AMN Reviews: Damon Locks / Black Monument Ensemble – NOW (2021; International Anthem)

Summer 2020 was a rough time. The pandemic raged, with cases and deaths climbing. There was unprecedented job loss and financial anxiety, as well as the looming specter of an election that could have easily been subverted. And in the midst of this, people took to the streets in record numbers to protest ongoing police violence. Nonetheless, Chicagoan Damon Locks gathered safely with a group of like-minded musicians to make NOW.

Locks constructs sound art from recorded samples as well as instrumentation and singing. He has been active for over three decades, performing and/or recording with Rob Mazurek, Nicole Mitchell, and Ben LaMar Gay among many others. In this particular set of outings, the Black Monument Ensemble included clarinet, cornet, melodica, drums, percussion, samples, electronics, and six singers. Angel Bat Dawid and the aforementioned Gay contributed. Clocking in around 30 minutes total, it could be thought of as a short album or long EP. This is the second Black Monument Ensemble offering.

Structurally, the pieces on NOW are largely organized around vocals, percussion, and samples, with the other instruments filling in the gaps or taking on short leading roles. These are songs, but rhythmically sophisticated, beautifully sung with subtle call-and-response passages, and they leave room for improv and soloing. It is nigh impossible to pigeonhole Locks’ efforts, but one can hear the influences of free jazz, funk, soul, Sun Ra, and many others.

The lyrics are poetry – verse put to an audible medium. While Locks could have easily gone dark with his themes (and we all would have understood if he had), he instead chose to acknowledge the problematic times while providing an ultimately uplifting message. From Now (Forever Momentary Space):

Keep a space for the colors to process
Your body aches under the weight of the metropolis
Mind creates and dreams of ways to get on top of this
Free defeats the deadly vampires that flock to it.

As suggested by the album’s title, Locks is living the moment, but impatiently forging on toward a better future.

Finally, one cannot listen to NOW without appreciating its recording situation. Locks and company gathered outside of Chicago’s Experimental Sound Studio over the course of three days to put down these tracks. The weather was hot and stormy, and the cicadas were as loud as you might expect. The latter ended up being uncredited contributors to the album, and are clearly present on several tracks. But this environment only added to the rawness and emotion.

Brilliant stuff, and an album of the year candidate.