Crown Lands Are 'Fearless' as Ever in Expanding Their Progressive Rock Ambition
Cody Bowles and Kevin Comeau talk the feelings, flams and fretwork of going whole hog into prog
Published Mar 31, 2023Cody Bowles and Kevin Comeau affirm that walking the path to progressive rock preeminence was always their plan. As Crown Lands, the duo first gained a foothold in the Canadian rock landscape with a spirited meld of blues, folk and psych styles, shaped by the genre's modern players and past masters alike.
A perceptible prog influence was always there, though, felt in the keyboard textures of 2017's Dave Cobb-produced EP Rise Over Run, the Roger Dean-esque fantasy landscape that covers 2020's Wayward Flyers Vol. 1, and the well-reported love of the homegrown power trio at the core of their friendship and musical partnership: Rush.
Months after celebrating the 45th anniversary of Rush's A Farewell to Kings with Bowles and Comeau, it's fitting I speak with them at a landmark for Rush obsessives in Massey Hall, the venue at which Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and the late Neil Peart cut their acclaimed 1976 double live album All the World's a Stage.
While the trio wrote in that album's liner notes how the performance signalled "the close of chapter one, in the annals of Rush," Crown Lands' performance at the venue — the second of a two-night stand supporting July Talk — feels as if a new chapter in Canada's progressive music history is being authored in the moment on the strength of material from Fearless, the duo's new album out now via Spinefarm/Universal.
On their sophomore LP, drummer-vocalist Bowles and guitarist-keyboardist Comeau lean into prog persuasion harder than ever, mining the style's past from the present to sonically illustrate future-set sci-fi songwriting that remains applicable to our day-to-day — and that's just the album's 18-minute opening opus. Across the remaining eight tracks, the two flash their continually sharpened pop chops, improved instrumentalism and driven arrangements, and tease at other sonic worlds they've explored. It's a musical undertaking rooted in their love of the genre's vaunted glory days.
"What I really like about that specific flavour, or era, of prog is how organic it still feels; how it still feels live in a room, but also feels like there's heart in it, you know?" Bowles expresses, invoking the core memory of watching their drummer father fastidiously keep time through each movement of Rush's "2112" on the kit at home. "A lot of the more modern technical stuff, it's incredible. But sometimes, it feels like that heart is missing, or it's over-produced. That element of the music is this almost unquantifiable thing, but it's something that I strive for in our music — it's inspiring."
"It's not just in the writing and arranging, but it's the production and the engineering of the records where I think a lot of modern music that leans more technical and progressive all sounds like it's very right here," Comeau opines, raising his hand millimetres from his face to illustrate how clean and compressed modernity can sound. "And that's the cost of having recorded music in 2023, where most of the time you have to program drums on your computer, and record guitar using neural DSP plug-ins. It's like the classic, 'It sounds just as good! It feels just as good, right?' It does, until you stick a couple of mics in a room with a real [Leslie rotating speaker], or you mic up a drum kit where everything's bleeding into each other. There's just nothing like it."
Descending into the depths of Massey Hall, I find my way to Crown Lands' dressing room, which, post-renovation, is likely a lot nicer than the quarters Rush had in 1976. Arriving with Comeau and management, we meet Bowles and crew inside, and the mood is light through some CD signing, talks of last night's set and cross-country shipping logistics for precious, decades-old gear.
I knock back a Fiery Ginger orange juice shot on offer from Bowles, wisely taking their suggestion considering the vocal heights heard on Fearless. As we settle in, the artist — a reconnecting Mi'kmaq Two Spirit — studies a prismatic self-portrait of Buffy Sainte-Marie on the dressing room wall: "I'm glad she's here with us today."
Soon enough, the conversation turns toward the course of that aforementioned prog rock master plan. "I think that was where we started really started to push those prog tendencies," Comeau shares of Rise over Run. "That's the first time we hear [7/8 time] in Crown Lands music. That's the first time Cody let me go a little overboard with keyboard overdubs, and that was when I started kind of pushing myself, not just as a writer but as an arranger of the music."
Comeau connects the early EP to Crown Lands' greater harnessing of their progressive power on both Fearless and 2021's White Buffalo, revealing, "With that record, we had already written a really early version of 'Context' and 'The Oracle,' which are obviously two of our most important songs in our identity as a prog band. And Dave Cobb was like this, 'This is cool,' but it wasn't something he was into. But he's also like, 'Does this belong on a debut record?'"
Bowles characterizes the decision to keep the progressive tendencies at bay earlier on as an intentional one — an ace up the flowy, sheer sleeve of their sequinned catsuit. They recall, "When we first were on the scene, we wanted to get attention — from labels and management and whoever. And we felt like the way to do that was to be more accessible, and to play more blues-leaning material. But we always had the bug of wanting to play prog."
These days, attention to Crown Lands' prog power is in no short supply. During our chat, July Talk's Peter Dreimanis pops his head in the door with praise and to share how enthralled last night's crowd was with their performance of "Sun Dance" from his vantage point stageside. Throughout the afternoon, producer David Bottrill, band management, crew and photographers come and go as the clock ticks down to show time. Generous with their time and space are Bowles and Comeau, who won honours for Breakthrough Group of the Year at the 2021 JUNO Awards, where they were also nominated for Rock Album of the Year.
