Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
While Damon Locks was holed up in his Chicago apartment, stitching together samples for the follow up to his fierce 2019 album Where Future Unfolds, the protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd were exploding on the streets below. The topics that course through Unfolds—systemic racism, oppression, and injustice—were being voiced all around him. And though the city was still on lockdown due to COVID, the protests ignited a sense of urgency in Locks. He convened his group Black Monument Ensemble in the backyard of Experimental Sound Studio—every participant socially distanced, yet still interconnected by virtue of the music they made.
The shadow of the anniversary of Emmett Till’s death and the 1963 March on Washington also loomed large over Locks and the Ensemble’s recording. And as strong as Unfolds was, NOW is even stronger. Some moments feature blissful, gospel-tinged vocals, others offer lilting jazz swing, while others hit with sinewy, righteous funk or roiling drums. But on NOW, Locks fits them all into the same song, as he does on “Now (Forever Momentary Space),” which is capped by the droning buzz of cicadas on a hot summer evening.
Locks’ group brings to mind the likes of Eddie Gale and Max Roach’s late ‘60s work, which also fused gospel, soul, and jazz to create an urgent new sound. A six-piece choir offers hooky chants on “Keep Your Mind Free,” while International Anthem all-stars Ben Lamar Gay and Angel Bat Dawid lay down nimble cornet and clarinet lines that hearken all the way back to Dixieland. But it’s Locks’ sampler and electronics that provide the steely emotional heart of the album. He makes a woozy mosaic worthy of Madlib on songs like “The People vs The Rest of Us,” with snippets from Sunday morning talk shows, blaxploitation films, after-school specials, workout videos, and the evening news delivering weighty messages and punchlines alike.
The summer of 2020 looms over the album like a cumulonimbus cloud—not weighing it down, but emboldening it. It gives every moment here a sense of urgency, as on the 10-minute closing piece, “The Body is Electric.” The song speaks to that fraught yet hopeful feeling, the fragility of life as well as the community’s indomitable strength. Meditative (yep, those cicadas are still there), solemn, raucous, ecstatic, NOW sounds just as formidable in our present moment.