Chances are, you have probably taken a pure tone audiometry test as a child. You know, the one where you sit with the big fat headphones over your ears, your palm on a table, listening to myriad, random bloops and bleeps, first in one ear, then the other, and raising your index finger whenever you heard something, the doctors trying to determine your threshold of hearing, the softest sounds which your ears can detect. But you never cared why they were doing the test; it was incredibly easy, and you probably got to miss a bit of school as a bonus, and that’s all that mattered.
You can’t blame musician Jon DeRosa for being just a trifle obsessed with pure tone audiometry. One of the more fascinating composers on the post-rock landscape, DeRosa, who works under the name Aarktica, has quickly made a name for himself in recent years thanks to his first two albums, 2000’s No Solace in Sleep and 2002’s Or You Could Just Go through Your Whole Life…, which combined ambient sounds with more experimental, shoegazer style drones. The thing is, DeRosa, who is a graduate music technology student as well as a student of North Indian classical music, is deaf in his right ear. Complete hearing loss in one ear has to be especially devastating to a musician, but DeRosa found a way to work with it. His life is heard now in mono, and using that as inspiration, he has been able to create some fascinating new sounds as a result.
Pure Tone Audiometry is Aarktica‘s latest piece of work, and it continues to make that gradual crossover from experimental soundscapes to highly accessible, almost pop compositions. What is always surprising about Aarktica’s albums is that the sounds you hear are totally, one hundred percent organic; no synthesizers are used whatsoever, with DeRosa deftly manipulating his guitar playing, as well as various guest musicians’ instruments, such as drums, cello, upright bass, violin, and harmonium. The result this time around is an album that sounds as experimental as releases by laptop performers such as Four Tet, yet sounds as intensely emotional as Sigur Ros.
The album feels like DeRosa’s own version of a hearing test, and is a marvel to hear with headphones. “Am I out to sea / Farther than I need to be / To find my way home, I don’t know,” sings De Rosa and guest vocalist Lorraine Lelis on “Out to Sea”, DeRosa’s smooth voice meshing with Lelis’s heavenly tones, the pair sounding like they’re singing an oblique, surrealist version of a lullaby, as a single loop of guitar drones plays over and over. Their voices harmonize, more overdubbed voices float in and out, creating a heavenly feeling, as a spoken word sample starts to fade in and out. “The Mimicry All Women Use” is a more straightforward, post rock guitar composition, as little effects are used, DeRosa gently strumming chords over a languid beat. On its own, DeRosa’s voice is gorgeous, sounding like a more tenor-voiced version of the late Morphine crooner Mark Sandman, as the song launches into a stirring coda of live drums and layers of distorted guitars. “Ocean” continues in the same vein, a plaintive ballad comprised of some more spare, chiming guitar, and some beautifully desperate lyrics (“Tonight there’s not enough water in the ocean / To keep me under long enough to see you”), not to mention that magical voice of Lelis again, making the song become a duet between star-crossed indie rock lovers.
The album’s two lengthier songs sound more like a real group effort, as the maudlin “Big Year” and the 12-minute closer “Williamsburg Counterpart” feature not only DeRosa, but also guests on cello, bass, and drums. Both songs go for the big, grand, ambient pop sound, but although the ambition is admirable and there’s more of a live feel to the songs, they wind up going for too long, paling in comparison to the album’s more understated tracks. DeRosa proves he’s a stellar studio whiz on the instrumentals “Snowstorm Ruins Birthday”, which features an aural tornado of guitar noise, and “Water Wakes Dead Cells”, a hypnotic pastiche of feedback noises. With his truly unique ear for enthralling musical sounds, DeRosa continues to show us that he’s on the verge of something great. Despite its few moments of tedium, Pure Tone Audiometry is heavenly. He might hear in mono only, but Jon DeRosa knows the rest of us don’t have to, and with his third album, he’s given us a real feast for our ears.