Of those other sonic worlds, "We took a bit of a detour on the self-titled record, because when we got signed to Universal, we went in and we wrote 40 songs for that record," Comeau reveals of the nominated effort, which they ultimately trimmed to seven tracks. "There were all these different directions we were going in — like funk, R&B, punk stuff, more metal-leaning stuff, more sludge."
Identifying progressive rock as "the most unifying" genre they share a mutual interest in, Comeau reflects on how he and Bowles briefly dabbled in "really extended progressive music" playing together in a prior band, noting, "Our ambitions were always further than our actual technical ability, and they still are, but at that point it was very pronounced. With Crown Lands, we made a conscious decision to strip everything back to something we could tour in a small vehicle as well. We couldn't afford a van and a trailer, or a crew, so we had to make sure that we could be able to actually tour with just the two of us."
He adds, wryly, "That didn't last too long, because I just kept buying more and more shit."
Later that afternoon, management walks me through the maze of corridors to the venue's backstage area, and we step over cables to the stagefront in the hallowed hall as Crown Lands begin soundcheck. Comeau's live rig of amplifier heads, cabinets, an Oberheim OB-6 synthesizer and a Moog Taurus pedal synth — which he told me earlier he's pared down — look like they'd only just fit in an Econoline, and I jog my memory to determine if Bowles's drum kit has grown a few pieces since I last saw it.
The two are about to blast off into Fearless's 18-minute opener "Starlifter: Fearless Pt. II," easily the most ambitious of the longer, multi-movement compositions it shares a narrative throughline with. Its one thing to watch the two perform the song from myriad professionally shot angles online, but it's an entirely different experience witnessed live. "We've always tried to have it as close to a stadium show [as possible], even when we're playing to five people in dive bars in Halifax," Comeau shares of their live setup, as Bowles adds, "Just for consistency, and because we live for the art of it."
To quote Paul Rudd in 2009's I Love You, Man — a work influential to a wider cultural reappraisal of Crown Lands' heroes — "Starlifter" is the most "Rushified" recording on Fearless, imbued with the musical and storytelling scope of mid-to-late '70s masterpieces like A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres, with traces of the futurism found in the lyrics of 1984's Grace Under Pressure. Picking up where "The Oracle" left off, the nine-part juggernaut finds the protagonist, named Fearless, facing the destructive capitalist pillaging of the Syndicate, colonizing worlds and literally locking away stars. "I've returned, beyond the realms of light," Bowles proclaims in the song's "Overture" section, surveying "a tarnished world devoid of life" to find "a vast machine has caged our dying sun."
Teasing Fearless upon closing our 2022 interview, Bowles and Comeau respectively spoke of Peart-inspired drumming and vocals in the "Geddysphere," and a Moving Pictures level of instrumental fidelity. As truthful as they were, and in spite of such proudly-worn influence, "Starlifter" burns brightly as a lodestar for the duo's own progressive passion, and much less a suite Rush would write. Outside their obsession with the power trio, Comeau points to a the "chiming 12-string" playing of a pair of Heartbreakers in Tom Petty and Mike Campbell, the economic, evocative solo style of David Gilmour and the sonic explorations of the Cult's Billy Duffy in charting his galaxy of guitar influence, while Bowles shares all that they'll learn taking fusion drumming lessons will soon be in orbit with their prior studies of West African and Afro Cuban rhythm.
There will undoubtedly be detractors who continue to write the duo off as nostalgic novelty; a similar treatment given to their recent tourmates Greta Van Fleet, the piled-upon retro rockers who only just began to shake themselves of the "Led Zeppelin clone" label with 2021's The Battle at Garden's Gate. Unlike that outfit's mashup-ready rock titan worship, Crown Lands' performances on Fearless evoke Rush's animating musical principles more than the trio themselves. Over four decades on from Geddy Lee singing, "Catch the spirit," Crown Lands have reached out and seized it. "Gloriously epic" it remains.
Asked about the intricacies of writing and arranging at longer forms, Crown Lands illustrate a process built upon foundational jam sessions within Chalet Studios in Uxbridge, ON, at which they're equipped with a whiteboard, laptop, and fingers at the ready to hit "record" when inspiration strikes. Comeau points to the sixth movement of "Starlifter" — an instrumental section dubbed "Interfacing the Machine," in which an synth sequence undergirds the guitarist's mood-setting suspended chords and drummer's exacting fills — as a piece of the prog puzzle established through finding his way around the knobs the day he brought the Oberheim unit home, ultimately eliciting more of a King Crimson feel than that of anyone from Canada.
"My greatest critic is Cody's eyebrows," Comeau jokes. "They go up a certain way when Cody's face lights up; that's when I know I have a hit. And that always happens whenever I play those these big [suspended] chords that sound like the beginning of 'Siberian Khatru' [by Yes]. ... Those parallel fourths, you hear in a lot of Celtic music and Chinese folk music; that kind of chord voicing spans cultures and generations. I use those over 'Interfacing the Machine,' because I always wanted to hear what would happen if Steve Howe jammed with the Terminator."
