Chicago-based collective Black Monument Ensemble's sophomore album was recorded in September 2020 at the intersection of various existential crises, as seen from a US perspective: the threat of Trump winning the presidential election, by fair means or foul; the rising tide of fascist ideology; extrajudicial murders of, in particular but not exclusively, black Americans; a galloping pandemic; economic chaos; and social isolation.
Given the circumstances, it is no surprise that Now sounds apocalyptic. But it is also simultaneously bursting with hope for the future. BME's organizer and composer, the poet and electronist Damon Locks' description of the album reads, in part, as follows: "This is a document of the moment... As the old world falls, we lose a lot but we gain the opportunity to create anew... We can spark something now. The new is possible."
At the time of writing, six months after Now was recorded, there are signs of hope: above all, the restoration of reason and evidence-based decision making to the US presidency, and the proven efficacy of vaccines to fight the pandemic. But Locks and the other members of BME would not suggest that these two things are guarantees of a sunnier, more harmonious future. And nor are they. The real power to heal division and effect change rests, as always, with the people. What the album is saying in essence is: time to put your shoulder and your love to the wheel, for the struggle is only now beginning and a happy ending is still far from certain.
Musically, Now is a mix of spoken word, jazz, gospel and other retained Africanisms. The instrumental lineupsampler and electronicist Locks, clarinetist Angel Bat Dawid, cornetist Ben LaMar Gay, drummer Dana Hall, percussionist Arif Smithwork hand in hand with a six-piece vocal chorus. The feel is that of a live prayer-meets-politics meeting. Which is indeed what the production process was: the album was recorded live and socially distanced over two days in the garden behind Chicago's Experimental Sound Studio. Playing time is short as albums go, just over thirty minutes. But listening is a case of feel the vibe not the width (and fear not, track four, "Barbara Jones-Hogu And Elizabeth Catlett Discuss Liberation," is not a dry academic debate but 1:55 minutes of mantra-like, sung positivity). The overall experience is restorative and upliftingand the message is a universal one, applicable wherever you reside.
Now (Forever Momentary Space); The People Vs The Rest Of Us; Keep Your Mind Free; Barbara Jones-Hogu And Elizabeth Catlett Discuss Liberation; Movement And You; The Body Is Electric.
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