In the last year, the idea of being “present” has been a funny concept. While many of us went through long periods of not being able to leave the house, we were forced to sit with ourselves without the distractions of normal life, at the same time that we tried to stay in touch with friends and family via Zoom or scrolled through a seemingly endless series of apocalyptic pandemic updates on our phones. Something strange could happen to your perception of time, as weeks and weekends bled together. And yet, at the same time, the events of 2020 often made you feel like you could be nothing but present, with the acute awareness you were living through history. After the early months of the pandemic, protests swept the nation as we grappled with the latest series of tragic deaths of Black people at the hands of police. Social justice was on many people’s minds, a swirling combination of inequalities and radically different perceptions laid bare by the pandemic, police violence, and the looming possibility of another Trump term even after his administration had displayed a ruinous incompetence, or disinterest, when handling the pandemic. The present was boiling over, but with it came the reminder of all the pasts that got us here and all the futures that could be. In the last year, the idea of a moment, of the feeling of “now,” was slippery.
That’s the headspace Damon Locks was writing his new Black Monument Ensemble album NOW in. As recently as 2019, Locks and Black Monument Ensemble had released an album called Where Future Unfolds. Given the social causes and fraught political atmosphere that album arose from, NOW feels like a direct update and response, created on the other side of some events none of us could’ve seen coming, and some events that were the same cycles of societal evils playing out over again. “It was about offering a new thought,” Locks said of the album. “It was about resisting the darkness. It was about expressing possibility. It was about asking the question, ‘Since the future has unfolded and taken a new dangerous shape… what happens NOW?”
Black Monument Ensemble began as an outlet for Locks, a musician and collage artist based in Chicago. But it grew into an amorphous group, capable of jazz and R&B and experimental flourishes, with many voices moving in and out. The making of NOW reflects that duality within the project. During quarantine, Locks worked at home, writing the songs he’d soon bring to the Ensemble. In late August, one iteration of the group — led by Angel Bat Dawid on clarinet and Ben LeMar Gay on cornet, alongside an assembly of vocalists featuring Phillip Armstrong, Monique Golding, Tramaine Parker, Richie Parks, Erica Rene, and Eric Tre’von — gathered in the backyard of Experimental Sound Studios in Chicago. Locks gathered with a smaller group a month later to finish percussion and loops. The whole album was made in a matter of days, the product of Locks bringing his songs to the group, everyone talking through it, and subsequently recording their very first performances of the material.
You can hear every element of NOW’s origins in the album itself. It’s a sweaty, roiling piece of music, answered by vocalists who are tracing pathways from grief to ecstasy; the group recorded this while dodging thunderstorms, and there’s a heat and urgency to it even at the same time that the biggest vocal crescendos seem to promise salvation. NOW isn’t an incredibly long album — three longer pieces, a handful of almost interstitial tracks, about 30 minutes in all. But it’s dense with ideas and sounds. Dana Hall’s drums and Arif Smith’s percussion create a tumbling, racing backdrop alongside Locks’ electronics, sound effects, loops, and samples. In a song like “The People Vs The Rest Of Us,” these sounds dovetail with the social currents of the music. After a long sample that begins with one voice saying “Now, if I understand right, if you had pleaded guilty you would’ve already been out of jail” and ends with another voice answering “I’m not guilty,” an intense beat, stuttering sonic interjections, and a generally frayed atmosphere provide the territory for LeMar Gay’s horn to bob and weave and cry, sounding frantic and angry and saddened.
So much of NOW is obviously Locks responding to the climate of 2020, and thus has specific social threads. “Keep Your Mind Free” began life connected to one of Locks’ activist causes last year: supporting decarceration or furloughing of eligible people amidst the spread of COVID within prisons. The song grew out of his thinking about everyone else during the pandemic. As he said upon its release: “In a time when safety is not a given, in a locked-down world, to be liberated from restraint we have to keep our minds free.” Riding along all manner of burbling percussion and hissing soundscapes, the song crests into an improvised vocal climax. According to Locks, moments of musical collaboration like that, after so many months in isolation, in turn made Black Monument Ensemble feel whole, liberated, cleansed.
