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Ora, "Time Out of Mind"

cover imageOra was always a rather curious and enigmatic project, as the collective formed by Andrew Chalk and Darren Tate in the '80s has been historically characterized by extremely limited releases and shifting membership.  Time Out of Mind adds yet another strange chapter to the Ora tale, as it is a reworking of unreleased material that largely pre-dates Ora's debut release (1992's DAAC cassette).  Chalk and Tate make it clear that this is not a "lost album" though–it is more of an alternate history, suggesting a path that the project might have explored without the intervention of line-up changes and new working methods.  Naturally, Chalk fans will probably swoop down on this album en masse, as material from this project is so maddeningly rare, but this collection is a modest and understated affair content-wise, consisting primarily of brief sketches and vignettes of mysterious field recordings and bleary drones.

Shining Day

I am not quite as familiar with Ora's oeuvre as I am with Andrew Chalk's solo work, but there are certainly some recurring themes throughout the band's long and underheard history.  Naturally, I associate Ora most closely with drone music, but they also had a strong bent for both field recording and luring in fresh collaborators. All of those tendencies are reflected here to some degree, albeit in somewhat embryonic form.  For example, future members Colin Potter and Daisuke Suzuki both turn up, but Suzuki only appears on two songs and Potter is largely relegated to engineering.  Far more interesting are the divergences from Ora's future work.  The most significant is arguably the brief, sketch-like nature of these miniatures, which is a far cry from project's characteristic longform work.  Also, Chalk and Tate occasionally flirt with eschewing music altogether in favor of strange and evocative collages of field recordings, such as "Path To Infinity," which sounds like a mysterious figure slowly wandering through an abandoned factory full of echoing metallic clangs and ominous bubblings.  Another crucial component here is that Tate and Chalk greatly valued spontaneity at this phase of their career, using a portable recorder to work outdoors and incorporate natural ambiance into their work.  I believe Ora never fully abandoned that approach, but they did transition into using that material as grist for more elaborate studio recordings.  On this album, it feels like those initial explorations were the endpoint rather than the beginning.  Given the degree of transformational wizardry that Potter has brought to Nurse With Wound’s studio scraps, the ephemeral, fractured nature of this album can only be a deliberate choice.

That reduced emphasis on composition is admittedly felt a bit here, as there are no newly unearthed masterpieces lurking amongst these fifteen songs.  Again, however, that seems to be entirely by choice, as Time Out of Mind feels like a willfully naturalistic and egoless experiment: Chalk and Tate seem like they were not so much harvesting material for a great album so much as wandering about the English countryside in search of sonically intriguing or inspiring settings, then attempting to capture the essence of those settings in the moment.  That admittedly sounds a bit more beautiful and pure than the actual reality, as the duo were quite fixated upon scraping metal and cavernous natural reverb rather than, say, bird songs or whispering breezes, but it still makes for quite an unusual album and justifies this belated vault-exhumation: no one needs a collection of "normal" Ora songs that were not good enough to wind up on an album, but a strange and cryptic collection of sonic postcards from far-flung and obscure places has a definite appeal.

For the most part, the individual songs blossom into being and disappear too quickly to leave any kind of strong impression, but a few pieces stand out nonetheless.  One such piece is one of Suzuki's appearances, "Inastateless," which weaves a bizarre fantasia of scraping metal cacophony and dreamily swooping feedback.  Elsewhere, the flickering and undulating drones of "Windmill" and the menacing submerged ambiance of "Taiga" seem like legitimately fine Ora fare that should have probably surfaced on an album long before now.  I was also quite struck by the sheer strangeness of "Picturebox," a sound collage that sounds like a close mic’d field recording of marbles rattling around an elaborate Rube Goldberg-esque contraption as a jet passes by overhead.

Obviously, the one big caveat with this release is that these songs languished in the vault for two or three decades for a reason and all of the participants have since gone on to do far better work than is captured here. As such, this is not a viable entry point for new fans, nor will existing fans find a revelatory treasure trove of crucial recordings and they should not expect to: Time Out of Mind does not pretend to be anything more than an intriguingly divergent time capsule.  Given those modest expectations, this is a varied, experimental, and endearingly odd release that unveils a few fine pieces and offers a host of evocative miniature sound puzzles to mull over.  As the balance errs much more heavily on the latter, this release is probably strictly for completists and serious fans, but they are fairly certain to find its small pleasures absorbing.