Photo: Stephen McGill
What did it take for Crown Lands to ascend to a higher progressive plateau? For Bowles, it meant enrolling in formal voice training for the first time in their life. After sharing with me earlier how they did not set out to be a singer, and were entirely self-taught up until the pandemic hit, they say of their lessons, "It's changed the way I look at singing. And it's changed the way I approach everything to do with even taking breath properly, and how that related to proper vocal placement, what I eat and drink — how all that stuff is so interconnected."
Of their goals for instruction, Bowles reflects, "It was more for longevity on tour. Now, with a lot of those 'money notes' you hear onstage, they're not sung really hard — just done with a specific technique. I can sing them again and again, and it doesn't tire me out like it used to." They explain how a need to hit the highs also had them consider postural adjustments on the drum throne for a less restricted diaphragm. "It's something I've become really nerdy about. I think I sing way, way better than even a year ago. Every day, there are new breakthroughs."
You hear this personal progression across Fearless, beginning with "Departure," the brief yet impactful fourth movement of "Starlifter" in which a time signature change suddenly places Bowles's upper register front and centre alongside a similarly demanding drum pattern. Onstage that night, Bowles approached the 'money note,' cut the cheque and cashed it with aplomb. In the hours leading up to their performance, I watch (and hear) Bowles work through a thorough, guided warmup routine to keep their vocal cords limber, with further clarity achieved through use of a holy triumvirate of health devices: a portable nebulizer, facial steamer, and the tried and true Neti Pot.
Elsewhere, the leap forward is felt in the soaring clarity of choruses within "Dreamer of the Dawn" and "Lady of the Lake," a palpable lean into R&B boldness on "The Shadow" — a co-write with Bottrill, who also lends bass guitar — and the pathos permeating emotional closer "Citadel," an anthemic, anti-colonial dedication to land defenders in which the Earth is a stronghold they fight to free from harm. As Bowles exclaims with feeling to close "The Shadow," "Yeah I feel it stronger now than I've ever known."
Bowles's breathwork also extends to their use of Native American woodwinds, prominently heard in the fifth movement of "Starlifter," dubbed "The Journey." After hitting their wind chimes in tandem with Comeau letting a guitar chord ring out, Bowles blows a solemn melody on a flute handcrafted by Charlie Mato-Toyela of Alabama's Blue Bear Flutes to set a trek "through vast oceans of space" into motion.
After first meeting Mato-Toyela while on tour in the US with Mongolian folk metallers the Hu, Bowles was later sent an assorted collection of flutes by the craftsman they've taken to learning to play via YouTube, in addition to other woodwinds sought out from Armenia, Egypt and India. They also speak of a bo staff-sized flute of unknown origin with some degree of transportive quality: "I love taking that thing on walks in the woods and just pulling up beside a river and playing — it's amazing."
Photo: Stephen McGill
For Comeau's part, he and Alberta-based luthier Brock Stoyko took to designing a double-neck guitar better suited to his stage moves. Though he appeared very much in control the entire evening onstage at Massey Hall, Comeau's need to flip between six-string and four-string necks, cast a downward glance to toe the right Taurus pedal, and play his synths relatively unobstructed called for a rethink of instrument weight and distribution.
"I don't shudder before I need to strap up, which is huge," he shares of the custom build, delving into further considerations given to the angle the necks are pitched at, how the instrument body is chambered to sit evenly while slung around him, and delectable gearhead details like the ebony fretboard and its maple-bound cocobolo inlays.
"This double-neck is designed specifically so everything's exactly where it needs to be — less thinking and more doing," he shares. Noting how the Rickenbacker he brought to jam with Alex Lifeson weighed in at about 15 pounds — and likening its larger, more unwieldy form to the two-headed B.C. Rich Bich played by Harry Shearer's Derek Smalls in This Is Spinal Tap — he reflects with a laugh, "It definitely felt like strapping on a piece of artillery."
Not only have Crown Lands found the "Right Way Back" into action as touring ramps up following pandemic dormancy, it feels whatever musical path the duo choose to explore after having their rise deferred will be trodden fearlessly, with the goal of bringing themselves closer to their art.
"There's that saying, 'You have a lifetime to write your first record, and then you have a month to write the next one,' and truly, we got kind of lucky with COVID," Comeau says, explaining how a world without touring allowed them to hole up at Chalet — a recording space that hosted Rush for work on studio albums 13 through 16. "That was where we kind of honed our craft, wrote a lot of White Buffalo and Fearless, and we became much better musicians. It all came together there. I don't think we would have had the time or energy to make music of that calibre if we were grinding it out in the road."
The similarly studious Bowles, after telling me earlier how they wish to never stop advancing their musical education, agrees: "It's honestly so nice to get better at your craft, even when you've put in so much and you work so much on your live stuff. It's a whole other thing to just practice for the sake of practicing and improving as a musician."