Anyone taking a glance at the Billboard charts over the last five years would be able to see that rock music has been stuck in a rut commercially and creatively for quite a while. Often heralded by the genre’s fans as the saviours to bring things to a new era, brotherly Michigan quartet Greta Van Fleet are often equally regarded as exactly what’s gone so wrong with the genre in the first place. Arguably the most successful of the new crop, the band’s Grammy-winning debut album was essentially a carbon copy of everything people loved about Led Zeppelin, from the high-pitched theatrical vocals to the mythical, battle-oriented lyrics to the style of dress. Longing for the past and never attempting anything new is going to turn more and more listeners away as time goes on. Luckily, Greta Van Fleet’s second album seems to find the band ever so slightly turning a corner in this area, moving slowly away from direct Zeppelinisms and injecting a bit of their own voices into the mix. Often bulking out the runtime of the songs and replacing these opportunities to be creative with endless guitar solos, it’s still difficult to stay engaged through the album’s hour-long duration, but the band’s technical mastery certainly does captivate in a couple moments.
The project opens with “Heat Above,” an overture of sorts and the strongest track here – mostly because it’s one of the only songs that shows much in the form of dynamics, adding some well-earned weight behind the epic tales of war and peace the band set out to weave in their lyrical content. Kicking things off with a church organ, the pounding drums suddenly flare up behind and explode into the song’s main groove. Opening with an unexpected acoustic angle, it still hits hard as the percussion evokes a war march, frontman Sam Kiszka instead singing about the procession of a “peaceful army” spreading love. His vocal technique is easily at its most impressive here, belting some earth-shattering notes at times but delivering a tender and sweet melody at the song’s core. His near-yodelling vocal breaks represent something relatively novel to the style, something I wish I could say for most of the rest of these tracks. The nods to grandiosity with the ancient cities and wounded warriors that colour the lyrics here are the most obnoxious Zeppelin leftovers on the album, especially since it feels as though the band is running through a list of classic rock buzzwords and ultimately saying nothing at all. When they attempt their own narratives on tracks like “My Way, Soon,” it’s easy to see why they might be so derivative. Apparently inspired by touring the world, the band’s descriptions of the cultural differences they saw essentially boils down to what you might find in a Dr. Seuss book – “some are young, some are old, some are near, some are far.” Luckily, they can shred their guitars to make listeners forget about it.
The band places their most obvious “Stairway to Heaven” nod yet in the album’s prime third position with “Broken Bells,” copy-pasting the timeless sense of awe with slightly altered chords and running through the same structure – but attempting to emulate one of the most celebrated songs in history is still going to provide some pretty good content. Kiszka is at the height of his theatrical vocal delivery here and completely sells the chorus, sounding as though he’s choking up as he sings the final lyrics. As the tracklist progresses, it gets tougher and tougher to say anything of consequence at all about these tracks, because it doesn’t feel like you’re listening to new music – there’s something about the slowly building main guitar riff of “Built By Nations” or the Franz Ferdinand-esque syncopated rhythms of “Stardust Chords” that makes you feel like you’ve heard it blaring from some dad’s car radio countless times.
The tracks “Age of Machine” and “Tears of Rain,” while continuing to not break any new ground, at least begin to gesture at something lyrically meaningful. Once again with reference to something else, it would seem that the band are pretty excited for that upcoming Dune movie. They seemingly retell the book’s plot on “Age of Machine,” but stepping into the role of the terrified civilians as the machines take over feels poignant in the COVID era, and there’s a pretty catchy central hook to go along with it. “Tears of Rain,” on the other hand, nods to the horrors of climate change in the band’s extravagant lyrical style, backed up by somber acoustics – it’s an appropriately unsettling soundscape, especially as Kiszka’s vocals distort with gravelly anger.
Nearing the album’s conclusion, the track “Light My Love” begins promisingly with a striking piano melody and one of Kiszka’s more restrained vocal performances – simply the appearance of the piano provides a nice and refreshing contrast after the tracks that came before it – but the build-up to the obligatory searing guitar solo loses the track’s beautiful simplicity in yet another sludge of Zeppelin-inspired guitars. “Caravel” is another track where the band attempts to capture their idols’ lyrical power without a shred of intention behind it, describing a generic sea journey I suppose so they can prove they are aware of what an important historical ship model for the purposes of exploration and battle was called. They don’t elaborate past “As you can tell, this was the age of the caravel,” but for some reason Kiszka’s vocals are at their comically weepiest and defeated-sounding. Before 9-minute closer “The Weight of Dreams,” the tracks “The Barbarians” and “Trip The Light Fantastic” both fail to make any impression on the listener or provide anything notable to remark upon as they tread exactly the same ground as before. Despite the repetitive instrumental sections meandering on for about 4 minutes too long in a final grasp at manufactured importance, the closer does possess a pretty gutsy performance from Kiszka criticizing materialism.
It’s clear that outside of the primary reasons of blind nostalgia, many people are drawn to Greta Van Fleet’s music because of their incredible prowess with their chosen instruments. In no world would I deny their talent in that area, but I’m going to need to see some substance and originality behind their work before I jump on the bandwagon proclaiming them the saviours of rock n’ roll. This was a good start in the right direction, now keep on rolling.
Favourite Tracks: Heat Above, Tears of Rain, Broken Bells
Least Favourite Track: Caravel