) catalogue anyway.

    By the sounds of it, and no, I haven’t listened to the album – the producer on this After Robots just didn’t respect the material enough. Maybe it was a case of record execs not wanting to risk too much dough hiring someone decent to do the job.

    Imagine what the likes of Lanois or Rubin (or West or Timbaland or Jay-Z since colour is the tipping point round here…) could have done with the raw material.

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  38. cherry bomb says:

    i definitely prefer Blk Jks live.

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  39. TIT FACE says:

    Mr. Young

    ” I was so blown away by the fact that they were black Goths that it took me a full two and half gigs to realize that they were just a posy substandard Jesus and Mary Chain. ”

    On the merit of this line alone you proved to us that you actually can not comment on music at all…

    When was the last time you listened to Mary Chain? and then you have the nerve to call them a Goth band of all things. Why don’t you go and dust off your Mary chain albums, particularly the first one “Psychocandy ” from 1985 and turn up the tracks “Upside Down” and “Never understand” which arguably defines the Mary Chain in a lot of ways rather than the more toned down melodies they chose to play later on… If you had ever actually listened to the Mary Chain it seems you would have been into murky and inaccessible music especially with the “white noise” they produced in the early 80’s which means that you would have understood and appreciated the BLK JKS album.

    It becomes clear to me that you probably only know one song which you probably heard on the “Lost in translation” soundtrack called “Just like honey”. So i will forgive you for thinking that maybe the Mary Chain was a “Goth” band. But the fact that the word WANKER comes to mind after this poorly written one sided attack you wrote at the top here is actually more relevant than what ever it is that you were trying to say in your article. So next time you name drop a bands name you should make sure that you actually know something about them.

    Your comments on the BLK JKS are completely irrelevant and the fact that you did not “get” the album does not mean that you have to publish it online just because you have the means and your old pal Andy is allowing your junkie ass to write on here. So in the future i think it would be in your interest to rather not comment on any music related subject matter. This country has never given a shit about the JKS in the past so why should they now.

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  40. ROGER YOU'RE STILL A DUMB CUNT says:

    Dude you’re still the dumbest cunt out there – how reactionary can one white boy be already!? Maybe just pick yourself up, wipe that tear away and walk home.

    Alone.

    With Merseystate playin’ on yo radio…

    Mom’s cooking steaks tonight, and you’ll make it home just in time for Prison Break lame-o.

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  41. K says:

    Writers/journos have a right to their opinion…i don’t know this Roger guy but he just took the words frommy mouth..echoed my sentiments…the articles wont be good news all the time…

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  42. Roger Young says:

    Looks like I hurt someone’s feelings. Oh well, I like a good old personal attack, makes me aware that people know who I am, and my personal history, makes me feel special.

    I’m actually more of a “Barbed Wire Kisses” kinda guy as albums go, but Tastes Like Cindy is still my fav track. I think you might have misinterpreted my statement, the band I was referring to is a Goth band. Part of what makes them a Goth band is that they are a posy substandard version of JAMC. That and the eyeliner. I would never accuse the JAMC of being a goth band.

    Also if this opinion is so lame, so irrelevant, why do you keep coming back, methinks you ladies doth….

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  43. one must die... says:

    blk jks are a great band.

    i feel this article has no depth to it and is plain ignorant.
    yes everyone is entitled to their opinions but if your going to print a review on a band perhaps you should get someone who understands a bit more about music and can write more objectivley.

    in south africa – as soon as someone is doing well every one wants to drag them down with slander and always bringing up the gender card.
    can we not give praise where its due and otherwise shut up.
    this band is doing amazingly well and touring internationally.
    rather we should be congratulating them.
    there are not that many south african bands who have been able to achieve this and a little support from back home goes a long way….

    so easy to criticize but so hard to actually make something of yourself.

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  44. A Random Thought says:

    Writing = Not Objective

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  45. meghan says:

    these comments prove that you are the stereotype here

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  46. Andy says:

    Maybe not the stereotype – but certainly the popular, almost mainstream, response to the Blk Jks album is love and appreciation. What Roger is saying is that he doesn’t get it. Because the music is pants. Inaccessible, my-jeans-are-too-skinny pants

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  47. Carol Reed says:

    Um, Meghan, Stats wise, between the comments + the kif and kaks, it actually weighs in in favour of the articles opinion. so when you say “you are the stereotype here” you are referring to?

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  48. one must die... says:

    i think ‘the stereotype’ that meghan refers to is one that is used to having music served up on a silver platter of normality… not challenging any of your stereotyped, played out south african views on what is black and what is white…
    let the artists EXPERIMENT!!!!
    as i said – it is easy to criticize…. very easy….
    rojer – this article is lazy – and you know it…

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  49. Andy says:

    You don’t get it. Roger listened to this album and went against the grain of positive, gushing and glowing reviews of the Blk Jks. he reckons the music is murky, over-produced and just not that accessible to warrant all the hype it’s getting. It’s not lazy, just opinionated. And he makes a good point.

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  50. djf says:

    OMD said “not challenging any of your stereotyped, played out south african views on what is black and what is white…”

    But isn’t that what Roger attempted to convey in his review, rather his challenge was to the stereotypical view that many Blk Jks fans have about the band and their global relevance rather than the wider stereotype of the kind of music that black & white people in SA should be making?

    Yes, I have been very critical of some of the things that Roger has said in his review – but I will strongly defend his right to offer alternative and less popular views on culture, especially those that do not conform to the narrow-minded notion of “objectivity” that many readers think is so relevant.

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  51. Booby Prize says:

    HeitA!

    You win some you lose some – and that goes for all of us – the point, when it comes to BLK JKS will always be lost on some – simple.

    Booby Prize

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