Damon Locks & Black Monument Ensemble’s Now is an essential album of the moment | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Damon Locks & Black Monument Ensemble’s Now is an essential album of the moment 

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click to enlarge Damon Locks

Damon Locks

Kristie Kahns

Flipping through television channels. Flicking through radio stations. They’re quotidian actions—until they’re not. When you’ve lived through a year like 2020, every frequency delivers the same nightmare from a different angle. On Now (International Anthem), Chicago sound collagist Damon Locks and his Black Monument Ensemble confidently grasp the tuning dial of history. Like 2019’s Where Future Unfolds, the new album blends Locks’s archival samples with the talents of a generous and bountiful collective of musicians and singers—and it somehow packs an even greater wallop than its predecessor. Now was recorded in two sessions at Experimental Sound Studio as summer 2020 turned to fall, and the samples used throughout the record suggest similar dualities—reunited but isolated, healing but hurting. They include an interview with a wrongly convicted Black man, a sound bite of an exasperated community organizer, and an audio snippet from the 1969 made-for-TV movie J.T., a bittersweet tale of how a Harlem boy’s decisions are circumscribed by poverty. The blooming theme of the harp-dusted title track flows effortlessly into a soulful “duet” between the Black Monument Ensemble’s vocalists and the keening choir of cicadas that surrounded ESS’s back patio during the group’s outdoor recording session; the insects’ song stamps the track with a seasonal watermark, but its spirit transcends temporality. (“That was a forever momentary space,” clarinetist Angel Bat Dawid declares at the end of the recording.) Later on, the psychedelic, grooving “Keep Your Mind Free” exhorts audiences to do just that, despite physical and systemic constraints. Exuberant, clarinet-streaked album closer “The Body Is Electric” urges us to “Listen close to the stories told / Behind us is a crowded street.” As the talk-show sample leading into that track muses, “If you know 'now' fully, it's past, present, and future.” On Now the past, present, and future all wail in concord, and the louder they roar, the more people will listen.   v

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