'ODYSSEY VOL. 1'VINYL
Crown Lands are born storytellers, with eyes on this world and others. Painters of strange, absorbing universes. Advocates for the LGBTQ+ and indigenous communities. Counter-culturalists for the 21st century, informed by a cocktail of old-world thinking, science-fiction, and musical narrators from Rush to Paul Simon, Led Zeppelin to John Prine. It’s prog rock, but not as you know it – or as you thought it could be.
Though still in their twenties, Crown Lands have profound ties to history. The enigmatic brainchild of singer/drummer Cody Bowles (a reconnecting Mi’kmaq Two Spirit, who grew up learning from the elders of Canada’s Alderville First Nation reserve) and guitarist/keyboardist Kevin Comeau (a Jewish-born bassist from Whitby, Ontario, whose ancestors made it through the Holocaust), the band channels ancient spirits into fantastical stories. All of it tempered with current issues, and all of it as a duo.
“I think the wow factor of Cody and I pulling this shit off, as two people, is something we have to maintain in the live show,” Comeau reasons. “We can still pull a lot of this shit off live with no tracks, no trickery and no additional members.”
Since meeting in 2015 at a band audition – where they bonded over a love of prog icons Rush – the leonine-haired pair have thrived on a diverse mix of ideas and activity. Sprawling conversations over walks in the woods. Urgent odes to the mistreatment of their country’s Indigenous peoples (captured in 2020 single “End Of The Road”). Slapstick jokes over movies and Indian food. Cultural touchstones that include the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, Dune author Frank Herbert, Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa and the Flash Gordon and Terminator soundtracks. All the while, heaps of riffs were amassed.
“We don't really do a lot in solitude for this band,” Comeau says. “When I'm alone and making music, it's synth music, kind of like Vangelis or Tangerine Dream or John Carpenter. And when Cody's on their own, Cody's playing all these amazing flutes these days, and that's a whole other world. But when we come together, it's like, what would Pink Floyd do if they jammed with Rush? It's a different kind of headspace.”
Originally, Crown Lands got their foot in the door with punchy, straight up rock’n’roll, compiled on their Juno-nominated, self-titled record, Crown Lands LP (2020), recorded at RCA Studio A in Nashville and produced by six-time Grammy winner Dave Cobb (Rival Sons, Chris Stapleton). Raw blues rock songs like “Spit It Out” and “Howlin’ Back” gave them a gateway into the live scene and grabbed the attention of listeners the world over. This paved the way for an introduction to three of Crown Lands heroes: Terry Brown, Nick Raskulinecz, and David Bottrill – all prolific producers that worked with them on their breakthrough track “Context: Fearless Pt. 1,” which premiered on Rolling Stone. After a steady stream of new music, the band’s fresh approach and mission-driven catalogue garnered them the 2021 Juno Award for “Breakthrough Group of the Year.” Now, following the success of long, conceptual singles they’ve made a modern-day progressive opus – second studio album, Fearless.
“Whenever we've toured and reached out to our fans on social media, like 'what do you want to hear in the set?' it's always the longer songs,” says Bowles, who threw themself into vocal lessons over the pandemic, “which is great, because that's what we always wanted to do.”
The blood of Rush runs deep in Fearless’s veins, swirled with flavours of Yes, Pink Floyd and the wealth of artists that have shaped Crown Lands. Synthesiser sequences take them to new, daring places. Electric sitar can be heard in “Starlifter,” along with Indigenous flutes and riffy rock guitars. Classic qualities are stirred into fresh themes and issues close to their hearts. It’s a virtuosic hybrid that reveals a treasure chest of progressive, rock, troubadour and electronic strains. Folk songs and fantasies in luxurious prog packages.
Recorded at Universal’s studio in Toronto with producer David Bottrill (Rush, Muse, Tool, Mastodon) Fearless came together over a six-month period, in short, intense bursts between tours. It’s an unashamedly rich, ambitious work – in an era of quick fixes and clickbait. And yet it’s not a ‘hard’ listen. Rather than clobber its audience with complexity, Fearless creates a world you want to spend time in. Lavish epics married with concise pop song ideals. Sonic landscapes imbued with feeling and focus, each one flowing into the next.
“I mean, let's be honest here, there's a little bit of cleverness for cleverness' sake in there too,” Comeau chuckles. “But it is really fun. We had so much fun tracking this music. I think we were both able to do what we wanted to do as artists for so long.”
Fearless is also a record of contrasts. Dynamic textures. Nine tapestries of tone, where atmospheric swathes morph into strident guitars, dextrous polyrhythms and gnarly basslines – Bowles’ strange, beautiful tenor soaring over the top like a bird over a mythological land. Light and dark. Mist and thunder. The sort of depth and excitement that nods to the cinematic visions of John Carpenter and Tangerine Dream and reflects Comeau’s burgeoning love affair with vintage synthesisers.
