Greta Van Fleet returns, with the same old thrash and bombast
When Greta Van Fleet released its debut album Anthem of the Peaceful Army, in 2018, the backlash was swift and serrated. Revivalism in popular music is cyclical, and the Michigan quartet fell right into line by plumbing the depths of their parents' record collection to usher classic rock into a new era for the first time since the Darkness emerged with jocular aplomb in the early 2000s. Only, Greta Van Fleet was very serious. Critics drew apt comparisons to Led Zeppelin — right down to lead vocalist Josh Kiszka's beyond-his-years squelch — assailing them for doing little more than basking in the glory that major-label muscle can buy.
Getting branded as a novelty act on your first album can sting — a top question asked on Google reads, "Why Greta Van Fleet is bad?" — but doesn't always impede accomplishments. The band, which also consists of Jake Kiszka (guitar), Sam Kiszka (bass/keys), and Danny Wagner (drums), tapped into a Gen Z blindspot that thrusted them into unforeseen heights: a 2019 Grammy win for an EP that came out two years prior, a star turn on Saturday Night Live, a coveted Coachella slot, and five No. 1 singles on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Airplay chart.
Success may be the sweetest revenge, but does little to build a foundation on integrity. With its sophomore album The Battle at Garden's Gate, Greta Van Fleet faces a dilemma: Either combat being known as a mimetic rehash by breaking out of the classic rock mold, or lean even further into their strengths as classic-rock propagandists. They do more of the latter on Garden's Gate, and with a broader brushstroke. The album, produced by pop artisan Greg Kurstin (Adele, Paul McCartney), is a conceptual rumination on these apocalyptic times, from war to salvation with a sprinkle of biblical phantasm. Where Anthem positioned Greta Van Fleet as an overqualified cover band in gestation, Battle gives brief glimpses of potential for a collective determined to graduate from Guitar Hero savants.
What's hindered Greta Van Fleet's attempts at individualism is their penchant for thrash and bombast; it's simply impossible to dissociate it from the source material. They give in to their proclivities on the snarling "Built by Nations" and strutting "Stardust Chords," where Josh's open-throated yowl careens against a wall of sound. Songs like "The Barbarians" evoke the same question that plagued Anthem: Would Greta Van Fleet collapse under its own weight if the specter of Robert Plant wasn't looming over them?
Subtlety hasn't been the band's strong suit, but Battle succeeds when they attempt to explore more reflective terrain. "Tears of Rain" is pure theater, a layered guitar ballad that casually tiptoes towards an explosive payoff, while "Broken Bells" plays as a determined rock epic hinged on optimism: "I believe the sun still shines, and I believe there comes a time," sings Josh. Much of Battle takes this lyrical cue, creating a world where darkness reigns but hope perseveres. There's wisdom in those words, even when they're couched in groan-worthy references to 15th century sailing ships ("Caravel") and Hindu mythology ("Trip the Light Fantastic").
It's clear that Greta Van Fleet exist in a quandary. A debut album sets the tone for a career, but it's what comes after that establishes the legacy. Even though Battle draws from the same playbook that made Anthem such a by-the-numbers paean, the band is in an unlikely position where they have the skills and stature, but not always the wherewithal, to mature. Classic rockism has already determined their worth — it's how they choose to fight against it that makes them viable. C+
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