Greta Van Fleet Play Rock ‘n’ Roll Time Travelers on Debut Album ‘Anthem of the Peaceful Army’
Rock ‘n’ Roll is a genre description that has ceased to mean very much, as it has come, over the years, to connote so many disparate styles. There was a moment in the ‘70s when blues-derived dance music started to take a path of its own, as bands like Led Zeppelin steered it to new ends, with an approach that favored distortion and intensity to groove and swing. Theatricality, showmanship, and technical prowess all reached dizzying heights, and the music took on an unprecedented edge. The sound inspired millions of bands to venture further, create their own niches, and forge the staggering multitude of styles that fall under the “rock” banner today. Frankenmuth, Michigan’s Greta Van Fleet consists of the brothers Kiszka — John on vocals, Jake on guitar, and Sam on bass — as well as drummer Danny Wagner. The band recaptures the spirit of that special coming-of-age era in rock ‘n’ roll history, and does it with such prowess that their catapult to fame is no surprise. Their first single, “Highway Tune,” was released only last year, and made heads spin worldwide, as it tapped into a feeling long disappeared from the collective consciousness. Now, the group has released its debut album, “Anthem of the Peaceful Army,” and it’s a consummate channeling of the classic rock spirit.
Opener “Age of Man” sounds as epic as you would expect from the title. There’s a powerful, propulsive guitar riff that puts it finger right on the era when the seeds of metal were being planted in aggressive takes on the blues. Singer John Kiszka channels Robert Plant immediately. It’s a mystery where this style of prepubescent screeching and howling ever came from in the first place. Regardless, it’s been ages since we’ve heard anything close to it in popular music. Kisza also comes across here sounding a bit like Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick. “The Cold Wind” sounds even more like Zeppelin, and also like ACDC at moments. The guitar work is deliciously both loose and intricate, a quality that stands out even more on the next track, “When the Curtain Falls.” There’s a sky-reaching, earth shattering shriek midway that’s emblematic of exactly how ridiculous this music is in its spectacular excess. “Watching Over,” too, has especially impressive vocal acrobatics toward the end of the song, delving into classic heavy metal circus fare.
“Lover, Leaver” has a biker-blues main riff, and escalates into total mayhem by the end of the track. Drummer Danny Wagner stands out on this track, throwing in plenty of fills that effectively harness the energy of the song. These are expert musicians who play in such effortless concert that everything is seamless and fluid. Until this point, the songs have grown steadily more aggressive, but suddenly, “You’re the One” takes a hefty step back, with an acoustic guitar backdrop, Allman Brothers- style guitar licks, organ fills, and a sentimental, sing-along chorus, reminiscent of The Band. There’s a mellow, vaguely Southern rock feel to the track — something of a Skinnard vibe — providing a well-due moment of respite from all the crazed rock theatrics that preceded. “The New Day” picks up neatly from here, easing the listener back, ever so slightly, toward the edge. There’s an acoustic guitar template again, but with propulsive strumming that functions to make the song more of a jam. Over the subdued instrumental, John Kisza’s singing can come across as a bit awkward, as he sticks to his usual dry-lung squealing. Imagine death metal growling over smooth jazz, then imagine things being only about half as absurd, and you’ll get the idea. On the other hand, why not? After all, this song ends up a total banger, as it has an explosive chorus that hits in a moment of such catharsis that it might be one of the album’s most memorable moments.
The blues are a concept so many levels removed from modern rock music that when they make their way in, it’s usually in so diluted and adulterated of a form that they’re barely recognizable. One striking feature of this record is how convincingly guitarist Jake Kisza taps into some real, gritty, raunchy blues spirit, while always amping it up to levels that really rock out. “Mountain of the Sun” is one of many examples. For his part, brother John slides in and out of falsetto in a way that borders on yodelling, fitting with the “mountain” part of the title — think “mountain folk,” and their signature lingo. This band is so admirably insular in their devotion to excavating bygone sounds, that one can just imagine them playing live alone on top of of a mountain. In reality, it’s very much the opposite. Music lovers worldwide have been waiting decades for someone to successfully recapture these cherished sounds, and Greta Van Fleet has finally come around. On “Brave New World,” John sounds like Rush’s Geddy Lee, and the music matches — with tempo changes, operatic backing vocals, and a general “progressive” sound. “Anthem” is another slower number, with a kumbaya chorus of wide-eyed optimism. Finally, an extended version of “Lover, Leaver,” titled “Lover, Leaver (Taker, Believer,)” returns to form, bringing the record to closure in a full metal jacket.
One of the most common criticisms leveled at bands like Greta Van Fleet is that they fail to bring anything genuinely new to the table, instead relying on rehashing bygone styles. There’s some truth to this, as the band comes across often sounding like an expert Led Zeppelin tribute band, and occasionally like an expert tribute band for various other aforementioned artists. The entire crew, especially singer John Kiszka, have a knack for picking up on artists’ elusive idiosyncrasies, and emulating them with an uncanny precision. There’s nothing entirely new to the band’s sound. On the other hand, this particular hodgepodge of classic styles is new in of itself. Come to think of it, there are very few artists who actually invent something from scratch. Most styles heralded as “original,” are merely original combinations of preexisting styles. Elvis merely combined rhythm & blues and country. Death Grips, a contemporary group commonly hailed as groundbreaking, basically combines noise punk with verbose hip-hop. Novelty in popular music is largely a myth. And quality of music is largely underrated. Greta Van Fleet know they’re revivalists — exceptionally skilled ones playing a style of music for which revival is more than welcome.
“Anthem of the Peaceful Army” is available Oct. 19 on Apple Music.