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Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble – Where The Future Unfolds

Chicago-based artist Damon Locks’ career has spanned across various platforms in art – from visual arts to music (notably as a DJ and vocalist of the band Trenchmouth), in addition to his having served communities as an educator. In his latest project, Locks presents his Black Monument Ensemble, a fifteen piece collection of musicians (featuring Angel Bat Dawid on clarinet and Dana Hall on drums), vocalists (alumni of the Chicago Children’s Choir) and dancers from the Chicago-based youth dance corps Move Me Soul. Presented and recorded as a live showing hosted at the Garfield Park Botanical Conservatory, Where The Future Unfolds leaves a deep impression.

“Statement Of Intent/Black Monument Theme” sets the scene nicely, mostly constituted by a sampled speech – a speech which borders on spoken word poetry – and improvisational backing percussions. The passionate speaker erupts, claiming “we want to see light touching surfaces,” and is swallowed up by a gospel choir singing the refrain “Black Monument”.

Following this is “Sounds Like Now”, structured around a foundational folksy blues acoustic guitar riff sample with some swing. The pacing and constant looping of the riff gives the song imminence, a masterful application given the subject of the song captured in its title. Lyrically, the song has power; its power not merely held in its unambiguous meaning but also its vocally provocative style. Gospel singers almost woefully croon in telltale unity; “the cost of living, oh the cost of living, the price you pay right up until you die,” and the proceeding refrain “there goes another one,” with swelling alarm and intensity, in reference to children dying “before our eyes”. Complete with truisms like “separate not equal, power to the government, never to the people,” the crushing weight of their reality has an almost physical effect on the listener. Angel Bat Dawid’s clarinet improvisational solo is simply sublime and serves an apt punctuation to a challenging musical message.

Dawid’s clarinet opens “Solar Power”, a hopeful song directed wistfully toward a better situation. In hymnal fashion, a choir asks for a “land… where we can feel sun, where we can feel free”. Here spliced into “Solar Power” is a soundbite with a message – culled from archives of black activists’ interviews and speeches, a woman issues a maxim for change, that one has to decide what one wants, and to start with oneself before changing others. This is instrumental for the song’s development, marking the hope and prayerfulness of the introductory choir as requiring a joining element – agency. Love, equivocated with the “shining solar light” by which they may be freed, is continually beseeched to bring them carefully down a dangerous path to freedom. A complex and moving spiritual, “Solar Power” is to be regarded as integral to this record and the story it tells.

“Rebuild A Nation” suggests its title to the listener, insinuating the nation is “no longer working out”. By changing the subject pronoun from “I” to “we” to “who”, confidence in agency is ever-so-slightly undermined by a lingering doubt, a momentary breach of faith, insofar as the question is asked “who can rebuild a nation?” – this affects the listener with feelings of pathos. Of course the hopefulness of the song is omnipresent, and compels the listener to suspect the answer to the question is “us”.

“Which I Believe It Will” seems a direct answer; “I believe the sun” is looped over a once spacey (reminiscent of Kid Cudi’s work) then 90s dirty south instrumental complete with retro imitation cowbell sounds (think early Outkast). Locks once again demonstrates his penchant for well-placed civil rights archival soundbites, inserting a brief exposition at the close of this track in which a man states his hope for the future on the grounds their situation could not get any worse – after all, he says, if it were, he would simply be dead. “Which I Believe I Am” is next, a short 1:14 instrumental sampling what sounds like youths chanting.

The seventh track is “The Colors That You Bring”, a heavier song once again featuring a mean clarinet introduction. “The sirens wail, who will prevail?” sing the ensemble’s choir; a looped soundbite of a woman saying “I’m not gonna stop” almost reads like a battle cry. “Transform and change, the winds prevail” answers the question posed earlier in the song and describes the efforts of their tenacity. Quickly, the trajectory of the song takes a turn from darker aggression to sweet honesty, offering a worthwhile insight through its juxtaposition with the first part of the song. “I tried, I tried to believe in us” is the refrain, “through time and space we’ll step beyond, you will be there” – a positive note to end this piece on. In such a way this record always seems to emphasise hope and faith in love, even after addressing present darkness.

Next up is the avant-garde jazz piece “The Future?”, centered on another soundbite, a woman stating “those of us who are not ready for the burning”. The musicians of the ensemble clearly have a rapport, working in some fine improvisation. It is no surprise the prominent clarinet is excellent and that Hall’s percussions are on point – despite the open-ended, unstructured nature of the piece’s composition, the drums carry some true jazz swing.

Track nine is a strong piece, featuring an explosive chorus of the choir singing “power, power, power”. While the vocals soar, Hall’s drums pound with driving fills and Dawid contributes triumphant clarinet play. These iterations of the chorus are expressed between spoken word-like bars pertaining to the struggle and its meaning. This song just washes over the listener, almost in the manner a mantra would. The song winds down with the therapeutic “is there time for love?”

The album ends with “From A Spark To A Fire”. The song has bouncy percussions, bringing instrumental energy to the piece. This is very appropriate and works wonderfully with the chorale vocals, singing “from indifference to devotion, from a spark to a fire, there is power, there’s emotion, from a spark to where you are”. Thus the expansive set closes on a powerful note – the passion and commitment of the individual to compel change.

Where The Future Unfolds cuts deeply, speaking to every listener by meeting them where they are, and bringing them to the message of acknowledgement, hope, and faith in the power of love. While very much concerned with compelling recognition among its audience – recognition of the crisis at hand – the record’s loudest note is suggested by its title: hope. Perhaps the record’s strongest element of writing is its constant reference to light, as posited in the first track, of which “statement of intent” is a part of its literal title, in which the speaker exclaims, “we want to see light touching surfaces”.

“Solar Power” deepens the reading of light to be equivalent to that which saves, and weaves it into the concept of enlightenment. This all has a very divine feel and, given the gospel vocals, roots blues elements, and folk-spiritual structures and delivery of the songs, Where The Future Unfolds seems almost exegetical.