December 4, 2021

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Damon Locks / Black Monument Ensemble: NOW Album Review


For over 30 years, Damon Locks has been in the middle of Chicago arts and culture. Locks moved to the city in the late ’80s to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the first of many local pillars that would become well acquainted with the multi-talented composer, musician, educator, and visual artist. He’s worked for cultural institutions ranging from the cherished indie label Thrill Jockey to the world-famous Field Museum where, legend has it, he once planted a cassette of his punk band Trenchmouth in the African exhibit.

His endeavors look different today, but his ethos has hardly changed: Locks uses every connection at his disposal to raise artistic voices from the street level to the eyes of downtown and beyond in the name of healing. He’s worked with the Center for Urban Pedagogy and teaches art at a state prison, as well as at schools all over the city. But today he’s probably best known for fronting the Black Monument Ensemble, a collective of singers and players ranging from ages 9 to 52 that explores what Locks calls “the Black nod,” referring to a private, unspoken acknowledgement between Black strangers in public. With the ensemble, which played a significant role in the meteoric rise of the exploratory digital-jazz label International Anthem, Locks has grown something pure and organic, straight from the ground, and touched the sky with it. Fitting, then, that the ensemble’s acclaimed 2019 debut LP, Where Future Unfolds, was recorded in front of a live audience at an idyllic, colossal greenhouse situated at the center of Chicago.

Its follow-up, NOW, was made amid two challenges. One was logistical: how to safely record an album with a half-dozen singers and a couple wind instrument players in the middle of COVID’s second wave. Locks’ solution was to split the recording into two sessions: the first one outdoors, in the studio’s backyard, for the breath-dependent vocal and instrumental parts, and the second one indoors, with masks and abundant hand sanitizer, focused on rhythm. That meant recording the explosive live drums and percussion of Dana Hall and Arif Smith, but also shaping and producing the beats, rife with samples, loops, and squelching digital accents.

As a result, listening to NOW feels like being in two distinct places. On the one hand, there are several-minute stretches where you feel yourself in the humid yard with the ensemble, the voices of the singers enveloping you and Angel Bat Dawid’s clarinet solo directly in your ear. And on the other, you’re in Locks’ mind, hearing snippets from old films and rhythmic phrases cycling on repeat. There are as many traces of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat as of Locks’ fellow International Anthem leading minds: Dawid solos on the opener and closer in typically assertive fashion, Ben LaMar Gay appears on cornet, and while jaimie branch is technically absent, her glitchy, beats-over-trumpet project Anteloper seems to have made an impression on Locks. None of this is an extreme deviation from Where Future Unfolds, which also featured film samples and looped rhythms playing against its visceral live-album feel. But Where Future Unfolds felt more like a live album, where NOW plays like a studio creation.

The second challenge had more to do with the album’s spirit: the question of what to say, exactly, at such a dark, solemn, and high-stakes moment in the nation and world. When the ensemble got together for the first session in August 2020, Chicago was still smoldering and the bridges were still up. That session also fell on the anniversary of both Emmett Till’s murder and the 1963 March on Washington, as well as the day of Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman’s untimely passing. How would Locks—a human amplifier, a natural behind a bullhorn—approach this opportunity? He faced some of the same dilemmas as those protesting in the streets: Assembling is not without risk right now, but this message cannot wait.

The answer, he decided, was to honor the present moment—not just the historical moment unfolding before us, but every ticking, mundane second. NOW bleeds with the awareness that tomorrow is never guaranteed. The most self-affirming thing that you can do, then, is to claim your time, to fill it with your own noise. Locks’ lyrics, animated by a six-piece choir, long for an undistracted, unburdened existence. “Keep a space for the colors to process/Your body aches under the weight of the metropolis,” opens the jittering “Keep Your Mind Free.” Even though Locks wrote and composed these songs, they also function as frames for improvisation—a discipline all about momentary essence. Dawid’s and Gay’s solos are dented, beautifully imperfect, and alive in the moment. At times, the beat-crafting feels improvisational, too, as Locks dots these tracks with sounds according to his whims.

One sound, in particular, presides over NOW: the noise of buzzing cicadas, picked up by the outdoor microphones. They enter only a minute into the opener, humming along to the singers calling out for a “forever momentary space,” and return later in the album. They’re hardly an ambient touch—they’re given such prominent space in the mix that they practically serve as a second, competing choir. You could read all sorts of meaning into their appearance: Cicadas spend their spare days on Earth making a primal noise unique to themselves; they call out in congregational songs, rising and falling together and only capturing our attention when acting as an ensemble; their noise might be coming from the studio’s adjacent cemetery, which, by grim coincidence, is the city’s largest. And while it’s probably not safe to assume that any of that was by design, you might still find meaning there, and it emerged because the cicadas were simply a part of that moment: alive, singing, and accepted.


Buy: Rough Trade

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