A good friend of mine from high school and I have reconnected after all these years. We’ve begun a great email correspondence which in the old days would have made us “pen pals.” Naturally since this is BourbonAndVinyl, the topic generally centers around rock and roll music. My friend, I’ll call him, “Rob,” (name changed to protect the guilty), asked me one time, “what makes a band/song/album rock and roll?” It’s truly the eternal question when it comes to music. At the heart of that question, and what drives it in my opinion, is the issue of authenticity. To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, when it come to rock, I know it when I hear it. I can’t really explain it but it’s how I can tell Queen is rock and roll but the Struts, well, they’re just not. When I was in high school confessing to liking any pop band who was masquerading as a rock band was a high crime and misdemeanor, punishable by receiving the “nerd” label.
Which leads us to the case of Greta Van Fleet. I’ve been on the bandwagon since their first EP, Black Smoke Rising (Greta Van Fleet: Kids Channeling Zeppelin On ‘Black Smoke Rising’ EP). Even though their second EP, or what they called a “double-EP,” (whatever that is), From the Fires contained all the songs from Black Smoke Rising, I was still on the bandwagon (Review: Greta Van Fleet, ‘From The Fires’ LP, er, Double EP). Greta Van Fleet have finally released what they’re referring to as their debut album, with the very hippy title, Anthem Of The Peaceful Army. I must say, reactions and reviews have been quite mixed. There has been tremendous backlash for these kids, mostly because they sound like Zeppelin. I don’t remember the Rival Sons taking the same kind of heat. Allmusic.com went so far as to describe them as “nothing more than cosplay of the highest order.” Ouch… that’s gonna leave a mark. Can’t we just be happy that some young kids are playing rock and roll, you know, with guitars and real instruments? I prefer bands influenced by Led Zeppelin than bands influenced by say, Drake.
Accusations of being derivative are nothing new in music. Just for shits and grins I pulled up Rolling Stone magazine’s original review of Led Zeppelin’s first album, Led Zeppelin. I’m sure if you asked Jann Wenner now he’d say Led Zeppelin was a masterpiece, a true definition of the form of blues rock. But back in 1969, Mr. John Mendelsohn, Rolling Stones’ reviewer hated it. He starts off by basically saying everything that came after Cream and John Mayall follow the same formula of building a band around an “excellent guitarist.” We forget how influential Cream were… In essence, he opens by implying Led Zeppelin is derivative of Cream or Mayall. He says, “Jimmy Page…is also a limited producer and writer of weak, unimaginative songs.” He describes Led Zeppelin as a “twin” of the Jeff Beck Group (Artist Lookback: The (Original) Jeff Beck Group – Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart & Ronnie Wood). He calls Plant’s singing, “strained and unconvincing shouting.” Most of the review reads as Mendelsohn claiming these are just a weaker version of the Jeff Beck Group who did all of this already, merely “three months earlier.” I wonder if, looking back, he’d wanna take any of this back?
I guess it’s inevitable that Greta Van Fleet’s (the brothers Kiszka, Josh on vocals, Jacob on guitar, Sam on bass and Daniel Wagner on drums) first album would suffer the same fate. And look, I get it. This is heavily Zeppelin influenced music. In what I’m assuming is a bit of cheekiness, they even quote “The Immigrant Song” in the opener “Age of Man,” when Josh sings “the land of ice and snow.” My hope is that these very young kids, take this sound they’ve got and develop it the same way Zeppelin did. Zeppelin, who were supposedly derivative of the Jeff Beck Group and any other British blues rock band at the time, slowly developed into something much more. They made the sound their own and then turned it on it’s ear. If this is the starting point for Greta Van Fleet, hopefully they can do the same. One can hope their success will some kids together in a garage with a guitars and some drums.
All of that said, I confess I wanted to love this album but I can merely say I like it. I am still recommending people buy it but I can’t totally embrace it. Like the EPs that followed it, I can hear the echo of a Zeppelin song in each thing they play. Unfortunately, a majority of these songs all sound like “Over The Hills And Far Away.” Mix it up guys. The album starts off with a pair of tracks that are in that midtempo area, “Age of Man” and “The Cold Wind.” They’re built around an acoustic/electric guitar mix. I must say I was delighted to hear Jacob mix in some acoustic on this record. The record doesn’t really catch fire for me until the third track and first single, “When the Curtain Falls” (Greta Van Fleet: New Single, “When The Curtain Falls”. “You’re the One” drifts into “Hey Hey My My” territory with strummed acoustic and an insistent drum beat from Wagner. These are all fine songs, but with the energy of their first EPs, I guess I expected heavier music. “The New Day” continues the “Over The Hills” thing…
“Lover, Leaver” is one track that jumps out at me. It’s a crunchy rocker. “Watching Over” has a nice sitar sounding guitar thing happening and Josh’s vocals are an unhinged banshee wail. I do feel at certain times Josh could bring it down a notch on vocals. You’re not gonna be able to sing like that for 40 years dude. The reprise of “Lover, Leaver,” “Lover, Leaver, Taker, Believer” has some tasty slide guitar. Those song titles had me thinking these guys had headed into Judas Priest territory (“Dreamer Deceiver” anyone?).
The album does hold together, not only musically but lyrically. This feels like a loosely thematic record. The whole thing has more of a Plant vibe vs a Page vibe. On the big message song, “Anthem,” (which brings to mind “You’re Time Is Gonna Come,” I know, I know, I can’t help but cite the Zep song that these guys conjure on their music), a chorus of back up singers sing the rather curious lyric, “the world is what the world is made of.” I’m not sure where they’re going with that, it brings to mind some of Sammy Hagar’s weaker moments, but hey, they’re still developing their craft.
This is a very, very solid debut album. I think we rock fans have a lot to be delighted with in this record. And, correspondingly, I think we have a lot to be hopeful for in Greta Van Fleet. Are they the real deal? Are they rock and roll? Are they, as I mentioned before, authentic? I’ll let you be the judge. I can’t really explain it, but I know it when I hear it…