Scientists of Entropyby Roger Young, images by Kevin Goss-Ross / 07.06.2010
Seeing the BLK JKS perform live is like sitting on a beach during a nuclear explosion. Wave after wave of sonic build-up rips through you, all at once destructive and cleansing; the sand gets in your eyes, irritating, as your body melts gloriously into the atoms of the universe. How does an album I found so distinctly unlistenable translate into such a confounding and mesmerizing live experience?
Linda starts the set with a single nonchalant strum, delayed and fuzzed through the pedals, he stands around casual as if they’re in a basement rehearsal room, not in the Rainbow Shebeen, like they’re not in front of any crowd at all. They offhandedly begin to construct a wall of murk. Choppy little drum stabs and rolls, a strum is echoed, the bass hovers, heaping up into a rolling squall of psychedelic jazz rock that is defiantly other. Just at the point where it is about to get wanky, they crack into a storm of groove and hazy shebeen jive. Then with sly nods to each other the song ends sudden. As the crowd breaks into applause, Linda, eyebrow arched, eyes them knowingly as if to question their presence.
The BLK JKS are masters of the lull and build. The songs take long slow mesmerizing internal journeys, tripping over the border toward inaccessible then snapping back into blistering technical jumping rousing harmonic voodoo incantations; they are at turns frustrating and divine. You can see the audience feel the lag as they go inward and the relief and joy as they explode out. When the songs rely on the hypnotic rhythms it’s shocking how engaging they can be, but when they veer off into the space dust of feedback and noise you feel yourself slipping away; they are simultaneously snake charmers and scientists of entropy. This cul de sac navel gazing renders them sometimes banal and sometimes blistering. The technical dexterity of the high moments highlighted by the holding back. They let you go so they can drag you back in.
Linda lightly flaps his arms and puts his hands on his hips like some suave and malevolent kung fu panther space lizard, guitar jutting toward the audience, he looks over his shoulder at Tshepang as he chugs out a rhythm with Molefi standing firm legs apart massaging deep funk jams out of his bass, Mpumi stands almost bent over, looking at them as well and begins the gentle noise building. The BLK JKS are a drummer led band, its why they spend so much time looking away from the audience and looking inward, it’s also the key to the ease with which they genre surf so freely from goema to heavy metal and everything between. Tshepang is the smiling force of the band, so much more evident sonically live than on After Robots; he is the skeleton behind the meat of rolling harmonic chanting that renders them as one voice.
But the lack of access turns some people off, halfway through the set an older jazz musician leaves in a sort of irritated haste, muttering as he passes, “these guys are boring, they repeat themselves too much”. On the sidelines though young rock guitarists ejaculate into their pants as Linda and Mpumi pull off another devastating, brilliant guitar noise hunk of Armageddon murk, Linda playing his pedals like a child’s piano. And when a slight technical problem causes feedback, it sounds like part of the music, the only indication that its not are the winces on Linda’s face.
It’s performance and meditation, I’m sitting there smiling, enchanted and then my brain takes over and snaps me out of it. It takes time to pass through the layers, but you cannot force it. The moment of mass access occurs when they slide into a version of “Zabalaza”, the crowd chanting along, fists raised, low hip dancing, “Ekse joina, joina, joina umzabalaza”. So big is the reaction that it actually forces Linda to see into the crowd, almost but not quite bringing him out of his trance.
The BLK JKS make noodling work for them, when it feels like they’re going too far they snap you back with reggae chugs and their science fiction overlord choirboy vocals. They’re a bone throwing trance induced by 80’s stadium rock, an epic jazz headfuck of a performance and a bluesy swirl of meditation. Seeing them live has opened me up to the brilliant parts of the album but, like watching them live, too often I find myself almost being excluded on purpose from just going with the music. It’s a technique they use willfully and sometimes it works against them; not that it matters because they’re so focused on the group sonic journey through all the splintered parts of South Africa that destination is a distant, not even secondary, concern.
All images © Kevin Goss-Ross