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Headphones On: Greta Van Fleet, From The Fires



This band is much more than a Led Zeppelin redux

If you’ve kept up with the modern rock and roll scene, chances are you’ve heard of Greta Van Fleet. Whether by their appearances on Jimmy Fallon and SNL, or their two studio albums, From the Fires and Anthem of the Peaceful Army, or the wide range of opinions they’ve coaxed out of music critics, GVF has made a splash. That’s impressive for three twenty-something brothers and their close friend who still look young enough to be in high school.

If you haven’t listened to Greta Van Fleet before reading this, take a pause and do so. If I may, I’d recommend “Black Smoke Rising,” my personal favorite tune. Now, go and listen to Led Zeppelin’s classic “Whole Lotta Love.” It isn’t hard to hear the similarities between Robert Plant’s howling, haunting vocals and those of the young Josh Kiszka. This is the basis for most of the criticism of the group: folks find Kiszka’s voice inauthentic due to its similarity to Plant’s. This extends to the two groups’ shared blues/hard rock genre.

Before I get into my review, I’d like to take a moment to offer a more charitable view. Greta Van Fleet isn’t doing anything wrong by following in the footsteps of the greats. Listening to early Beatles records, it’s hard to ignore the influence of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and other early rock and rollers that blazed their way. The same goes for the Beach Boys’ direct vocal-harmony influence by the Four Freshmen. Why, then, do we balk at being inspired? It’s true that Greta hasn’t really pushed the boundaries yet. But they’ve only just hit the music scene in an impactful way. At the very least, I would recommend withholding judgement and allowing them to make music together without the axe of externally-identified imposter syndrome hung over their (quite unshaven) heads.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at Greta Van Fleet’s debut album from 2017, From the Fires. This rollicking album opens with “Safari Song,” a put-your-foot-on-the-gas, windows down type of song that sets the tone for the myriad of blues-rock tracks that are to follow. Josh Kiszka’s vocals and readily apparent energy lend him an audible charisma that makes itself known on each and every one of their songs, but this first introduction is well thought out in that it gives him an opportunity to showboat immediately.

The boys dial it back a bit for their second track, “Edge of Darkness.” The bluesy riff that the song takes as its base lends Greta a bit of a hard rock jam-band sound in moments, but the resplendent chorus dispels any sense of musical simplicity. Of note are Sam Kiszka’s bass chops throughout the track. He walks on the knife’s edge between letting the instrument live solely in the background and allowing it the opportunity to shine that it deserves. Additionally, guitarist Jake Kiszka’s solo at the end of the song is just terrific. It adds the perfect amount of energy and groove to help the song close out well, and is a fireworks show of technique and musicality. Unfortunately, it is one of Josh’s few substantial solos on the record. Having heard the group live and thereby knowing what he’s capable of, it’s too bad he didn’t have more opportunities to let it rip.

The close-out “Black Smoke Rising” is a fitting way to end the record. Danny Wagner’s drums are reminiscent of the laid back groove of Ringo Starr, never in the way, always honest, and very present. The same goes for Sam’s bass groove (though perhaps less of a standout here than in “Edge of Darkness”). The atmospheric B-section two thirds of the way through the song is surprisingly well executed, and gives a taste of the group’s potential as they attempt to blend genres and incorporate unique sounds to their work. Josh’s vocals are remarkable in the song as a whole. He navigates the tenor passaggio with an ease I’ve only otherwise heard from the graduate voice students I’ve had the opportunity to study with.

From the Fires lacks the poetry of more mature albums from the likes of Zeppelin, the Foo Fighters, or Pearl Jam. Some of the lyrics come across as quite contrived. “Edge of Darkness” begins, “Every day’s a new day / Every way’s a new way / On the edge of darkness.” These few lines come across as clichéd platitudes attempting to dress themselves in a costume of the profound by throwing in the vague “On the edge of darkness” at the end. But what the album lacks in excellent lyricism, it makes up for in musical virtuosity. Josh’s vocals and Jake’s excellent, though perhaps underutilized, chops on the guitar are the showstoppers on From the Fires, and boy do they shine on through.

Do yourself a favor; ignore the critics and give Greta Van Fleet a listen. Put them on in your car on the first day it gets above 60 degrees this spring, roll the windows down, and drive. Music like this is meant to be lived with, not just listened to. Greta might not yet have the lyrical depth of their predecessors, but they certainly have a unique, well-tuned, powerhouse sound that has put them on an excellent trajectory to make a permanent mark on the rock and roll of the new millenia. And really, who can resist some good old fashioned rock and roll?

Zach Pearson is a sophomore PLS and Music major. He’s had Rocket Man stuck in his head for about two months. Send him a good recommendation for some light reading at zpearson@nd.edu.

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