Greta Van Fleet's '70s Rock Cosplay Is Pretty Damn Sick on 'The Battle at Garden's Gate'
Published Apr 14, 2021Although it's never really been proven in any quantifiable way, a recent narrative has emerged that show business favours music that has been written and produced to favour the algorithms on streaming services. It's a fun little conspiracy theory for people who can't quite come to terms with the fact that no one likes their band, but even if it's true in some way, what's the big deal? When it comes to music recommendations, an algorithm is far better than any music writer. After all, computer servers aren't trying to get on the guestlist, buddy up with publicists or angle for key follow backs on Twitter. They're simply spying on you to give you exactly what you already want.
Being an algorithm band is one of many charges lodged against Greta Van Fleet, the pint-sized '70s rock revivalists from Michigan who've faced plenty of scrutiny since emerging with Anthem of the Peaceful Army, their much-loathed 2018 debut. To be fair, there's plenty to roast about Greta Van Fleet — their desperately retro logo uses the Stranger Things font, the songs aren't as immediately catchy as their stadium-ready aesthetic feels and frontman Josh Kiszka's shrieking '70s falsetto usually sounds like too direct of a Robert Plant ripoff, like the band is trying to perform as an awkward stand-in for Led Zeppelin in That '70s Show.
Criticizing Greta Van Fleet for aping Led Zeppelin can really only last for one album, however. Sure, The Battle at Garden's Gate is still packed with Josh's faux-Zep banshee yelps, and when he's not doing Hendrix "Purple Haze" chords, his guitarist brother Jake Kiszka digs into plenty of Jimmy Page-esque pentatonic solos on every song (along with drummer Danny Wagner, the band is rounded out by a third brother, bassist Sam Kiszka, which further cements the unspoken truth that these tiny rockers are lowkey adorable). Sure, the riffs sound like they were tailor-made for people who buy classic rock graphic tees at Old Navy. Who gives a shit? The current cool music is either nepotistic rich kids cosplaying as '90s indie rockers or legions of lanky kids with jagged haircuts cosplaying as the Fall or Joy Division or some minor variation in between. Rock music's in a weird place, and while the Lemon Twigs tried to split the difference and bring back the vintage tones of '70s music with similar compositions, they were still trying to play it cool. Greta Van Fleet's rock'n'roll dressup is almost freeing in how embarrassing it is at first — pure cornball earnestness that makes you feel like you're perpetually washing a muscle car on a Sunday afternoon while it's on. And it's pretty damn sick.
If anything, Anthem of the Peaceful Army didn't work as well because it was slightly timid, an awkward deer-in-headlights moment from a band who are far too mockable. Fortunately, with The Battle at Garden's Gate, they've earned more ground by delivering an album that's far more confident, earning the rock schlock with larger compositions that feel more grandiose.
The album opens with a near-perfect three-song run that demonstrate Greta Van Fleet close to the top of their potential. Opener "Heat Above" is perhaps the strongest example, a mid-tempo Houses of the Holy-esque strummer that pairs Josh's falsetto with beautiful acoustic guitars, tasteful timpani, stanky organs and angelic strings that become even more ethereal when joined by a ghostly vocal croon that can only be described as a Wayne's World dream sequence. "My Way, Soon" ups the tempo slightly, but still demonstrates GVF as masters of the mid-tempo rocker complete with plenty of pentatonic guitar runs. It's walking around music. "Broken Bells" is, it must be said, a carbon copy of the "Stairway to Heaven" model, building up to an epic solo after creating a vibe with mysterious clean riffing and a huge belt-out from Josh, who sounds like Big Bird getting his foot stepped on. But they squeak by and actually pull it off, in this humble reviewer's opinion. Either way, God bless them for trying.
After a while, the sameness starts to sink in as the band delivers a near comically accurate '70s rock impression over and over again, like they ground up your dad's first Columbia House order into a mulch and built a new CD out of the scraps. "Age of Machine," for example, does not warrant its seven-minute runtime. But there are still plenty of great moments, including some nice rhythmic triplets and a wailing guitar solo. Almost every seven-minute song in history is too long, but at least this one still rocks. Further, when they step out of the MOJO mojo, things get even worse, as on "Stardust Chords," where they ruin some nice Mellotron with theatrical yelping that almost sounds like what interpretive dance looks like.
Keep listening, though, and the sameness pays big rewards. "The Barbarians" nails the Mellotron rock with a pulsing and rhythmic belter and "The Weight of Dreams" is a perfectly complex closer, living up to its comically stonerish deep thought of a title. Then there's "Light My Love," which is hands down the very best song this band has done. The track opens with some nice Band-esque piano but proves to be something of a fake out as the band kick into a swinging rock-ballad. The arrangement is ornate, Josh's croon sits perfectly on the track and it's just, well, an incredibly pleasant listening experience. The song fires on all cylinders and really serves as something of an authenticity test for listeners. Do you really hate this band, or are you worried that you won't seem cool if you admit they're good?
We've been living through the dark ages of rock music, and for good reason — the genre has been wrung out, with every last bit of vitality poured down the drain. Presented as the next great hope for the genre, Greta Van Fleet were bound to be mocked. But as three brothers from Michigan making delightfully strummy mid-tempo guitar solo music, they're really not hurting anyone. In fact, if you can pull yourself away from yet another band that sounds like Public Image Ltd. for a second, you just might realize how great they can be. (Universal)