by Jack Silbert
Hey, wait a minute, this band isn’t from the Arctic! In fact, the drummer lives right here in Hoboken.
From 1986 to 1994, Lyle Hysen played drums in college-rock favorites Das Damen, who were from New York, not Germany. In 2016, Hysen met up with guitarist John Leon and bass player Gerard Smith (who was in the group Phantom Tollbooth with Dave Rick, who was briefly in Hoboken’s own Yo La Tengo). And they formed a band.
Last year, they released their debut album, The French Method, produced and engineered by Tom Beaujour at Nuthouse Recording in Hoboken. Now, the Royal Arctic Institute have returned with their second full-length, Accidental Achievement, released on the Rhyme & Reason record label which is based in, yes, Hoboken. There is a lot going on in this town, folks!
It is an instrumental album, but definitely not for background listening. This is “turn off the lights, sit in a comfortable chair, turn it up loud, and pay attention” music. And it rocks. Opener “Leaky Goes to Brooklyn” is slow-motion twang starring John Leon and his guitar, and wouldn’t be out of place on an album by the cinematic southwestern collective Friends of Dean Martinez. “The Grubert Effect” picks up the pace; it begins as an insistent rocker, equal parts Leon, Smith, and Hysen, with a few tempo changes and music stretching itself inside out, just to keep you on your toes. “Raymond Roussel,” named after an early 20th-century French writer, slinks along tentatively, mysteriously, with a surprise widescreen midsection.
“When Razors Were Works of Art” appears to be a mellow tune, about a half step removed from reality. Past the minute mark, though, Leon’s guitar goes raw and raucous, briefly reminiscent of John Zorn’s Naked City project. “The Lark Mirror,” featuring violin, is the prettiest and most straightforward song on the album. “Frosted Tips” takes a crunchy Zeppelin-esque motif and twists it this way and that, including some phased-out drums from Hysen. “The Vorrh” is named after Brian Catling’s 2012 debut fantasy novel, itself named after an imaginary African forest in a 1910 novel by… Raymond Roussel! If Catling’s book becomes a movie, this track should absolutely be on the soundtrack.
“Dear Mister Bookman” (named after the Seinfeld library cop? Or the building super on Good Times?) begins with galloping drums before settling into a pleasing midtempo groove. Well, sort of settling; nothing stays in one place on this album for very long. “Dark Matter (Song for Randy Newman to Sing)” is a dreamy composition that seems to simultaneously reference a) Randy Newman’s 2017 album Dark Matter; b) the Minutemen’s 1984 track “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing;” and c) Das Damen’s rare 1988 release “Song for Michael Jackson to $ell.” The album ends with “Northern Progress Exploration Company,” an upbeat tune despite being named after a sinister firm in another fantasy novel, The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman.
You are now much smarter than you were when you began reading this review. Just imagine what buying the album will do for your IQ.