The Royal Arctic Institute is a group of New York- and New Jersey-based musicians who made indelible marks on the east coast’s underground rock heyday of the 80s and 90s as members of Das Damen, Two Dollar Guitar, and Cell. This instrumental band operates with a core trio: guitarist John Leon (who’s played with Roky Erickson), bassist David Motamed, and drummer Lyle Hysen. Collectively, the three of them have plenty of fuel in the tank (in the form of sweet country-fried riffs and jazzy beats), but for last year’s Sodium Light, they brought second guitarist Lynn Wright and keyboardist Carl Baggaley into the mix as guests. That album’s sublimely chilled-out avant-Americana landscapes further flesh out the cosmic, line-blurring sound that the Royal Arctic Institute has dubbed “post-everything.” Wright and Baggaley have since become full-time members, and on the new From Catnap to Coma, the quintet creates sweeping vistas where space jazz, alt-country, surf, ambient music, psychedelia, and shoegaze meet, taking that sound to the next level of heady goodness. Produced by James McNew, the album’s five twangy, feather-light meditations have much in common with the music of McNew’s band Yo La Tengo, except Leon doesn’t let loose with the same sort of bonkers guitar freak-outs as YLT guitarist Ira Kaplan; instead, his effortless wizardry lies in his unhurried, introspective serenity. Imagine avant-jazz titan Bill Frisell jamming with YLT on a far-out dreamscape, and you have something like Royal Arctic’s vibe. Frisell is actually a direct inspiration for Royal Arctic (they’ve cited his self-titled 2001 album with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Elvin Jones as an influence), and From Catnap to Coma similarly navigates exquisite melody and deep groove. Whether you experience the album as one continuous track or as five separate songs (the band offers both formats but recommends the first), you can easily get lost in the hallucinatory guitar-twining sprawl of stoner-folk trips such as “Fishing by Lantern,” “First of the Eight,” and “Anosmia Suite.” With cinematic beauty and layered detail that could make Ennio Morricone envious, From Catnap to Coma is a blissful escape.
Royal Arctic Institute’s From Catnap to Coma is available for pre-order on Bandcamp. The album will be released 2/4.