Essential New Music: Damon Locks & Black Monument Ensemble’s “Now”

“Pretty soon, the whole world is gonna go crazy.” Judging from the sample’s sound quality, those words, which usher in the song “Keep Your Mind Free,” were lifted from some movie made in the 1970s. But when Chicago-based Damon Locks & Black Monument Ensemble recorded Now, that moment was undeniably upon us. 

As the vocalist for Trenchmouth, the Eternals and Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra, Locks has carried on a multi-decade campaign against musical restrictions. In parallel, he’s sustained a career as a visual artist that’s put his vivid images upon some albums that you really ought to have in your collection. And also put him behind bars; as a participant in the Prison + Neighborhood Art Project, he’s taught art at the maximum-security Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois since 2014.

Locks founded Black Monument Ensemble in 2018 to create a performative expression of black cultural affirmation. The group’s first album, 2019’s Where Future Unfolds, was a live recording of a concert that enveloped its audience with gospel voices, house beats, jazz grooves, fiery horn soloists, sampled civil-rights speeches and exuberant movement supplied by a troupe of young dancers. 

But while the convulsive response to George Floyd’s death filled Chicago’s streets, capacity restrictions and social distancing have kept the city’s stages empty and made it very complicated to bring such a large group into a studio. So, at the end of the summer, Locks and BME set up in the back yard of Experimental Sound Studio, where they could spread out and play without putting each other at risk.

Outdoor recording meant that the cicadas in the surrounding trees became part the act. You can hear the insects adding their distinct churn to the six-member vocal section’s graceful evocations of temporal paradoxes on the album’s title track, and they wreath the braided horn lines of Angel Bat Dawid and Ben Lamar Gay on “Keep Your Mind Free.” Locks’ own voice is absent, but he keeps up a steady stream of samples that evoke scenarios of struggle and transcendence.

The world may be crazy, but the palpable joy of being able to sing and play together against the odds makes Now as exciting to hear as it probably was to make.

—Bill Meyer