Naturally, it’s NOW’s sprawling 10-minute closer “The Body Is Electric” that most evocatively sums up the album’s conflicting themes and emotions. Its boisterous groove could seem like chaos bubbling up, or it could feel like a freeing dance. Dawid and Gay keen against vocal melodies that are both melancholic and healing. But by the end the song’s message is clear. In the wake of yet another wave of protests calling out for Black bodies and lives to be valued, Locks positions “The Body Is Electric” as a rousing reminder of Black Monument Ensemble’s mission. Here, as on the rest of the album, whole histories of Black music and performance collide. All the clarinet and cornet lines lacerating the edge of the track might remind us of the deserved fury of 2020. But in the end the singers take the song to a place of community, a place of celebration — something grounded in the “now” despite storms both literal and metaphorical looming over these sessions.
In a sense, Locks’ tendency towards collage is a perfect tool for making art in years as tumultuous as the ones we’ve recently seen. Here, he collected small scraps and detritus, dialogue pregnant with meaning and asides that lead to something more profound; at the beginning of “Keep Your Mind Free,” “some nut” bashing up some cars at the disco might be a warning that “Pretty soon the whole world will go crazy.” In the sideways haze of “Movement And You,” Locks’ collages and uneasy loops get at the difficulty of realizing actual progress and change in the world, a voice instructing “Push torso right as if pushing [an] imaginary wall.” Each time you listen, you pick up on a new detail, you single out one more voice or thought in the tapestry Locks has put together.
But the format of the collage in general seems to strike a particularly contemporary timbre. NOW is a document of a historic, shuddering year in real time, and as such it is not so much a definitive statement or a piece of documentary for something we were all still living through. It’s loose and racing thoughts, it’s noise cluttering the mind alongside music trying to articulate a spectrum of human experience. It’s beauty and terror and hope mingling all together, lifted up by many voices joining together as one.
The final part of that is key. There are moments in Locks’ approach that, yes, could feel like everything coming apart — all of us weathering the pandemic and wondering when we can return to normal, juxtaposed against protests that reminded us there’s a certain normal we cannot return to. But at the same time, when he joins with Black Monument Ensemble, there’s a catharsis and clarity. Opener and lead single “Now (Forever Momentary Space)” is just as much a mission statement for the group as anything in that sense. An initially off-kilter phone sound becomes backbone for drums to clatter and throb around, Dawid and Gay’s playing alternates between fiery and lyrical, and the singers offer a prayer of sorts. That melody, reflecting on the word “now” over and over, starts to feel transporting, like a ritual. But at the same time what you’re really hearing is Black Monument Ensemble coming back together after all these months alone and becoming stronger, becoming one organism where all these ideas and sounds can fly at each other and paint a new way forward.
Accordingly, one of the key aspects of “Now,” and the album as a whole, was an accident, a circumstance. One of the many sounds simmering and melting with its surroundings is the constant murmur of cicadas running through the song. It’s the environment and immediate moment of NOW’s recording session, forever captured — the same way they were playing as long as they could under threat of thunderstorms, the songs were partially at the mercy of whatever else was happening in the air. The cicadas become a spiritual element of “Now (Forever Momentary Space),” speaking to the fluidity of Locks’ and Black Monument Ensemble’s work here — loops and collages and shattered structures, mixed with improvisation and unforeseen outcomes and happenstance.
Small a detail as it is, that incidental field recording sets the stage for everything NOW can be. At the end of the track, the musicians talk amongst themselves and shout out the cicadas. It’s a cosmic occurrence, nature woven into the music they themselves were conjuring up as a collective. In its way, that song offers a moment of peace in the middle of 2020’s maelstrom. It sets NOW up as an album that allows you to drift through time, consider everything from the last year that we’ve still barely processed. From there it becomes an album that can feel like a vivid dream, with sounds shifting in and out of focus then bracing you awake. And in the end that takes NOW where it was always going: to a place of release that also reminds you, in these tenuous moments of history, that you always have to keep your eyes open.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Brockhampton’s ROADRUNNER: NEW LIGHT, NEW MACHINE.
• The Spirit Of The Beehive’s Entertainment, Death.
• PONY’s TV Baby.
• Matthew E. White & Lonnie Holley’s Broken Mirror, A Selfie Reflection.
• Bill MacKay & Nathan Bowles’ Keys.
• Claire Rousay’s A Softer Focus.
• Small Black’s Cheap Dreams.
• Rhiannon Giddens With Francesco Turrisi’s They’re Calling Me Home.
• CFCF’s Memoryland.
• London Grammar’s Californian Soil.
• Sufjan Stevens’ Convocations Vol. 1, Meditations.
• Taylor Swift’s Fearless (Taylor’s Version).
• Cheap Trick’s In Another World.
• Skullcrusher’s Storm In Summer EP.
• Miguel’s Art Dealer Chic Vol. 4 EP.