Damon Locks has evolved a sound-collage solo project into a massive 15-piece ensemble that musically amalgamates the spiritual-jazz forwarded by artists like Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders, a gospel choir reminiscent of Max Roach’s work with the J.C. White Singers on Lift Every Voice and Sing and modern down-tempo hip-hop beats and electronics. Locks’ compositional mixture of new and old emphasizes the contemplation of the past’s immense influence on the present and a hesitant optimism towards the future. Where Future Unfolds, a live performance recorded in Chicago in 2018, roots itself in the revolutionary, a protest that makes an impact.

The album begins with vocals streaming through a bullhorn, crackling and alive like words being shouted during a protest rally. “Statement of Intent / Black Monument Theme” does as the title implies, relaying the frustrated and progressive manifesto of the album as a whole. On “Sounds Like Now,” the choir reflects on the painful stagnation of sociopolitical reality in America over the top of a hypnotic guitar sample and consistent, grooving percussion. The messages forwarded by Locks’ ensemble often lack subtlety, and lines like “Separate not equal/ Power to the government/ Never to the people” feel a bit on the nose, but revolutions seldom succeed without a clear message. Throughout Where Future Unfolds, both lyrically and with clips from civil rights era speeches and interviews, the Black Monuments Ensemble communicates exactly what they would like their listeners to hear.

Angel Bat Dawid’s clarinet solemnly introduces “Solar Power.” As she fades into silence, the singers pick up her sentiment and plea, not for a future that is better than their present, but for any future at all, singing, “Take me to a land where future unfolds/ Where we can feel sun/ Where we can feel free.” After “Rebuild a Nation,” a short, optimistic composition for voice and conga featuring a nod towards posterity with Rayna Golding’s introductory vocal solo, “Which I Believe It Will” and “Which I Believe I Am” briefly shift the musical direction of the album. The programmed drums and chopped vocal samples welcome contemporary sonics to an album that has been very dedicated to a vintage sound. For the majority of the track, “The Colors That You Bring” plays out at mid-tempo, with anxious instrumentals and unsure vocals asking “Who will prevail?.” But with about a minute remaining, everything but the percussion washes away, and when the choir returns, the track closes in an exuberant, hopeful choral outburst.

Lead by Dawid’s piercing clarinet, Locks’ wavering electronics and Dana Hall and Arif Smith’s crackling percussion, “The Future?” showcases an uncertainty of relief and liberation caused by the cyclical history of oppression and disappointment—it is less a statement of pessimism than worry. That discomfort is counteracted by the aggressive, explosive emotional release of “Power,” which serves as the energetic climax of Where Future Unfolds with drum hits like cannon blasts and the choir repetitively screaming “power.” The final song, “From a Spark to a Fire,” feels like an epilogue to the album. While the song builds sonically, continuously adding percussion and ambiance to the initial drums and choir, it plateaus at a certain point and dynamically remains until the song, and the album, run out of time.

Where Future Unfolds is more the performance of a protest than it is an album—it affects deeply with a deliberate message and an unignorable musical vitality, asking of its listeners to reflect upon the power they have, to make efforts to change oppressive cycles of the past and remove the question mark that follows the idea of future and affirm it with an exclamation point.

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