Time Was Away 1992 – 1997: a collection of dark ambient, sometimes ritual experimental electronic / industrial music

Cathedra, Time Was Away 1992 – 1997, Poland, Zoharum, ZOHAR 191-2 2 x CD (2019)

I must admit I’d not heard of British experimental / industrial musician Mark Crumby until this double set was bowled my way by Ed Pinsent. (Thanks, Ed!) Crumby has had a long career lasting at least some 30 years as both a solo artist with a number of projects and a member of various groups including Konstruktivists. In the mid-1990s, Crumby ran the Cathedra project, issuing several albums on cassette and CD-R through different labels including his own Jara Discs label. Twenty-nine songs of minimalist and often dark ambient instrumental music have been culled from these recordings and released on a double CD set by Zoharum label. The first disc, labelled “Burning Is Irreversible” contains 14 songs of a highly ritual and hypnotic dark ambient nature, and the remaining 15 songs, consisting of repetitive looping music of a cinematic soundtrack nature, make up “The Memory Cage” second disc.

The music on “Burning Is Irreversible” can be very beguiling and quite mysterious, with instruments or samples of instruments and melodies drawing inspiration from foreign cultures afar, and combines elements of industrial, experimental electronic, electro-acoustic and ambient into little worlds of strange, flavoured exotica. All tracks can seem at once familiar, intimate and reassuring yet at the same time distinctive and very self-contained. Chanting, singing and other vocal performances seem a bit distant, as though taking place in a parallel universe that we can see but not reach into. A shadowy patina covers all the songs, rendering them a little like museum pieces having just recently been put on display after decades of hiding in cupboards and attics. This does have the effect of making some of them a bit remote, almost unreachable, when perhaps they should be sounding raw and close to listeners to the point where they potentially absorb the listener physically as well as mentally. On some tracks such as the frosty droning “Sorrowful End”, the mood can be very strong and deeply affecting.

“The Memory Cage” disc features minimalist repetitive looping music with a distinct synthesised orchestral sound and far less atmosphere and flavour than the earlier disc does. After just a couple of tracks, the downward slide in interest and variety in the music is alarmingly apparent: the repetition does very little for the music and each and every piece sounds like a different part of the same long over-arching (but imaginary) soundtrack work. Some tracks like “Emil I” and “Nocturno Romantico” come dangerously close to refined Muzak and some like “Coldest Night” can be damn annoying for their flat tones and unnerving repetition. This part of the album works better as a collection of library music pieces, to be consulted mainly by DJs and musicians for samples of a particular genre of electro-acoustic music.

The compilation is so uneven in the different approaches taken by the music on the two discs that I wonder why the music had to be selected, arranged and packaged in this way. The first CD has far superior music in the way the music itself is treated and produced, and most tracks have highly individual moods and atmospheres. On the other hand, the second CD often does not sound as if much effort was put into the music and the repetition and monotony are tedious. I would say this collection is definitely one for Crumby’s fans: the size of the compilation and the musically narrow nature of the pieces on Disc 2 are not likely to rope in new fans.

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