“I picked up an Oberheim sequential OB six synthesiser,” he enthuses, “those textures are heard in John Carpenter's music and Brad Fiedal’s score for The Terminator. And we really wanted to explore those textures and tambours. It's the first time we’ve really embraced synthesiser sequences, especially on ‘Starlifter: Fearless Pt 2.’”
An epic opener, “Starlifter: Fearless Pt 2” throws down the gauntlet, capturing the whole Fearless album experience in eighteen flab-free minutes. There are chest-beating highs, heart-breaking lows and myriad shades in between. Otherworldly, Vangelis-esque qualities are offset by juicy rock solos, sci-fi mystique, a captivating 11/8 section, gentle chimes and gauzy synths. Compelling and immaculately assembled, it expands on the promise that “Context: Fearless Pt 1” hinted at last year (the superb single reappears on the album). It also builds on the same protagonist, the same universe that Crown Lands have been cultivating.
“’Starlifter: Fearless Pt 2’ follows the character of ‘Fearless' after the events of [2021 single] ‘The Oracle,’” explains Bowles, who also writes science fiction. “In the end of The Oracle, Fearless transcends and becomes this enlightened being, but they're also sealed beneath the ocean. And in Starlifter, it's been thousands of years since, the world is dying and this syndicate in outer space is colonising worlds and taking the energy from their suns, baring the energy away for their own capitalistic greed.
“It’s a tale of science fiction and fantasy,” they continue, “but it's still very much tethered into the themes that we've touched on in a lot of our music in the past. The anti-colonial theme is really present there.”
After this comes “Dreamer Of The Dawn,” a buoyant palate cleanser full of hope and swashbuckling adventure. The same intense recording session birthed The Shadow, a Pink Floyd-esque joint effort between Crown Lands and producer David Bottrill. The three of them have since written and jammed together, with Bottrill sitting in on bass (besides extensive production credits, he spent years as Peter Gabriel’s touring bassist).
“We ended up writing most of the music and the lyrics for that song with David on the spot,” Bowles recalls of “The Shadow.” “And that's the first time we've ever really collaborated with someone in a co-write sense.”
But it’s not just the epics that pack a varied punch. Such contrasts prevail just as readily in the shorter likes of “Right Way Back” (also previously released as a single); a super-hooky mix of hard contours and silky breathing space, with guitars and drums that soar one minute and pummel the next. It builds on the smart-but-succinct, Turn It On Again-era Genesis tropes that punctuated 2021’s The White Buffalo EP.
Elsewhere, “Reflections” turns the spotlight on Crown Lands themselves. Written mid-pandemic, it’s a tender, stirring moment that finds Bowles and Comeau navigating a rocky period in their friendship – blending personal experience into the interstellar imagery that underpins the record. “Before the pandemic hit, Cody and I were not getting along,” Comeau says. “And that was a song that made us both pull our heads out of our asses and recognise that we're better together.” As Bowles sings: ‘we’ll recognise each other’s souls again.’
Offering a ray of stripped-back sunlight, acoustic instrumental “Penny”– written years ago by Comeau, for his late grandmother – reflects the delicate atmospherics of John Butler (a huge influence on the guitarist). “I was with her on her deathbed,” he recalls. “I was with her when she passed away. After that I went home and wrote that piece for her. It was my way to keep her memory alive.”
“Citadel” offers velvety, piano-led closure, drawing Fearless to an end in six gorgeously moody minutes. A folk-hearted ode to environmental defenders, it’s a space where Pink Floyd meets Bob Dylan. “We wanted to flip the narrative and reinterpret the way people see people defending their land,” Bowles explains. “Because they're depicted in the media as a thorn in people's sides, but they should be celebrated as heroes, because they're trying to save the last bit of land that is untouched and untainted by corporations.”
For now, they’re committed to performing these huge works as a two-piece. Crown Lands shows are striking, spine-tingling affairs – spinning multiple complex parts with a lightness and ease that most of their peers can’t fathom – but they dream of bigger things. Avant-rock spectacles that tap into Talking Heads’ seminal 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense.
“There will be a time, where we can afford it, to bring on ‘the Crown Lands touring band’,” Comeau grins, “and go full-on symphonic prog and have the wall of the keyboards, Rick Wakeman style…” “Jesus, Kevin! No!” Bowles laughs, conceding that they would like to step out from behind the drum kit and embrace the panache of Freddie Mercury, a long-standing hero: “I think what we need is someone who can also fill in on drums to allow me to go up to the front and be a front person.”
Ultimately, the two friends agree, the hope is for Fearless to reach new people. To delight existing fans but also open doors. To break down generation barriers. To show that elegant, clever, progressive music is for everyone – not a select few.
“I hope that it brings progressive rock to a whole new generation,” Comeau states, affirmatively, “and a whole new demographic of people who otherwise wouldn't have been exposed to that sort of music.”
“I really want some kid getting goosebumps listening to the music,” Bowles agrees. “That would be a dream come true, because that was me as a kid listening to Rush’s 2112. And I hope that our playing inspires people to kind of take up playing in that way. It's something that's not so common now, but when you get into it, it's just so beautiful.”