The blossoming Canadian act Crown Lands are no longer the big fish in a small pond. They may not be headlining shows at Massey Hall just yet, but the acclaim received after their Juno win in 2021 assuredly gained them a wider audience for their specific brand of classic rock and progressive music. That is to say, you may have heard of these Canucks before. They are certainly no strangers here at EIN, and their follow up to last year’s White Buffalo EP is primed to make even bigger waves when it is released later this month.
As the needle tracks its way across the vinyl upon your first listen of the Oshawa native’s sophomore release – aptly titled Fearless for a number of reasons we will touch on later – you might find yourself with a growing sense of familiarity, like a brand new pair of winter boots that somehow already feel broken in or a toque that fits just right. The aural palette is swathed colours of rock and prog classics in equal measure, welcoming the listener in a comfortably nostalgic way. Each track offers echoes of the giants this talented pair stand on the shoulders of, from Genesis and Zepplin to… well, I’ll get back to that a little later.
What brings this all together is the dynamic virtuosity of Kevin Comeau’s multi-instrumental additions and the absolute killer vocal performance from Cody Bowles while still managing a vibrant and technically impressive showing behind the kit. The guitar is pitch perfect, the synths are classically tinged, and there is a real balance of instrumentation that lets all the elements shine. Cody and Kevin are clearly comfortable with each other’s musical approach, and their joy is reflected in their performances.
The melodies on offer here are all spot on, with even the less memorable tracks having a fair hook to them. The pair manage to take their technical prowess and musical complexity to a place that is highly approachable and easily digestible. It’s the type of musical integrity that another group from the Great White North were also well known for.
Perhaps it’s time we talked about the elephant in the room.
IT SURE DOES SOUNDS LIKE RUSH, EH
…and it truly does sound a lot like Rush, but there is good reason for that. The roots of the Fearless concept were born in early 2021, pre Juno nomination, when Cody and Kevin worked with early-career Rush producer Terry Brown to demo “Context: Pt 1”. Until this point the group had been focusing on more traditional rock song writing with simple structures and catchy choruses. For this new endeavour, they really wanted to let their prog flag fly and dig into something bigger, more grandiose, delving into a genre they clearly admire but never had the chance to explore in any deeper capacity.
This story does not end there, though. After working with Brown, they finalized production with another Rush alumni, Nick Raskulinecz, to round out this and their accompanying track “Right Way Back”. The latter found its voice as a tribute to Neil after his unfortunate passing the year prior, Cody even having the chance to use the kit that Peart graced during the Snakes and Arrows tour. These tracks were clearly cultivated with the core of their inspiration as both seed and winnower. Now, the astute reader might have caught on that these two previously released singles are listed partway through the tracking for Fearless proper, which only further cements the intent for the record’s musical direction.
When you first drop that needle you are immediately greeted with an 18-minute opus, acting as a direct follow-up to the lyrical and musical motifs from “Context”. It is a bold statement, delivered with unapologetic confidence. “Starlifter: Fearless Pt II” is perhaps the most non-Rush Rush song to ever exist, primarily picking up from the 2112 and Hemispheres days. The former in particular feels heavily present in the structure and stylings of the opening track, with parallels to the shrieking priests of Syrinx and even a “Lessons”-style reprieve. This persists within the naming convention as well, seemingly a counterpoint to the “Fear” series of tracks spread from 1984–2002. The similarity here is far from surface level, showing a true love of the music it pays homage to while trying to pave its own path.
It’s that final statement I want to linger on a bit more though, as up until now I have been mostly talking about how the pair has been leaning into their influences and not on how they’ve been crafting their own voice amidst this journey. Truthfully this was a fear (pun intended) of mine going into the record following the release of “Starlifter” as the main album single. I am no small fan of the storied career from the Toronto-based band, but the steps Cody and Kevin took on White Buffalo to honor their lyrical intent and inject progressive elements in a way that felt unique to them seemed much less at the forefront of what this full-length release had in store.
Hitting the deeper cuts of the album assuages some of those anxieties, but there isn’t quite as healthy a balance as I was hoping for. Keeping on the topic of Rush, this wheel keeps on spinning: “Reflections” reflects the guitar tone and staccato chords of “Red Barchetta”, “Penny” has instrumental acoustic hints of “Hope” (perhaps a bit of John Butler too), and “Dreamer of the Dawn” had me relistening to “Entre Nous” to see if they copied the intro beat for beat – they did not. “The Shadow” had a bit more of a Triumph vibe, but that’s essentially calling water wet if you’re familiar with Canadian music in the eighties. Admittedly, this is a relatively unoccupied space sonically, especially considering the vacancy left by the retired Canadian monoliths themselves having released their last record over a decade ago now.
