Pure Tone Audiometry by Aarktica (Review)

There’s a quality to Pure Tone Audiometry that plays with your perception of the sounds therein.
Pure Tone Audiometry, Aarktica

When I learned that Aarktica would be recording an album for Darla’s “Bliss Out” series, I was pretty overjoyed. In my mind, it seemed like a match made in heaven. Darla’s series was designed to let the more ambient-minded musicians in the indie realm strut their stuff, and brought together such artists as Amp, Windy & Carl, and Piano Magic. Coming off the heels of No Solace In Sleep, one of my favorite drone albums of time, Aarktica seemed like the ideal artist for the series.

That’s why I was so disappointed when I finally heard Or You Could Just Go Through Your Whole Life And Be Happy Anyway…. Perhaps it was just a case of outrageous expectations, but I went in expecting more harrowing atmospheres and deep guitar ambience and was, well, shocked to hear actual songs. It just seemed way too incongruous for me, and it felt like DeRosa was ignoring his music’s key strengths. I realize I could very well be in the minority here; when a friend of mine heard the CD, he couldn’t believe my reaction. But then again, he has yet to hear No Solace In Sleep.

When I heard about Aarktica’s new album, I’ll admit to some slight trepidation. Part of me was excited to see what DeRosa would do next, but I didn’t want to arrive at the same conclusion as I did with Or You Could…. However, my anxiety was completely unfounded as I found Pure Tone Audiometry to be a thoroughly absorbing and captivating experience. DeRosa does delve into more song-like structures, but the atmospherics that dominated No Solace In Sleep are still there, haunting the album’s 7 songs.

A fluctuating, backwards-running loop opens the album on a hallucinatory note, while DeRosa’s vocals are joined by those of Lorraine Lelis (Mahogany). As the track continues, it blossoms into the first unexpected delight of the album, and sign of good things to come. The line between the DeRosa and Lelis’ voices begins to blur until you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. All that’s left is a delicate veil of sound that drifts across the song’s surface like a gentle ocean breeze.

Shifting guitar layers open “The Mimicry All Woman Use,” and if you’re listening on headphones, you’ll immediately notice your sense of depth being toyed with. Each strum of the guitar jockeys for position, as those in the background come rushing to the forefront, only to fade away just as quickly. There’s a constant sense that the song is in freefall, barely held together by the stark drum programming. Meanwhile, DeRosa’s tired vocals sleepwalk through the mix, like Mark Eitzel backed by Insides.

As the guitar constantly brushes by and collapses in on itself, it creates a fair amount of tension. One wonders if the song’s structure can continue on this way, which is why it’s a relief when DeRosa finally launches into a bit of noisy rock in the song’s final moments.

Now, forget everything I’ve written up to this point that could possibly be seen as criticizing DeRosa for pursuing a more song-oriented direction. Forget all of it simply for the sake of one track. “Ocean” is the most song-oriented title on the album, and it also happens to be one of the most beautiful and affecting. The song achieves a crystalline symmetry between the delicately plucked guitar and DeRosa and Lelis’ vocals, but the real clincher is Andrew Prinz’ sad cello. His instrument beautifully echoes the song’s poignant lyrics (“Tonight there’s no prayer I can really think of/To keep you young just as I remember you”). How affecting is this song? There have been times when I’ve been tempted to skip this track while at work lest I break down right there at my desk.

If “Ocean” is the album’s most affecting piece, “Big Year” is the most haunting. DeRosa’s guitar takes on an endless sound, creating ghostly, bell-like tones that seem to hang suspended in the dark ocean depths. DeRosa’s tired vocals have a sinking quality, as if lyrics like “Today I learned to tie my shoes/I can feed myself again/It’s gonna be a big year/I think I’ll even start to talk” are a weight dragging him down into the depths plumbed by his guitar. Far above, Prinz’ cello can be glimpsed, filtering through the murky surface like dim rays of sunlight, forever out of reach.

As Pure Tone Audiometry closes, DeRosa sheds all structure and pop leanings and dives headfirst into the drone. “Water Wakes Dead Cells” opens on a violent note, but the churning, rumbling feedback eventually gives way to the slow, fluctuating tones of “Williamsburg Counterpoint.” Chiming guitar notes and percussion gradually fade in, adding a sense of direction to the shapeless tones. Meanwhile, Prinz’ cello sweeps in and graces the listener with another haunting arrangement.

Just when the piece finally seems to coalesce, DeRosa rips into it with well-placed stabs of noise and feedback, as if he intends to tear it apart one broken guitar string at a time. Finally, the piece collapses in a hail of noise and feedback, until all that’s left is the delicate guitar progression DeRosa initially used to shape the song.

There’s a quality to Pure Tone Audiometry that plays with your perception of the sounds therein. When a person loses one sense, the other senses become more acute, so as to compensate. And I wonder if that isn’t what’s going on with Aarktica’s music, in a fashion. I wonder if DeRosa’s partial deafness isn’t somehow responsible for the hallucinatory feel his music often possesses. I suspect that somehow, his hearing loss allows him to hear and construct sounds in ways us “normal” people don’t or simply can’t.

For example, I can watch the display count down the time remaining on “Out To Sea,” but when DeRosa and Lelis’ vocals blend together, the song seems to stretch out, each second turning into 10 or 15. Meanwhile, “Big Year” lasts nearly 9 minutes, but it draws you in so completely that it’s over before you know it. And that’s doubly so for “Ocean,” which could take up half the album as far as I’m concerned and yet it’s gentle, comforting tone still seems to exist outside of time.

Read more reviews of Aarktica.