When I first examined the curious case of Greta Van Fleet, I sat on the positive side of the review field when Anthem for the Peaceful Army hit the streets. With so many reviewers piling on the negative words and takes on their debut record, I could see where these writers were coming from, but I didn’t feel like the comparisons were fair. Sure, the obvious connections to sounding like Led Zeppelin come with its own set of risks for paying direct homage to one of the most legendary and creative rock bands of all time. However, these young musicians, made up of three brothers and their drummer Daniel Wagner, were making the music they loved and wanted to share with the world. This fruitful path led to several sold-out tours worldwide, multiple TV appearances, and with those accolades came a brighter spotlight shining on them to deliver on their sophomore effort, aptly titled The Battle At Garden’s Gate.
In many ways Greta Van Fleet have been fighting their own battle for quite some time. They’ve had to win over the naysayers song by song, performance by performance, and now showcase they are not the “glorified Zeppelin tribute band” that so many have pegged them as. They’ve made strides to distance themselves from the obvious comparisons by channeling prog-rock bands like Rush, and pay respects to the glam elements found on Queen records; but what if their ultra-talented vocalist Joshua Kiszka is actually holding the band back? It’s an alarming statement for sure, but consider the possibility of well-constructed rock songs that could potentially sound so much different with a different vocal approach. Too often, the lead vocalist gets comfortable in his falsetto delivery that may be distracting the listener from discovering the improved lyrics and musical package that mystifies on this album.
The Battle At Garden’s Gate starts off on the right foot with one of their singles, “Heat Above,” that explodes out of the gate with some well-placed organ, upbeat drumming, and a solid musical opening to it. However, the band once again falls back into their comfort zone on the verses and Joshua Kiszka brings on his full falsetto for a familiar sounding delivery. The chorus of, “Can you feel my love / Rising with the heat above / Life’s the story of / Ascending to the stars as one,” is going to have a hard time distancing itself from the Zeppelin comparisons, but the lyrics have improved greatly from their debut. Some of the free-flowing falsetto “la la la’s” get a little distracting from the power of the instruments, but the band is clearly making the music they have been inspired to create.
The front-loaded record also features the first released single “My Way, Soon” that was the first taste of new tunes from this LP when it came out last October. It’s a fairly straight-forward classic rock song, and doesn’t stray too far from the material found on their debut. It’s almost surprising that as far back as the band released the track that it even made the final sequencing of this album. “Broken Bells” turns the up-beat nature of the two introductory songs on its head with a ballad that drifts off into the stratosphere. Joshua sings delicately in a higher register on the opening verse, “I can see the faces through the broken glass / No longer pass / Looking at the sky I see the city lights / But no star fights,” and he brings down the vocals for the pre-chorus of, “I never want to fall asleep / Within our dreams the weight we sew, we reap / Though I believe the sun still shines and I believe there comes a time.” The pre-chorus delivers the goods by not relying on falsetto to deliver the powerful lyrical imagery, and not get bogged down by showing off the vocal range. The jam parts of the song, near the four and a half to five minute section, are really well done and shows how talented these musicians are.
One of the shorter songs come in the form of “Built By Nations,” that starts up strong, delivers the thrills, and gets the hell out of there for a crowd pleasing slab of classic rock. Again, by not relying as much on the falsetto, Joshua is able to showcase his dynamic range as a vocalist. It should be something that Greta Van Fleet will continue to tinker with as they look for that perfect mix of when to shriek and wail, versus when to rein it in a tad. Striking this clever balance is done nicely on this song, but unfortunately the rest of the songs drift too far away from this winning pattern.
Bloated songs like “Age of Machine,” “The Barbarians,” and the near-nine minute “The Weight of Dreams” are hard to get through when you’re not in the mood for experimental jamming, strange fills, and complex song structures. Things click better when the talented guitarist Jacob Kiszka is able to tell his own story through spiraling electric guitar riffs, and rely less on Joshua’s wails to fill in the space. The band is more than capable of creating interesting musical parts without the high-pitched screams in-between, and the vocals can get tiresome when they interrupt the expected flow of the music.
”Tears of Rain” sounds like an attempt on Greta Van Fleet’s part to write their perfect Guns N’ Roses-era ballad where they channel interesting musical elements to bring new listeners into their army of followers. Some of it works, like the piano-laced power chords in the middle over the heavy guitars, but certain sections fall flat where the band sounds like they’re almost trying too hard to broaden their audience with a near-gospel choir echoing Joshua’s lofty vocals.
Other heavier, down-tuned guitar rock songs like “Caravel” mix up the variety a little bit for these young rockers, and Greta Van Fleet are at their best when they don’t rely on tried and true formulas that they have done to death. This track in particular features very few extra lyrics, and Joshua leans comfortably back into the chorus of, “Whoa, as you can tell / This was the age of the Caravel / Whoa, as you can tell / These are the times you’ll remember well.” This would not be an example of mind-blowing lyrics, yet the repetitious chorus is echoed through the rafters like they thought it was the truest words that have ever been sung. The repeated lines can get a little distracting, when brevity could be their ally.
The bottom line on this album is that Greta Van Fleet are a complex, ultra-talented band that may have already hit their ceiling of popularity. What remains to be seen is if on subsequent releases they can use their direct influences to channel new and interesting ground to uncover their strengths as artists and create their landmark record that puts all of the classic rock comparisons to bed. It’s more than possible for these musicians to accomplish this task by focusing on what they really want to tell in the story of their songs, and allow some new voices to get in their heads to direct them towards the promised land of rock royalty. Whether that means connecting with the right producer, the right outside collaborator, or by shifting some of the approaches to their songwriting, I feel like there is still a surprise waiting at the end of the tunnel for these musicians. With so much attention being thrown at them from the beginning, this is one case where Greta Van Fleet may have benefited from going under the radar longer to tinker with what makes them stand out from the rest of the bands in the mix. I, for one, have faith that these talented musicians are going to figure this out sooner rather than later.