NOW is the sound of liberation, both as an idea and as a conscious and purposeful act. Work on the album—the second by Chicago-based electronic musician and artist Damon Locks with his Black Monument Ensemble—began in earnest in the sweltering heat of late August, in the wake of a summer of protest, heartbreak, racial injustice, and the pandemic. That environment directed Locks, who works primarily in the Ensemble as a creator of sample-driven sound collages, leading to the sheer physical brawn and philosophical reach of these six tracks.
The brawn comes from the beats and loops Locks builds in each track, each of which draws on a kind of ritualistic construction. Listen to how the beat peaks around the two-minute mark of “The People vs the Rest of Us,” how the furious record scratches mix with the throbbing bass to create a personal Universal Zulu Nation block party in your ears. The pace quickens on “Keep Your Mind Free,” an almost frantic ode to mental clarity that conjures imagery of a neo-noir chase right out of Blade Runner. In this context, the refrain “keep your mind free” rings like a commandment down the ages, an echoing warning about the forces that seek to police the body and mind, from ancient to future.
Much of Locks’ vision here and on his first album with the BME, 2019’s Where Future Unfolds, suggests a deep study of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and its members’ quest for more meaningful musical expression. But where much of that first album was made in a sort of J Dilla-meets-Lester Bowie mode, Locks widens the scope here to allow a greater narrative vision, and NOW’s bookend tracks exemplify this.
On “Now (Forever Momentary Space),” built from a hypnotic weave of drum patterns (and a small siren), the six-piece vocal ensemble and clarinetist Angel Bat Dawid invoke a mindset of reflection and healing. By the album’s end on “The Body Is Electric,” the drums have reconfigured into a formation closer to Congo Square or a West African drum circle, Dawid’s clarinet screeches and scorches with holy fire, and the vocalists lead a ring shout that celebrates all the vibrancy of human life.