Pure Tone Audiometry
By Scott Reid | 2 January 2003
Aarktica’s Or You Could Just Go Through Your Whole Life and be Happy Anyway was a beautiful mixture of experimental pop, Low-esque slow-core (album opener “Aura Lee” was one of the best songs I heard in 2002), ambient drone and richly textured space rock. Though it certainly dragged in places (the awkward production of “You’re Landlocked, My Love” and the plodding lull of eight and a half minute closer “Song for a Free Williamsburg”), its many striking moments (“Aura Lee,” “A Correspondence in Film,” and “Nostalgia = Distortion”) made it one of the most interesting and compelling albums I heard last year. Just one year later, Jon DeRosa comes back with the follow-up, Pure Tone Audiometry, a similarly frustrating album that can’t quite seem to create or maintain a solid affecting mood. This time around, though, there’s no real standout track, either (certainly nothing on the same level as the highs of Or You Could…)—making most of the album a long build up with no real climax.
Opener “Out to Sea” reminds me of the awkwardness of “You’re Landlocked, My Love,” and though the production seems much more suited to the vocal melody than “Landlocked,” the melody is equally banal and unexceptional, continuously repeating itself without ever developing. It isn’t until the vocal melody is abandoned for some beautiful background female vocals, a repeating sample and a focus on the sound-moving-backwards production that the song becomes remotely worthwhile. The next track, “The Mimicry All Women Use,” starts with heavily delayed guitar, slowly building into what can be best described as “Nostalgia = Distortion” without the melody or presence. In a post-rock climax, the song repeats the distorted guitar lines over and over, ending slowly without developing (trend…) the potentially good riff (it actually reminds me a little of The New Year’s excellent “Resurrection”) at all.
After the underwhelming opening ten minutes comes one of the album’s best tracks, the ambient drone piece “Snowstorm Ruins Birthday.” High pitched guitar lines layer over each other as layers of synth and noise wash around it, creating one of the album’s few enjoyable climaxes and one of its few affecting moments. Sadly, it’s also the shortest song on here (perhaps its secret), and once it abruptly ends, “Ocean” kicks in with another straight-forward guitar riff and mediocre melody. The song develops into a far less enjoyable “Aura Lee” re-make with its Low-esque structure and harmonies, forgetting this time around to include an interesting melody with it. Granted, the production is beautiful and the strings actually sound warm and natural (as opposed to, say, Dave Fridmann stuff), but it’s not enough to save the song from floating by and becoming completely forgettable.
“Big Year” is even less remarkable, extrapolating the same boring guitar lines over eight and a half minutes, only sporadically bringing in fairly superfluous elements that do nothing to make the song even remotely interesting. The vocal melody seems completely pointless, as well—coming in and out at various points in the song, serving to at least break up the arduous monotony of the track. Once again, the highlight of the second half is the drone piece: a beautiful and stark number named “Water Wakes Dead Cells,” which sounds as if it were recorded underwater, encased in a blissful wall of noise and distanced synth lines.
The song ends with a ringing tone, which leads into the epic “Williamsburg Counterpoint.” An obvious nod to Or You Could Just…‘s closer, Song for a Free Williamsburg, the song succeeds where its predecessor did not: it manages to create a beautiful and alarming mood, one which constantly develops and keeps interest throughout its twelve and a half minutes. It slowly moves from drone to repeating guitars and drums reminiscent of & Yet & Yet-era Do Make Say Think and calmer Explosions in the Sky. Violins sneak in as a distorted guitar creates a layer of feedback and noise, all of it combining without ever really reaching a climax. Instead, the song deteriorates, letting the violins and feedback fade out as a single guitar ends the album on a stunning note.
It’s strange that what is so strong about this album are the same elements that lagged on their last full length, and the poppier moments that were so stunning on that album are what hold back this Pure Tone Audiometry. It’s still worth checking out just for its excellent ambient and post-rock pieces (especially the last seventeen or so minutes of the album), but those that were hoping the new album would expand on the more straight-forward catchy moments of “Aura Lee” or “Nostalgia = Distortion” will be sorely disappointed. It’d be nice to think that in the future Jon might be able to balance the two elements with surprising skill and create an album with moments as affecting as “Williamsburg Counterpoint” and “Aura Lee” without sacrificing the variety that has allowed for such hit-and-miss ventures so far. An album that could combine such stunning pop and ambient songs with the more interesting post-rock elements would be an extremely respectable accomplishment, a balance that Aarktica is still struggling to find.