Tuesday 18 July 2023

Crown Lands - Fearless (2023)

Country: Canada
Style: Hard/Progressive Rock
Rating: 8/10
Release Date: 31 Mar 2023
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Here's a tasty album from a band I've only just heard about. They're Crown Lands, from Oshawa in Ontario, Canada, and there are only two of them. As I understand it, Cody Bowles is both the lead vocalist and the drummer, while Kevin Comeau handles everything else. I hate highlighting gender and ethnicity because the music should always matter most, but they highlight it themselves and I guess their non-traditional background for rock music fits my goal of deliberately aiming to review bands who aren't the usual four white dudes from London or New York, so I'll point out that Bowles is Two-Spirited Mi'kmaq and Comeau is Jewish.

However, I'm not hearing either of those backgrounds in the music, except for a few moments here and there that seem Native American influenced, like the flute section on the opening track, so I'll move on. What I heard immediately and emphatically is seventies Rush, back when they wrote epic science fiction-inspired tracks with vast power chords and highly progressive sections that became rock opera anthems. I also heard Bowles's high pitched vocals, which aren't quite as clean as Geddy Lee's but do much the same job.

In short, I heard 2112 and that impression was promptly doubled because the album opens with an eighteen minute epic, Starlifter: Fearless Pt. II, a strange choice not only because of its length but because Context: Fearless Pt. I arrives four tracks later, suggesting that I'm listening out of order. Like 2112, it's broken into easily delineated movements, potentially nine of them, two of which are instrumental, so it feels like different songs combining to tell a story.

It's also an obvious highlight, as indeed is the closer, Citadel, which may well be the most effortless classic here. That feels like an old faithful even on the first listen, as if we'd grown up listening to it but a few decades have passed since our last time through and hauling it out again reminds us how good it was. There's some of that feeling on the opener too, but less so; it's mostly in the rhythmic power chords that build sections. It's such a rich track, though, that it's easy to fall into it. I wonder if it'll be remembered in future years for a couple of passages more than the entire thing but I'm thinking not.

In between those two killer bookends are a half dozen other tracks that do sit in their shadow, but are still good nonetheless. Dreamer of the Dawn has the tough task of following Starlifter and it's fair to say that it suffers from that position but also manages to distinguish itself with a different flow. Similarly, Reflections gets lost in between Context: Fearless Pt. I, which is decent but not up to the high standards of its second part, and Penny, which is impossible to miss. Everything else on offer is some sort of hard/progressive rock hybrid, but this is a solo acoustic guitar interlude, with more time and complexity than we might expect. It's more like something off a John Fahey album than a Rush one, but it's gorgeous, lush and evocative.

Of these other songs, I'd call out The Shadow and Lady of the Lake, along with Penny, as highlights. The former is an awkward fit because Bowles doesn't aim quite as hard for a high pitch, so ends up changing the feel of the song. He reaches Geddy Lee's heights at moments, so Rush are never far away, but the register he uses for much of the song brings him down to a sort of Fastway vibe, very different indeed. The phrasing on Lady of the Lake, on the other hand, makes him often sound like Ozzy attempting to sing Geddy, albeit without a Birmingham accent. Bowles remains clear too.

All in all, this is a good album, maybe a great album, but there's a better one in them, I think. This is their second, after a self-titled debut in 2020, which I completely failed to notice, and I'm looking forward to their third and, if Rush are going to be the abiding template, their fourth, because that was when 2112 showed up. If we're comparing, then this would be their Fly by Night and, that's not the worst place to be. This band deserve to be huge. Let's see if they make it.

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