Nevertheless, the heart of the band that shone true on their previous EP can still be found among the pervasive sound of homage that fills much of this record – the earnest melodies on “Citadel”, Cody’s sharp vocals on “The Shadow”, and most prominently in the shape of their recent single, “Lady of the Lake”. The latter is the closest we get to seeing this incredibly talented pair forge their own way forward, playing with a level of confidence that I was craving for just a little bit more of. What we got in full was still excellent, though, likely a very intentional choice from the duo. I only hope that having this moment to embrace this sound with such unabashed fervor grants them the freedom to dig deeper into what makes their own brand of music so special in future projects.
THERE IS MORE HERE THAN YOU HEAR, DONTCHA KNOW
The pair have always been fairly outspoken about the thematic content behind their music, both being impacted in some ways by major sociopolitical historical events. It is no surprise, then, that they would use their platform to express something meaningful that would resonate with those who faced similar challenges, their Indigenous inspired lyrical content in particular being a well-worn topic of discussion. It’s right there in their name, Crown Lands, after all (a term for territory belonging to the monarch and taken from the Indigenous people of the land, for the non-Canadian readers). Perhaps not relevant to this review, but for the uninitiated, it is worth your time to look at “End of the Road” and the haunting meaning behind the lyrics.
This continues to be at the forefront of their continued work, Cody expressing on the topic of “Starlifter”: ‘These are themes that may sound like a mere fantastic tale to some, but we wanted to marry sci-fi elements with very real issues Indigenous people have gone through time and time again. I guess that would be called Indigenous futurism. I have always loved songs that give you more the more you lean into them, and there is a deeper meaning to this story if you look for it.’
I used the word grandiose before, but little else fits as a description for the framing of the main duology of songs. Being a direct narrative continuation of “The Oracle” from White Buffalo, it follows the titular hero, Fearless, over hundreds of years as he ‘stands against the colonization of outer space and the decimation of his people to reclaim what was stolen by capitalistic greed and bloodshed (source).’ It’s loud, it’s complex, and it’s unabashedly cheesy in all the best ways. The one reprieve from this being the touching instrumental tribute to Kevin’s grandmother in “Penny”.
Much the same, the amazing artwork by James Livitski manages to capture that exact feeling. It is equal parts homage to the likes of Yes and the The Flower Kings‘ early records, Roger Dean’s art in particular, but more in the sense of how we remember it than it actually is. James managed to gives us the feeling of the classics while having a distinct look all its own, one that is primed to pop on the vinyl sleeve. Not to belabour the point, but in some ways the music itself left me wishing it took a similar approach.
A WHEEL THAT KEEPS ON SPINNING
I touched earlier on the fact that two tracks were produced with the support of two Rush alumni. You can add a third name to that list in David Bottrill (Rush, Muse, Tool, Mastodon), who helped polish up the duo’s sophomore release over the course of the six-month period in which the record came to life. The benefit to having this level of experience behind the mixer is evident in nearly every moment on the record. The sound stage is vast and thoroughly used in each and every track, the space between the instrumentation and additional flourishes giving the classic tone a truly modern feel. The result is something simply easy to listen to, all while retaining a level of depth that will appeal to the vinyl collectors in the audience.
In fact, the only minor non-glowing comment I have about the production of the record is in the way the tracks were laid out. Some of this might have to do with the fact that two of these tracks were written earlier than the rest, but there is a bit of a disconnect between the consistent tone of “Dreamer of the Dawn” and “The Shadow” as they transition into “Right Way Back”, a song that in and of itself is more akin to their previous rock-oriented tracks like “Leadfoot”. Following “Context: Pt I” is a similar disconnect moving into “Reflections”. From there it is smooth sailing through those final moments of “Citadel” while the album finds its appropriately epic finale. It’s hardly a remarkable blemish, but one that made the whole feel just a touch less cohesive.
However, I don’t want to diminish the true achievement this record is. Crown Lands are just revving up and this album is a clear proclamation of intent. It shows a shedding of the fear that previously shackled their debut release. You could even call it ‘fearless’, but I digress. In the context of their current body of work, it is an outstanding collection of music that elevates the band from a solid up-and-coming rock act to the forefront of the ‘classic prog’ world. In a sphere dominated by a pantheon of aging legacy acts, this Canadian duo shows that there is still room in the modern progressive landscape for this style of classic prog music.
While Fearless may not have been the monolithic masterwork that my personal sky-high expectations were hoping for, this moonshot lands comfortably among the same stars its protagonist ventures through. It injects life into an aging style of music so often focused on the past, while honoring that very same history. My only wish is that decades from now we look back at this release of theirs as an earnest, and mostly singular, homage to the music they love and that the shape of the rest of their catalogue is more an exploration of the unique offerings they have already proven they can create. Until then, I am happy to let what will undoubtably be one of the progressive highlights come year-end keep on spinning.