Most of the time, I make a living as a professional music critic. But occasionally, a higher calling takes precedence. In these moments, I must function as a kind of defense attorney for music that is widely maligned. As Atticus Finch once said, “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” Like Atticus, I am morally bound to defend those who have been piled on by my peers.
Enter Greta Van Fleet, the most critically reviled young rock band in America.
Not since Nickelback has there been a popular group that’s been so easy for the press to pick on. Even when their coverage is nominally positive, the music of Greta Van Fleet still garners comparisons to an “ejaculating hyena.” If you’ve heard even a minute of their music, it’s easy to understand why this is the case. To say that Greta Van Fleet is extremely derivative of old-school and very unfashionable 1970s arena rock doesn’t go nearly far enough. This band ransacks the hesher canon with an unbridled, reckless enthusiasm that makes Paul Stanley look like King Krule. They make music for people whose rock nostalgia was shaped by their coked-out uncles blasting Houses Of The Holy before Thanksgiving dinner. Greta Van Fleet is a lot, is what I’m saying.
Singer Josh Kiszka has been endlessly likened to Robert Plant, but he actually sounds more like Geddy Lee screaming at his misbehaving kids in the backseat during a family road trip. (I am also workshopping this comparison: “Like Jim Carrey belting Iron Maiden’s ‘Run To The Hills’ at the drunkest karaoke night of all time.”) Both of Greta Van Fleet’s two full-length albums, including the forthcoming The Battle At Garden’s Gate, can be broadly described as concept records about how — I’m quoting Kiszka here — “we are all sort of interconnected and reside in a global community.” What this means is that Greta Van Fleet songs tend to be set “on the road” or perhaps in a desert. And they typically involve life-or-death tangles with the devil in the midst of something called “the age of Caravel.” At the climax of these sprawling epics, important questions are pondered, such as, “Are we prisoners or are renegades?” The sort of tunes you would expect from Dave Grohl if he suffered a massive head injury. Or Jack Black if he had no sense of irony.
In case it’s not already apparent, I had a blast typing the preceding paragraphs. Yes, Greta Van Fleet is very dumb. But they are also dumb fun. I thoroughly enjoy thinking and writing about this band. On occasion, I even like listening to them. But even if they didn’t have some genuine jams — more on that in a moment — I truly couldn’t comprehend hating a band this exuberantly ludicrous, especially at a time when so much of the indie-rock world is humorless and devoid of silly-for-silly’s-sake outrageousness. To paraphrase the fake Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, there are so many buffoons in modern music posing as poets. But Greta Van Fleet has the courage to be buffoons, which makes them poetic.
Let’s get all valid criticisms of The Battle At Garden’s Gate out of the way right now. For starters, it’s an exhausting listen. At 12 songs stretching for nearly 65 minutes, it would be three times as good if it were at least one-third shorter. Also: Somebody please play these boys side two of Led Zeppelin III. A couple of acoustic ballads would break up the series of MONOLITHIC ROCK GOD ANTHEMS that unfurl mercilessly upon the listener. As it is, there are no dynamics on this album. It’s all massive ponderousness. By the end, your head will feel like Bonzo’s snare drum during a marathon “Moby Dick.”
One more thing: There’s a climate change allegory called “Tears Of Rain” that is almost as preposterous as that title. Actually, is that a criticism? To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed poring over a lyric sheet this much. I love the part in “Heat Above” when Kiszka sings, like a protagonist in an Ed Wood film, “We do not fight for war / but to save the lives of those who do so.” Like I said, poetry.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, Kiszka defended his lyrics. “I want people to lean into things that are challenging,” he said, whatever that means, while pushing back in general against criticisms of his band. But all you have to do is listen to The Battle At Garden’s Gate to understand that Greta Van Fleet has doubled down on everything detractors and defenders alike find ridiculous about them. This album is even more overblown, more bombastic, and just plain more than their 2018 full-length debut, Anthem Of The Peaceful Army.
It’s also kind of better. What’s legitimately undersold about Greta Van Fleet is that the instrumentalists — guitarist Jake Kiszka, bassist Sam Kiszka, and drummer Danny Wagner — are capable of kicking up a pretty enjoyable racket that hits the pleasure centers of prog-blooze aficionados with ruthless Pavlovian consistency. The drone-rock riff of “My Way, Soon” displays their knack for crunchy melody, while “Trip The Light Fantastic” musters up some real majesty in the record’s surprisingly powerful closing stretches. Elsewhere, they utilize songwriting and production ringer Greg Kurstin to inject some pop smarts into the hysterical melodrama of “Light My Love,” which sounds like Axl Rose singing a Celine Dion power ballad on the hull of the Titanic as it is set ablaze by dragons.
Call me a pushover, but I don’t detect any smarm in these songs. Greta Van Fleet is frequently misguided, and they unquestionably commit numerous sins against good taste anytime they strap on their Gibson guitars and fringe suede jackets. But they are also guileless, even naive, and I find that endearing. They actually mean all of this hogwash! The whispered accusations about Greta Van Fleet being some cynical industry plant have never rung true to me. In what universe is this considered a can’t-miss proposition in the contemporary music world? It overlooks the utter strangeness of Greta Van Fleet even existing in 2021. Mainstream hard rock — which covers everything from Zeppelin to Van Halen to Appetite For Destruction and Metallica’s “black” album — once ranked among the most commercially successful genres on the planet. Greta Van Fleet is trying to insert themselves in that continuum, even though it doesn’t really exist anymore.
Besides, it’s not as if these guys are toxic. There are no sexist “mud shark”-style antics, no appropriation of music by marginalized musicians without credit or financial compensation, no discomforting bulbous shapes protruding from tight denim pants. Instead, as Josh Kiszka howls on “Age Of Machine” — this one is an allegory about the internet — Greta Van Fleet are simply interested in providing “some healin'” to riff-starved patrons. They are harmless himbos.
Here is my closing statement: These guys are not geniuses. But they are essentially good-natured, and they make me laugh — unintentional laughs are still laughs — and I’m glad there’s a band like this in our lives right now. My only request is that they write a song called “Ejaculating Hyena” and have it go on for at least 12 minutes.
The Battle At Garden’s Gate is out tomorrow via Republic. Get it here.