Greta Van Fleet's first album lacks passion and depth

by Willem Gerrish | 10/23/18 2:10am

Over the past two years, no band has had a more meteoric rise in the world of rock and roll than the Michigan quartet Greta Van Fleet. Comprised of three brothers — Josh, Jake and Sam Kiszka — along with friend Danny Wagner, Greta Van Fleet has exploded from the small-town suburbia of Frankenmuth, Michigan to the international stage of modern rock and erumpent stardom. Propelled by two fiery EPs, 2017’s “Black Smoke Rising” and “From the Fires,” the band quickly caught mainstream attention for their classic rock revival sound rooted in a Led Zeppelin-esque penchant for thunderous riffs and singer Josh Kiszka’s distinctive howl, which is eerily reminiscent of the great Robert Plant. Unsurprisingly, this launch into the glorious orbit of rock and roll resulted in extremely high expectations and hype surrounding the band’s official debut album, “Anthem of the Peaceful Army.”

As a longtime fan of classic rock who has often lamented the direction of the genre’s modern messiahs, I took part in this mounting excitement and expectation, hoping that Greta Van Fleet would prove themselves to be the rightful pioneers of gritty ’70s rock for a new generation. Unfortunately, with the release of “Anthem of the Peaceful Army” this past Friday, I was sorely disappointed by an album mired in the past and ignorant of the future.

Listening to the album, it strikes me as a perfect example of misguided millennials swimming in their false sense of self as rock and roll legends. It has all the overt trappings of Zeppelin-era rock: Josh Kiszka’s vocals swell and roar like some kind of mutant front man grafted from Axl Rose and Robert Plant, Jake Kiszka’s riffs have the grit and twang of Jimmy Page, and the drums and bass provide a sturdy and foot-stomping groove to it all. Yet as I listened to the resultant music, I realized it’s missing an important ingredient: passion and heart. Indeed, that’s what makes Led Zeppelin such a seductive band — each song has a sultry underbelly of truth and fire that pulls you in with its stark honesty and palpable feeling. The guys of Greta Van Fleet have made an error paradigmatic of their generation, believing that pristinely crafted exteriors can breed the desired passion beneath. But great music, and great art in general, works the other way around; it starts with something genuine building inside and explodes outward in a release of energy and creativity. “Anthem of the Peaceful Army” suffers from the fact that Greta Van Fleet overlooked this essential tenet of the craft.

The album opens with a dramatic prog-rock tune called “Age of Man,” built on a Mellotron-assisted chord progression. It meanders its way to an anthemic chorus wondering “Who is the wiser to help us steer? And will we know when the end is near?” in an expression of Greta Van Fleet’s perspective on a shaky modern society defined by uncertainty. Throughout the album, Josh Kiszka’s lyrics often return to this notion of contemporary error and apocalypse. In “Watching Over,” he proclaims, “I wonder when we’ll realize this is what we got left, and it’s our demise, with the water rising, and the air so thin.” These are statements clearly born out of a millennial society appalled by mankind’s destruction of nature and the imminent ecological disasters it has incurred. I can’t help but feel like this is not the proper lyrical inspiration for a rock and roll album, as humanity and heart are eschewed in favor of political pontification and in the process, the music loses its gut-wrenching power and descends into empty preaching and complaint.

That being said, the album still has its moments of pure, dirty rock and roll. The lead single, “When the Curtain Falls,” is a blistering track filled with heavy riffs and lyrics concerning the pitfalls of stardom, and “Mountain of the Son” opens with a distorted slide guitar line that gives the song a bluesy sense of American heart and soul. But these moments are few and far between, and the gaps are bridged with lifeless filler. In fact, I think that’s one of the central problems with the album: much of it is simply flat and boring. The second half in particular presents a substantial drop in quality, with half-hearted attempts at quiet, emotional songs like “You’re the One” and “Anthem” coming across as cheesy and vacuous — another symptom of the band’s lack of passion and integrity.

There’s also the problem that nobody in the band has anywhere near the sheer talent and ability of lead singer Josh Kiszka. As his incredible vocals command the music, the support from his brothers and Wagner lies somewhere just above mediocrity. The drums have none of that jazzy rumble and sway of a John Bonham or a Mitch Mitchell, the bass is largely just an approximation of the guitar, and Jake Kiszka’s guitar solos lack the complexity and power of the guitar gods he is clearly trying to emulate. In fact, one of his licks in the guitar solo for “Lover, Leaver” is lifted almost note-for-note from Jimmy Page’s concluding solo for Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.” I can’t help but get the sense that Jake Kiszka is still much closer to being a kid in his bedroom playing along to Zeppelin tracks than a pioneering guitarist carving out his own place in the crowded and immensely talented pantheon of six-string legends.

The bottom line about “Anthem of the Peaceful Army” is that if you’ve come looking for the future of rock music, I advise you to look elsewhere. It’s not that Greta Van Fleet have made a bad album, per se, but they’ve made an album highly derivative of their heroes that lacks the uniqueness and individuality they would need to take the next step in their impressive young careers. It’s solid music, but it has none of the bluesy swagger and remarkable innovation that made the albums of that golden era of rock and roll so revelatory. For now, other bands are better suited to carry the flag of rock’s hazy future — groups like the Marcus King Band, who are crafting a remarkable blend of Southern rock, jazz and blues that gives a nod to the past and then runs blisteringly beyond it. Greta Van Fleet might be able to lead the charge someday, but their first major attempt at doing so has fallen flat.