Since the broadcast spectrum was cordoned off and commercialized a century ago, pirate radio stations have been sending their signals like phantoms through the airwaves. Sequestered on anonymous city rooftops and boats anchored offshore, unlicensed amateurs reclaim their slice of the ether in the name of freedom of expression. By its very nature, pirate radio is illicit, boundary-defying, and hopeful, a David-versus-Goliath story of resistance to corporate consolidation. A decentralized network of low-wattage transmitters provides a blueprint for alternative modes of communication and, perhaps, better ways of living. Damon Locks and Rob Mazurek’s concept album New Future City Radio imagines a clandestine broadcast from a not-so-distant future, playing up pirate radio’s utopian impulse in order to raise alarm bells about the present.

Locks and Mazurek have worked together since the late 1990s in the subsection of the Chicago music scene where jazzy improv meets rebellious post-punk. Locks became the vocalist in the rotating cast of Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra before leading his own massive group, the Black Monument Ensemble. Both projects recently found a home with Chicago’s International Anthem, a label better defined by politics than genre conventions. Though it’s nominally a jazz label, any given release might draw from Latin music, hip-hop, or gospel. As Locks and Mazurek’s first duo project, New Future City Radio fits squarely in this milieu, blending sample-based electronica with improvisatory jazz and adapting Afrofuturist themes of Black liberation and revolutionary spirit. Like labelmates Angel Bat Dawid and Irreversible Entanglements, they are clear-eyed about the state of the world but insistent on the potential for change.

The album takes the form of a mixtape recorded off the radio during an unspecified crisis, juxtaposing full songs with snippets of beat tracks and DJ voiceovers. Its announcers address the collapse of society with cool professional detachment. In one vignette, listeners can win theater tickets by answering the question, “What happens if we just let things run their course?” The topic of a call-in talk show is “El edificio está en llamas. ¿Dejaremos que se queme?” (“The building is on fire. Are we going to let it burn?”) Despite impending disaster, the duo’s music is defiantly optimistic. On lead single “Yes!” Locks describes the forces of darkness arrayed against us only to introduce his plan: “You ask me if I can form myself into a giant robot and swallow up this black hole and free the entire universe?/My answer to you is, ‘Yes.’”

At their best, Locks’ ultra-busy collages and authoritative vocals combine Guillermo Scott Herren with Gil Scott-Heron. The micro-chopped samples of album standout “Flitting Splits Reverb Adage” are a throwback to One Word Extinguisher while his bassy stream-of-consciousness monologue about cosmic villains sounds like a space-opera take on I’m New Here. Mazurek’s samplers and synths also join the fray, but his trumpet, on songs like “Your Name Gonna Ring The Bell” and “Droids!,” more forcefully imprints his style, elevating workmanlike lo-fi backing tracks with exhilarating improvisation. At times, these elements come together perfectly, as on “The Concord Hour.” After a Welcome to Night Vale-style voiceover (“Brought to you by Redistribution and Preparation. We reconfigure, recalculate, and never replicate”), driving synths and electronic percussion propel chanting voices until all dissolves in favor of a plangent trumpet solo.

The pirate-radio conceit simultaneously buoys and constrains an album bursting with ideas. Its themes help rapid-fire changes in direction cohere, but fully fleshed-out tracks sit awkwardly within a headlong spin across the radio dial. Brilliant snippets like the celebratory, reggae-driven “New Future” beg for further development. Meanwhile, “Twilight Shimmer,” at 10 minutes long, occupies fully a quarter of the running time but merely drifts prettily along a lazy river of bird chirps and languid horn lines. This makes for an uneven listen. But when Locks and Mazurek hit on the right frequency, New Future City Radio hums with a sense of possibility.

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Damon Locks & Rob Mazurek: New Future City Radio