Last year Crown Lands played the after-party at a Formula 1 Grand Prix, at the personal behest of Bahrain’s Prince Salman.
“He’s the coolest guy ever,” says the band’s guitarist/bassist/keyboard player Kevin Comeau. “He’s really into rock music. We’d toured with Greta Van Fleet, and I guess Prince Salman reached out to their manager to ask if he knew any other new interesting rock bands. He watched our Odyssey live performance video, and took a chance on us. Nick Mason was in the audience. Our song The Oracle is a fourteen-minute epic with a lot of Floyd in it, and the whole time I was just like: ‘Do it for Nick, man! Do it for Nick!’ It was amazing.”
Twenty-something duo Crown Lands derive much from Pink Floyd on Fearless – their second, tune-freighted, none-more-prog album – but it’s fellow Canadians Rush who remain their North Star. It’s not a stretch to say that Crown Lands are to Rush what Greta Van Fleet are to Led Zeppelin. When Classic Rock moots the comparison, singer/drummer Cody Bowles laughs loudly. “That’s totally fair. I love that! We get the Greta Van Fleet comparisons. But they’re not necessarily prog.”
Greta aren’t, but Crown Lands very much are. When Bowles and Comeau started out back in 2015, they drew attention with their bluesy, garage-rock sounds. Early EPs Mantra and Rise Over Run had White Stripes and Zeppelin vibes – quality stuff but nothing to stop you in your tracks. But as their confidence and standing grew they reached for the music they really wanted to play.
On 2021’s ambitious sci-fi epic Context: Fearless Pt.I and last year’s White Buffalo EP (featuring that Floydy piece The Oracle) they’ve scaled right up, and now proudly fly the flag for retro prog played with very modern smarts.
Comeau actually has Rush’s ‘Starman’ logo tattooed on his arse. And, in a way, so does Fearless. The album’s 18-minute Starlifter: Fearless Pt.II draws on Rush’s 2112 and Moving Pictures albums (with some Zeppelin, Floyd and Jeff Buckley in there too). Comeau used his Bahrain money to commission a custom-built double-neck guitar/bass; he’s mates with Geddy Lee’s bass tech John ‘Skully’ McIntosh, and got some exact measurements from Lee’s gear for the design. He uses Moog Taurus bass pedals, and the same model of chorus pedal Alex Lifeson favoured in Rush’s heyday. Crown Lands’ music has some fiddly time signatures, garnished with Neil Peart-like drum rolls from Bowles, whose vocal register naturally leans towards the Geddy heights.
The best friends recorded most of the Fearless album in Toronto last year with former Rush producer Dave Bottrill. Bowles recalls that they knew when they’d overstepped the line from influence into pastiche – on the other side of the control room glass, Bottrill would roll his eyes.
“It usually comes down to Kevin playing something and I’m like: ‘No, that’s too close,’” says Bowles. “‘Let’s tone it down a bit on this one.’”
Two of its tracks – Context: Fearless Part I and the charging Right Way Back – were recorded with another Rush producer, Nick Raskulinecz, in Nashville in early 2020. Bowles played Neil Peart’s own Clockwork Angels kit on both tracks, the latter written in tribute to the late drummer.
The Rush thing’s a fair cop, says Comeau, non-defensively, but explicable. It’s perhaps a product of the referential sense of humour the two of them share. “We quote things like [Will Ferrell comedy] Step Brothers or Dumb And Dumber, things from our childhood. So it’s no surprise that we use some of our favourite records or songs as touchstones too. Interfacing The Machine – the 11/8 section in Starlifter – started as a joke: what would happen if Steve Howe jammed with The Terminator?!”
Accordingly, there’s a little Yes alongside the Rush, as well as some Queen; Starlifter’s arpeggiated intro owes a debt to that of Father To Son, from Queen II, an album with the widescreen, cinematic dimension the pair, Comeau says, are reaching for.
“I always wanted to see what would happen if you did Brian May three-part ‘guitarmony’ with a Robert Fripp tone,” he says. “That throaty violin sound he got on King Crimson records like Red. That’s where you get to the lead breaks in [catchy, digestible rocker] Dreamer Of The Dawn and [Fearless’s closing, minor-key anthem] Citadel. Hopefully by combining two or three things you love, you create something new that might be exciting and might inspire the next wave of players.”
In these days of tech- and prog-metal, of post- and mathrock, left-field rock bands like this have plenty of genres to straddle. Polyphia’s guitarist Tim Henson recently coined the term ‘boomer bends’ to describe the traditional, expressive string bending used liberally by Hendrix, Page, May, Gilmour and so many other old-school greats. His flippant yet pithy term struck a divisive chord among players, causing debate/vitriol online among fans of ‘the old ways’ and those of 21st-century techie rock’s sleeker, slightly colder climes.
“Oh, the boomer bends are plentiful in our world!” Comeau says proudly. “That’s just where I come from, man. That’s the kind of music that really inspires me. Fripp, Adrian Belew, Brian May, David Gilmour, Alex Lifeson, Duane Allman – those are some of the guys I look to for tone and technique.
