New Music: Friday Roll Out! Altas, Damon Locks' Black Monument Ensemble, J. Robbins

There are some weeks that are better than others. Why? Well, for one thing, I’ve limited the amount of time spent on social media. Well, somewhat. I’ve come to understand that everyone is different, and we all have a difference of opinion, but when trolls are willing to insult you because you don’t share ideology, yeah, I’d rather not. I’m pretty much there for the humor and to see what my friends and family are up to since I don’t live close by. Even then, you’ll still find someone that doesn’t agree with whatever you post…even if it’s a joke. And that’s fine but again, why waste time? Put those earbuds in or turn up those new JBL headphones because life is much too short.

We all know J. Robbins and his accomplishments / contributions to indie rock, post-punk, or whatever-genre-you’d-want-to-label-him under, continuum. Or at least we should. Robbins is most notable as the frontman for Jawbox and his debut solo album Un-becoming (Dischord) has been long in the making. Given, it’s taken a few years to piece it together, but fans have been waiting for this for much longer. He’s performed live on stage acoustically, songs by Jawbox and the other projects he’s worked on, and now he’s able to add to that repertoire with a new collection of songs.

The new album has everything we could all possibly expect or want from Robbins, and as a solo record, it’s surprising to find a full backing band behind each song. The opening “Anodyne” begins with guitars that slowly build with Robbins’ voice directly above it before the rhythm section hits full throttle changing the dynamics a bit. For good measure, Robbins includes a cello to accentuate that melody, allowing it to mesh with the other instrumentation, keeping it from being swallowed into oblivion. Then there’s “Abandoned Mansions,” which may be an ode to his home of Baltimore, including a snip of Baltimore’s favorite son Edgar Allen Poe, but you may forget all of that and simply sing and dance along to this sonically powerful guitar-driven track. It’s hard to avoid it. The harmonies and backing vocals are difficult to not sing along to, and that was probably the point. Musically, Un-becoming reeks of a late 90s, early ‘00s sound, recalibrated for 2019. “Our Own Devices” for example, sounds like Robbins loops some odd guitar notes, adding direct songwriting pattern beneath it for another go-around of melody and sonic diversity.

I might be over-simplifying the songs on this album as there’s more to Robbins than just clever musicality. There’s also the lyricism where he takes a more direct approach addressing issues plaguing news and social media outlets. The title track, a magnificent beast of a song, has Robbins putting into words the unrelenting cycle of life turned upside down. But it’s when he sings “The rich embrace their destiny, the poor are stuck with fate,” opening the floodgate on “Soldier On,” that’s when you realize things have gotten all too real as he defers back to his punk roots, discussing the topics many avoid in multiple genres. He does this here over rhythm that’s fittingly powerful. Lyrically, he does refer to fascism and forces us to think of indentured servitude in 2019.

But it’s songs like “Citizen” that may have you thinking with a chorus that sings, “Unlearn the Internationale/We’re citizens of nowhere now,” takes jabs at political rhetoric while “Firelight” pulls the covers away and finds a better use for flags and what they represent. There are other directions we find J. Robbins moving in though, like with the instrumental “Kintsugi,” revolving around a sample, looped over and over, and sharing the tenderness of “Radical Love” where he sings about what we all need in a world that’s turned upside down.

In all, Un-becoming truly is what’s needed. While everyone forgets to make time for what’s important, Robbins shares his own thoughts on what that might be while never losing focus on what’s in front of you. The bar? Once again raised. Let’s see who’s up for the challenge because it’s not going to be easy since he’s just released one of the best albums of 2019.

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Talking about Damon Locks, there are so many points where I can begin. Back in the late 80s he was part of Trenchmouth, along with Fred Armisen, Wayne Montana, and Chris DeZutter, and later performed as a member of The Eternals, which included Montana as well. Throughout the years Locks, who is also a visual artist, has been part of a number of other projects but today he’s released a new album with his own collective, Damon Locks’ Black Monument Ensemble.  The resulting album, Where Future Unfolds (International Anthem), is quite different than anything he’s done in the past.

Quite literally, the music Locks has worked on is all different from one another but singularly recognizable coming from the artist. Where Future Unfolds is an album that was recorded live and captures the full spirit of the collective of artists, a wide array of musicians to include multiple vocalists, clarinets, dancers, percussionists, along with Locks’ sampling of Civil Rights era speeches and recordings along with an array drum machine patterns he controls. African rhythms permeate through the opening “Statement of Intent/Black Monument Theme” and it’s more than simply braggadocio spouted here as Locks’ words spit poetic, as the drummer Dana Hall explodes with free jazz rhythms behind him. That’s all before the angelic group of backing vocalists shout out the group’s namesake. Locks is less musician and more controlling wizard on “Sounds Like Now,” creating a light backdrop of percussion and guitar samples hypnotically repeating under harmonized political lyricism before the wind instruments find solace on another plane of existence. Literally, next level shit.

I find myself constantly taking a step back, much like on “Solar Power,” as those Civil Rights-era samples are fitting, with a beat mastery of percussion alongside. But it’s “Rebuild A Nation,” opening with the sweet vocals of a young vocalist powerfully singing “I can rebuild a nation/no longer working out,” which gives a sense of hope in youth. The group of vocalists singing in unison along with her after her opening lines showcases the beauty in their own vocal delivery. But then it’s Locks’ skill in improvisation meshing samples and creating sounds on “Which I Believe it Will” and “Which I Believe I Am” that will have people wondering if he’s channeling his inner Afrika Bambaataa circa 3019!

We’re soon hit with “The Colors That You Bring” and I realize Damon Locks is seriously moving forward, incorporating wind instruments, beats to rival Dre, all the while leading a cavalcade of beautiful vocalists to glory. This right here will make any lover of music a true believer of what perfection is. There are also those songs that allow the free jazz to flow, much like the “The Future?” with more vocal samples. He allows the track to follow its own path.

Where Future Unfolds challenges both musically and politically and is the next evolutionary step for Damon Locks. It’s a breath of fresh air and doesn’t leave anyone wondering what path it follows. It has created a new one, where fear is far removed and love & hope remains.

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Coming across Altas, who is a Denver, Colorado instrumental quintet, and today has dropped the band’s second long-player, All I Ever Wanted Was (Altas Musica). As instrumental post-rock goes I don’t think I can be held accountable when comparisons are being made because there’s a level I hold all groups accountable to, and that’s by Mogwai standards. Is it fair? Probably not but rules are rules and who am I to break them, even if they are my own?  

Altas isn’t bad, not bad at all. All I Ever Wanted Was is a good album, albeit nothing in comparison to the title holders. The band usually moves as a mid-tempo pace, surrounding tracks with washes of guitars that bask in effects but it’s the keyboards that one can find solace in (“Glasgow Smile”) as the notes are tender and inviting. Drums are constantly on the move and dripping with enthusiasm. It’s easily the finest moment on the album, clocking in at over 7 minutes long. But the band will occasionally shift the rhythm now and again (“A Break In The Damage Path”) although they leave without breaking anything, as courteously as they can be. They may get a little heavier at times (“Cosas Nunca Dichas”) but that’s fleeting before the band jumps back into spaces where they’re more comfortable in.

In reality though, I’m not sure where I sit with Altas. Sure the band is friendly enough and the tracks hit the right notes, but I don’t feel the group challenges listeners or possibly even themselves. I’m reminded of ‘00s-era Tristeza before Jimmy left for good to focus on The Album Leaf fulltime. It’s good, but it leaves me wanting more. Much more.

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