John Wizards’ debut album, out on Planet Mu Records, is less a collection of songs than a series of musical moments and movements through styles, like a DJ set of experimental electronic dance music. John Withers (hence the band name) recorded the album in his bedroom in Jo'burg over a two year period, composing and playing everything except the contributions of Rwandan singer Emmanuel Nzaramba. Yet, judging from the videos below, John Wizards is currently a live band. They hail from South Africa, but with a Pan-African and international aesthetic informed by the open ears and continental travels of the two frontmen.
The music on the debut album references and revamps styles including township jive, South African house and disco, West African highlife and SA uptempo, as well as lesser known styles of dance music like shangaan electro. The music is treated with a heavy dose of dub effects and synthy, reverb-heavy indie-rock aesthetics. Musical worlds seem to float in and out of focus, like ideas for songs drifting through sleeping musician’s brain, audible for just long enough for us to imagine the possible directions the song could go in if fully developed. There are vocals, but never more than a verse or two, and rarely anything resembling a true chorus.
That said, this album has some seriously catchy instrumental hooks! Two of the strongest songs (which Afropop featured on our recent program South Africa Today) are right up front: “Tet Lek Schrempf” sets the tone by drifting through fields of waltzing synths, passing quickly through melodious piano tinkling beofre arriving at an extremely catchy synth line,which quickly dissolves into a breakdown employing what sounds like samples of a recording of the polyphonic singing of one of the Central African forest tribes (something like this). Then, out of nowhere comes a riotous guitar lick, which, when boosted via octave pedal into the upper-registers, kicks the tune into over-drive!
Next up is the single “Lusaka By Night,” a dubby highlife jam featuring the raw vocals singer Emmanuel Nzaramba. The differences between the studio version and the live version of this track indicate that John Wizards has a future as a live band as well as a studio project, since they’re clearly unafraid to rework the material to suit the present moment.
On the recordings of “Lusaka By Night” and “Jabu Ley,” Nzaramba’s vocals are filtered through a heavy dose of autotune, which links this record to current pop sounds from across the African continent, and definitely contemporary Ghanaian and Nigerian pop music. Both of these songs also use the steady bass-drum and rolling, conversational guitars of older West-African high-life styles. Withers delivers ethereal indie-rock style vocals on tunes like “Muizenburg,” and “I’m Still A Serious Guy,” and he brings the same aesthetic to the live version of “Lusaka By Night.”
The other truly jamming track on the album is “iYongwe,” which sounds like an ‘80s SA dance-floor hit remixed by a jolly schizophrenic. The melody goes round and round like something you whistle when you’re strutting down the street, feeling real good.
The only real complaint is that the music is so full of ideas that the album moves from sound to sound without ever settling long enough for any given idea to make it's full impact. An example: “Finally Let Up” lasts only two minutes and 38 seconds; it begins with an ambient, meditative, rolling, trilling acoustic piano and digital xylophones, then morphs via refracted guitars into a techno-esque groove which dissolves back into the echoing guitars after a brief moment, leaving us wondering what if….There are jazzy, or R n’ B meets jazz moments, like the trumpet on “Jamieo,” which seamlessly morphs into more spacy synth work on “LEUK” before the sparse house-ness of “Durvs” (reminiscent of the Pretoria house styles of DJ Spoko).
“Maria” makes a strong reference to South Africa’s musical history by borrowing the chords to Miriam Makeba’s famous “Click Song (Qongqothwane)” for the intro, but Nzaramba’s vocals are somehow more reminiscent of João Gilberto than Mama Africa. The album ends with an acoustic piece featuring delicate vocals from Nzaramba, even briefly harmonized by Withers.
Overall, this album seems to offer impressions more than strong statements. But the impressions are like memories of a good dream: hazy, sunny, pleasant, promising of a bright new day.