Crown Lands Craft Gloriously Epic Retro Rock on 'White Buffalo'

Crown Lands Craft Gloriously Epic Retro Rock on 'White Buffalo'
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Crown Lands are really going for it. Formed in 2016, the Oshawa-based rock 'n' roll duo dutifully built up their profile with three EPs while touring in support of Jack White, Rival Sons and Coheed and Cambria. Then they made a big leap with their self-titled debut album in 2020, earning international press from Rolling Stone, the BBC and Guitar World. They were named the breakthrough group of the year at the 2021 Juno Awards.

So, it's been a rewarding few years for vocalist and drummer Cody Bowles and guitarist Kevin Comeau. On the rise to rock stardom, they've all the while used their voices for activism. In their songs and interviews, they've been outspoken about Indigenous issues, as well as anti-Semitism and gender identity (Bowles is Two-Spirit and half-Mi'kmaq, while Comeau is Jewish). Their band name itself is a political statement, referring to territories controlled by the Canadian government: "Crown land is stolen land and we are reclaiming it."

But it felt like the band was still coming into their own. Lyrically and publicly, they were advancing important subjects. "I don't play rock'n' roll to talk about rock 'n' roll, I play to talk about things that matter to me," Comeau has said. "I don't need any more 'hey mamas' in my life." But musically, it had all been done — you'd be forgiven if you had brushed them aside as another band of Led Zeppelin-worshipping retro rockers. Their Dave Cobb-produced debut is a big, solid slab of thunderously fuzzed-out blues rock, competing in a market already cornered these days by Greta Van Fleet. If Crown Lands wanted to avoid being seen as a knockoff of a knockoff, and do more than coast off a Spotify algorithm, they'd have to do something that set them apart from their fellow nostalgists. With White Buffalo, they've done that.

Crown Lands frequently described themselves as "the White Stripes covering Rush," but you'd have had to strain to hear the latter's influence. There have certainly been flickers of it in their music — most notably the first couple of songs on 2017's Rise Over Run EP — but it wasn't until recently that Crown Lands fully indulged in their Rush geekery. And boy, have they ever.

White Buffalo is considered an EP, but it's actually longer than Crown Lands' proper "album." There's your first clue that a prog rock band is now in session. It's not like you need any other clues: the recording begins with the five-minute instrumental "Inner Light," opening with traditional Indian sounds and chest-rattling synths before exploding into rock 'n' roll theatrics, evoking the cavernous, ping-ponging guitar work of the Edge and the pounding, swirling tom rolls of the late, great Neil Peart. Bowles and Comeau are gleefully pursuing their self-indulgent rock 'n' roll impulses, yet the songs aren't self-serving. Against all odds, they're gloriously epic.

"White Buffalo" is the third instalment in a trilogy of songs addressing Indigenous rights, following "Mountain" and "End of the Road." Bowles sings about a spirit of resilience: "And the sands of time will wash away the reign of the last empire / Standing tall we'll rise again / It's our time to take it back." With its thumping, riff-heavy verses, anthemic choruses, hippie-folk interludes and determined message, it feels a bit like "Carry on Wayward Son" reworked for a younger generation living on amid the horrors of history.

The electrified version of "The Witching Hour," first recorded for the band's acoustic EP Wayward Flyers Vol. 1, is huge, hooky and highly playable, channelling both the hypnotic psychedelia of Jefferson Airplane and the heavy-metal swagger of Guns N' Roses. The 13-minute epic "The Oracle" has Genesis-style keyboards, the devilish guitars of Black Sabbath (and a riff ripped straight from Wolfmother), the compositional complexities of Yes, and perhaps even a hint of the spiritual sounds of Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Of course, Crown Lands are mining the past in order to pave the way for their future. They've worked with producers Nick Raskulinecz, Terry Brown and David Bottrill, all of them one-time Rush collaborators. Bowles's huge, high-pitched voice evokes the likes of Robert Plant and Geddy Lee. Bowles and Comeau even look the part, their long, luscious brown hair blowing majestically in the wind and their vintage fashion culled from the streets of Haight-Ashbury and posters of Freddie Mercury. Crown Lands are making classic rock for a modern age — boomer music in a Gen Z world. But with the band's social conscience and their devotion to the power of the shamelessly epic, the music feels newer than it is. A cynic may be reluctant to admit it, but Crown Lands' White Buffalo is retro rock that's actually, legitimately exciting. (Spinefarm)