John Wizards band members smiling down at a camera

BLIND TASTE TEST: John Wizards – John Wizards

The Blind Taste Test series involves one writer recommending an album they love to another writer who has never heard it before.

This edition features James Spearing taking Tom Burrows back to 2013 for the only album released by South African collective John Wizards.

John Wizards is a band made up of musicians from South Africa and Rwanda. They only made one album and it is like no other that I own. There are sounds on there that I couldn’t even begin to explain. It goes where it wants, all the time, and as a result is packed full of ideas. Taken individually, some of the songs may therefore not be all that successful. But taken as a whole, its span of sounds and genres is incredible. From the catchy as you like guitar line of ‘Iyongwe’ to the banger of ‘Finally /Jet Up’, from the minimal beats of ‘Durvs’ to the wonky reggae of ‘I’m Still a Serious Guy’, I’m convinced you can find something to love in this special album.

James

I discovered a lot of music in 2013. I was in my first job after uni and music was a form of escapism from my sobering new 9 to 5 reality. As well as new albums from Kanye, Daft Punk and Vampire Weekend, I listened to a lot of old stuff. Albums from Boards of Canada and The Avalanches quickly became all-time favourites. But amidst all the exploration, John Wizards passed me by completely. The quirky name, and the fact that they made one album then seemingly disappeared, makes me think they were one of these buzz bands who were everywhere one minute then gone the next. James’ description of its eclectic nature certainly makes me think this is the case. The hand-drawn artwork doesn’t grab me (which seems to be the case with a lot of these Taste Tests – maybe I’ve never listened because these guys need better visuals?), so I’m so very intrigued as to what this is going to sound like.

‘Tek Lek Schrempf’ starts with a lullaby-esque bit of piano which is very soothing, but it quickly escalates into a synth bit and then that changes and… there’s already a lot going on here. Duelling crunchy guitars, drums, acoustic strumming: I’m already getting a feel for a ‘kitchen sink’ approach. Following song ‘Lusaka By Night’ is a bit more focused, and I like the tropical, bouncing percussion. It sounds a bit (sacrilege alert) like Vampire Weekend’s second album with the echoing vocals and instrumentation.

One thing that already strikes me is the flow of this album. The vocals sound so effortless and casual: like a DJ just talking over the top of a mix. I love albums that flow as a whole, as that’s pretty much the point of the LP medium for me. I like ‘Limpop’, though there is so much going on that it’s kind of a nightmare to write about.

‘Muizenberg’, as the kids say, is a bop. It starts with a joyful guitar chord sequence and bounces along with a groovy bassline. I don’t know what they’re saying but the vocals are very pretty. And ‘Iyongwe’ is INFECTIOUS – I mean the absolute grooves on this thing, damn! James picked this out and it gives me chills: what an utter banger.

As a non-musician, music that flits from genre to genre like this might as well be actual magic (or wizardry) to me. It’s why I love artists like The Avalanches so much; I don’t know how it’s made and I don’t really want to know. This album has that same appeal. ‘Finally/Jet Up’ gives a bit of respite from the relentless tempo with a gorgeous piano line and then picks things up again halfway through. Lovely stuff.

But then we slow down again for ‘Maria’, which is seemingly the most downtempo tune so far. I’d say this is a bad thing, but like all songs it has this low-key groove which just propels it along. I can imagine this being another of those albums that you can endlessly stick on. Donuts, Since I Left You, John Wizards: they’re pretty much perfect for this Taste Test feature.

When another irresistible riff kicks ‘Jabu Ley’ off, I’m already questioning why I don’t know this record. Do these guys suffer from the English-speaking world’s Western bias? This song is also pretty mellow but the guitars are so nice and chilled, bringing back the tropical sounds we heard earlier. And ‘Jamieo’ continues the chill mood. These last few songs have challenged the assumptions I formed from the early tracks. I thought these guys were going to be pure party vibes but this has turned into sunset music by the sea. So nice.

The distorted guitars of ‘Leuk’ have firmly put them in the ‘Gilles Peterson festival band’ zone now. The textures of this track remind me of some of the downtempo jazzy ambience of some of King Krule’s music. Some scratchy drums come in to interrupt that though and I wonder if this a sign we’re going back to the party. But as I say that, the drums have stopped and the guitars have picked up again. There really is a lot going on here isn’t there.

‘Durvs’ has some synthy beats which kinda go nowhere and for the first time I’m wondering where we’re going. ‘I’m Still A Serious Guy’ with its English vocals and straightforward rhythm is the most conventional song so far and sounds like a lead single. Maybe that’s because once again it sounds like Vampire Weekend, which is probably an indicator of how openly that band wears its influences.

‘Hogsback’, like a few of these latter songs, uses these charming mellow guitars that I like, but the complementary drumbeats come and go too quickly unfortunately. And ‘Lushoto’ sounds like a fairground ride, which I’m not sure is a good or bad thing. Even in this closing run of songs, there’s so much going on. I kind of wish they would focus on one mood for just a minute. James, you are absolutely right about it being packed with ideas but guys, relax.

I don’t know what instrument is behind the riff on ‘Friend’ but it’s delicate and gentle, and suits the warmness of the title. And it’s a nice closer to this John Wizards album I’ve enjoyed being introduced to. After opening with a whirlwind first six songs, it settles into something unexpectedly mellow. It was an incredibly varied and unpredictable first listen, yet towards the end I felt a longing for either the pace of the early tracks (‘Iyongwe’ was thrilling), or for a halt to the genre-hopping. I’ll be returning for sure to find out what John Wizards reveals on future listens, because in an album this dense, there’s surely more to be revealed.

Words by Tom Burrows

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