Greta Van Fleet Are Not the Saviors of Rock Music
But if you're not a very discerning Led Zeppelin fan, they might be up your alley.
Anthem of the Peaceful Army
Greta van Fleet
19 October 2018
Greta Van Fleet have been making headlines here and there since 2017 when they released a pair of EP's that announced their presence. But unless you're an avid reader of Rolling Stone or your Facebook and Twitter feeds are populated by classic rock fans, you may have missed the buzz. The band has popped up more than a couple of times over the past few months on my personal Facebook feed, where fans of 1960s and 1970s rock breathlessly gushed about how this band is bringing real rock and roll back, usually with a live clip attached.
So if you've missed out on all of that, here's the scoop. Greta Van Fleet is a quartet out of Frankenmuth, Michigan (otherwise famous for enormous, family-style chicken restaurants, Bavarian-inspired architecture, and one of the world's biggest Christmas stores), consisting of three brothers Josh (vocals), Jake (guitars), and Sam (bass and keyboards) Kiszka, and friend Danny Wagner on drums. They are, indeed, bringing real rock and roll back, if you define "real rock and roll" as "a bunch of kids trying their damnedest to imitate Led Zeppelin".
We're on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the release of Led Zeppelin I, which normally would seem plenty long enough for a band that's inspired by that sound to feel reasonably fresh. But here's the thing. Even though Led Zeppelin was finished after the death of Jon Bonham in 1980, they've never really gone away. The band defines classic rock, and in particular classic rock radio. In the 1990s, when swing music had its brief revival, it was a novelty. Modern audiences at the time didn't know a lot of big band tunes, because it had mostly left the airwaves. Led Zeppelin has never left the airwaves. Sure, a lot of younger listeners raised on hip-hop and EDM may find Greta Van Fleet to be just as much of a novelty as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy was in the 1990s, but for most of us, their sound is extremely familiar.
So is their official debut album, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, a worthwhile endeavor? No, not really. It's hit and miss, with the majority of the album landing on the "miss" side of the column. Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant, among others, has compared Greta Van Fleet's sound to Led Zeppelin I. This is true only if you're willing to ignore the blues and folk influences that underpin Zeppelin's sound on that album. Greta Van Fleet certainly do.
Anthem of the Peaceful Army opens with the six-minute "Age of Man", a midtempo rocker that begins with some tinny synth strings and a synth flute, and Josh Kiszka's pinched, Plant-like high register vocals. Soon enough, a crunchy riff and some solid rhythm section rumble come in to give the song a groove, and Josh comes back in with a first verse that begins "to wander lands of ice and snow". Yes, really. We kick things off with a blatant lyrical reference to "Immigrant Song". Sigh. The song rolls along like this for the next five minutes. It's a decent groove but isn't at all that memorable, which means it's essentially a showcase for Josh's Robert Plant impression. And it's a solid, if a bit grating, impression of Plant's upper register howl, although in Josh's hands it sounds more like a screech.
That is a problem. Even on the very first song of the first Led Zeppelin album, the great "Good Times Bad Times", Plant was showing off his vocal range. His howl may be iconic, but there is and was a lot more to his voice. Josh Kiszka doesn't seem to realize this, because for the bulk of Anthem of the Peaceful Army he is in full screech mode. Not only is this exhausting for the listener, but it also quickly begins to sound like a put-on, like this is not his natural singing voice.
Speaking of "Good Times Bad Times", Peaceful Army's second track, "The Cold Wind", clearly uses that song as inspiration. But instead of doing something interesting with it, the song just kind of lays there, sounding like an inferior ripoff. It isn't until third song and first single, "When the Curtain Falls" that Greta Van Fleet manages to make a memorable song of their own. This was a good choice for a single, because it has a catchy, memorable chorus, and Josh's vocals fit the song quite well. Sam and Danny prove their worth as a rhythm section on this track, with a solid beat and some great walking basslines. It even contains a nice bridge and a good guitar solo from Jake. Of course, it ends with Josh saying "Goodbye, baby / Goodbye!" in a really odd manner, which just reminded me of murderer Robert Durst's famous "Bye bye!" in HBO's documentary The Jinx.
If more of this album had been like "When the Curtain Falls", it would be a lot more successful. But for now, Greta van Fleet seems mostly happy to ape the sound of Led Zeppelin without working too hard on their own songwriting. So we get a lot of songs that superficially sound like classic hard rock but aren't at all memorable. Take track five, "Lover, Leaver". It's a hard rock march that stops cold to let Josh soar in the chorus, howling "Loooooo-ver / Leeeeeeav-er / Taaak-er / Belieeeev-er." By all rights, this should be a noticeable, memorable thing. But it's so Led Zeppelin 101 that it took until my fourth time through the album to notice that the final track on the album, "Lover, Leaver (Taker, Believer)" is an alternate, extended take of the same song. Without a solid songwriting foundation, Greta Van Fleet's hard rock riffs all just blur together.
But hard rock isn't the only thing Greta Van Fleet tries out on the album. They also let Jake break out his acoustic guitar a few times, and one time Danny Wagner uses some bongos. While it's true that the band almost entirely ignore the blues, they are ostensibly playing some folk in these tracks, but not really. This is essentially rock on acoustic guitars. "You're the One" features some shakers and organ, and a bit of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young harmonies on the chorus, but Wagner keeps on doing the same kind of hard rock fills on his drums throughout the song, and Josh doesn't really stop the howling enough to use a more natural singing voice. "The New Day" is more of the same, except its chorus has a solid melody and an even better post-chorus.
We can't finish discussing the acoustic songs, though, without devoting some space to "Anthem". It's the de facto title track and the would-be album closer (if the band hadn't decided that we all NEEDED to hear them take a second run at "Lover, Leaver"), and it's embarrassing. This is the one where Wagner uses bongos, and Jake plays a bit of electric slide guitar in addition to the acoustic strumming. The song itself is actually kind of catchy until the lyrics start to snap into focus. Lyrics are not the strong suit of the band at this point, but "Anthem" is first-rate pabulum. "Just you and me / Can agree to disagree / That the world is only what the world is made of" is the song's mantra, repeated ad nauseum.
This is some reductive hippie bullshit, an idea so devoid of understanding of the issues creating the western world's current level of polarization that it's insulting. And I'm giving the guys in Greta Van Fleet some credit here because I'm assuming that they are young and not paying all that much attention to the state of the outside world and that this is coming from a place of ignorance. The cynical reading of "Anthem" is that Greta Van Fleet is well aware that a sizable portion of their audience may be more conservative classic rock fans and so they penned as generic and inoffensive a "let's all get along" song as possible with the specific intention of not alienating a portion of their audience by taking a stand about something.
For those keeping track of the hits and misses, Anthem of the Peaceful Army has a handful of truly memorable moments. "When the Curtain Falls" and "The New Day" are genuine hits. Then there's "Anthem", which is memorable for all the wrong reasons, and that "ice and snow" reference in "Age of Man", which is too on the nose even for this way-too on the nose band. The rest of the record is a Zeppeliny hard rock mush, the kind that happens with young people that love a thing too much haven't yet put in enough work to truly make something their own.
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