“As a kid discovering Crimson, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Genesis and Van der Graaf Generator, I was disappointed there wasn’t much of that orchestral lushness in the modern landscape,” Comeau continues. “Progressive music had shifted more to the technical, polyrhythmic world. Nothing wrong with that at all. But for me, from 1972 through to 1982 there was a really exciting production and writing style that still feels timeless.
"There are some really exciting bands out there – [Norwegian torch bearers] Wobbler are a great example – but we’re not seeing that music in the mainstream any more. It’s understandable, right? I still can’t believe that in 1972 Emerson, Lake & Palmer were the biggest band in the world! I don’t think we’ll see that again.”
“There’s a certain level of ‘mathiness’ that’s come in with more modern prog,” says Cody Bowles. “We love it, but it’s not what we want to create. We really love the older, more organic-sounding progressive rock of yore, so we channel that and ignore what’s happening around us, basically. With Rush, I’ve always appreciated that they’re very much progressive, but they’re not beating your head in with intense syncopated compound time signatures. They get really complex sometimes, but it always has this feeling of organic honesty that I really love. If we took no other inspiration from them, I would love to maintain that through our music.”
Lyrically, Crown Lands are world builders. Bowles is a huge fan of sci-fi (Dune, Star Wars). Comeau is into Stephen King and that down-home Chekhov, John Prine. Fearless isn’t a concept album, but Starlifter, Context and strident rocker Lady Of The Lake all stem from a fantastical mythos they’re constructing (aided by some jaw-dropping, big-budget videos).
“There’s The Syndicate,” Bowles explains, “a conglomerate of companies and people trying to extract resources from other solar systems, and colonising planets. The character Fearless lives on a planet that used to be this beautiful, Utopian society, until The Syndicate arrived, stripped its resources and left it in such a state that all life there was destroyed. So Fearless vowed to get revenge. And that’s where we’re at in the timeline at the end of Starlifter.” So far, so Avatar, and both stories have roots in our own real, rather fucked world.
Crown Lands’ concern for the indigenous people of Canada and their territories is well documented (and they’re no fans of the country’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau). The area from which they take their name was once owned by the Queen, and is now regulated by the Canadian government. Most of that land, Comeau explains, “is either old-growth forests now decimated by the logging industry, or it’s the oil sands out in Alberta, now broken up through fracking, or it’s indigenous reservations – the plots of land where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police rounded up the indigenous people on their own land and basically imprisoned them in order to build a railway system.”
Bowles’s ancestry lies in the First Nations Mi’kmaq people, and the song Citadel is an anthem for the Wet’suwet’en nation, in Western Canada.
“It’s about the water protectors out there,” he says.“They’ve been fighting the RCMP off their sovereign land for years now; they’re seen as criminals, and slandered in the news. I wanted to illustrate how those people protecting the lifeblood of our ecosystems are modern heroes – knights if you will, fighting for the good of our earth. Without clean water, what do we have?”
There’s more here, too, alongside the social/ eco-activism and fantastical tales. Bowles, now 27, studied psychology, and the stomping 80s rocker The Shadow deals with an element of Jungian theory.
“It’s a beckoning to look within and accept those parts of yourself you may feel uncomfortable with, and grow,” Bowles reasons. “Everyone’s got their things that they have to grapple with, and this song’s like a Trojan horse of a metal song saying: ‘Look within yourself. Do that work and it’ll help you in the end.’”
Three years ago, Bowles and Comeau had work of their own to do. As Crown Lands’ star ascended, the pressure got to them. They had spent too much time on the tour bus together, developed what Comeau calls ‘unhelpful coping mechanisms’, and fell out badly. They didn’t see each other for more than a year. With its deepish-cut chorus reference to Mahavishnu’s The Inner Mounting Flame, Crown Lands’ song Reflections is about how they knocked their own heads together, rekindled their friendship and got back to it. Both say the friendship is now stronger than ever.
Good thing, too. After that rapprochement came all this quality proggy activity, boomer bends an’ all. Their cover of The Beatles’ Come Together was adopted as the anthem for Canada’s football team in their shortlived campaign for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. A Bahrain prince has them on speed-dial. And to mark the release of Fearless they’ve been on tour across Canada. Things are going well.
Performing live, the pair make for an amazing spectacle. As was the case with Rush, you wonder how so few people can make so much noise. Singing drummers are a rare, treasured thing, and Bowles takes their place among the best of them. Comeau, with his custom double-neck guitar-bass, banks of keyboards and racks of effects, weaves the tapestry of their immense records. And, true to their influences (and echoing Queen’s early ‘No Synthesisers’ disclaimer), they don’t use backing ‘tapes’. They played the UK last May, but at time of writing there are no European dates in the diary.
“We’re working on it,” says Bowles. “International touring’s just through-the-roof expensive now. Freighting’s gone up a hundred per cent. But I love it across the pond. You’re quicker to understand what we’re about than in the States and Canada. We absolutely need to come back.”