April 22, 2021

Greta Van Fleet Turns the Radio Dial to “70s”


I admit that the title of this blog post assumes you get the metaphor of tuning your radio dial. Sorry but it’s hard not to reach for 70s allegories when you are listening to an album so steeped in 70s rock that it almost seems from a different time; There is no way that you don’t hear the 70s in the new Greta Van Fleet album The Battle at Garden’s Gate. Even the title of the album channels 70s prog rock, referencing two Genesis songs, “The Battle of Epping Forest” and a lyric from “I Know What I Like” that uses the phrase “over the garden wall.” This album is a love letter to a time long before the band members were born, as well as many of their fans.

Much has been made of Greta Van Fleet’s tendency to channel Led Zeppelin. While largely unfair, it has been hard not to draw some comparison between Greta Van Fleet’s hard blues rock and Zep. The intricate guitar playing, heavy drumming, and high tenor vocals are similar. There is, however, a difference between homage and imitation. Greta Van Fleet has consistently shown that they are their own band, even as they explore similar territory to Led Zeppelin. This new album, however, veers further away from the Zeppelin sound while diving headfirst into the 70s rock ocean, especially Rush, Triumph, Jimi Hendrix (he made it to the 70s!), southern rock, and even prog rock like King Crimson.

The lead off song, “Heat Above” is a powerful start with Rush-like guitars supporting sweeping vocals that are reminiscent of Mountain’s “Theme from An Imaginary Western.” The choir-like backing vocals and Fender Rhodes organ add to the 70s sound. It’s big, bold, rock that sets the stage for a big album. “My Way Soon” follows with a somewhat different take on classic 70s sounds. The love child of Led Zeppelin, Rush, and Big Star, it mixes classic, wailing, blues rock with power pop influences. This is the type of song that would have thrived on 70s rock radio. Even the short guitar solo screams “Play me in an arena in 1975!”

By this point, the Rush influences are readily apparent, but also Triumph. The jangly guitars and high tenor vocals just call out to those bands, especially in their heyday of their late 70s and early 80s. The third song on the album, “Broken Bells”, returns to Greta Van Fleet’s previous style, this time with a Zeppelinesque ballad. It deploys that slow rise from a quiet minimalist sound to a screaming crescendo, evocative of the Zep classic “Stairway to Heaven.” The band the next song to shift to a more classic blues guitar sound with “Built by Nations.” Unlike “Broken Bells” we hear a sound more like Hendrix… if Hendrix was playing with southern rock guitar gods The Outlaws. These southern rock influences emerge on “Age of Machines” as well, more Molly Hatchet than The Outlaws, but still 70s southern rock. Only this time, the blues guitars are left behind for a subdued jangly sound that somehow pushes the song back into Rush territory. Imagine “Flirting with Disaster” played as Rush’s “2112”. It’s an amazing amalgamation of classic rock sounds that work rather than clash.

The Rush sound really comes through in “Tears of Rain”, a ballad that could be a new intro to “Closer to the Heart.” It’s not pure Rush though. There is also a Kansas-prog rock sound, as if they channeled “Cheyenne Anthem.” I expect these songs will find themselves in close proximity on future rock playlists. Things get even more prog rock on “Stardust Chorus.” Even the name sounds like it came off an early 70s Yes album. Slow heavy drumbeats with echoing vocals leading into a hard rock song, sounds very Court of the Crimson King era King Crimson with a touch of Genesis. I could swear I even heard a Mellotron playing though it was more likely to be synth tuned to sound like one. “Light my Love” is the classic rock piano ballad. Too many bands used this “piano coupled with emotive guitar” sound to point at any one influence. Think of it as general classic rock song while imagining it playing on your favorite 70s station. “Caravel” returns to the harder prog rock sound. Opening with slow heavy drums and a jangly guitar with reverb, we are treated to vocal gymnastics with octave level changeups. Seriously, if someone doesn’t hear Kansas or even ELP here, they’re not trying.

“The Barbarians” is pure prog rock. The choir-like Mellotron or Mellotron synth sound is back in the intro lending a Genesis-like feel right out of Selling England By the Pound. The Mellotron’s (let’s just call it that) liberal use makes this easily the most prog rock song on the album. Imagine if Geddy Lee was the Genesis vocalist instead of Peter Gabriel. That’s what “The Barbarians” sounds like. Even the title is pure prog rock, harkening to ELP’s “The Barbarian”, though that is a vastly different song.

The last two songs have titles that continue speak to their prog rock roots. “Trip the Light Fantastic” uses that Mellotron liberally, for that unmistakable King Crimson-Genesis sound. The song itself has more a folk pop sound to it. I immediately thought of Renaissance, with their folk-prog rock hybrid. The last song, “The Weight of Dreams” has a title that would have been at home on an early 70s Yes album. Sonically, it has a lot in common with a Yes song. An acoustic guitar solo, that could have easily been from The Yes Album, evolves into a mid-tempo hard rock song. Unfortunately, the vocals fail the song here. Frontman Josh Kiszka’s overuse of vocal fry makes the lyrics sound harsh when they should be more emotional – sad even – so as to match the song and instrumentation. “The Weight of Dreams” is redeemed by the Jake Kiszka’s, mid-song guitar solo. It’s a brilliant bit of classic rock guitar playing. My neck still hurts from head rocking. This is the type of solo that used to make rock lovers want to go to concerts. I sincerely hope that I get to see him play this live someday.

The vocals in “The Weight of Dreams” is a small problem in one song, and completely forgivable in an album that delivers consistently across the whole work. Greta Van Fleet has plumbed the depths of 70 rock and found all the right influences. No one can see this band as a Zeppelin rip off anymore. Not that they ever were. The Battle at Garden’s Gate brings to the forefront all of the best of 70s blues rock, hard rock, and especially prog rock and southern rock. Choosing well is not, however, where the real talent shows. Somehow, someway, this mélange becomes a feast of classic rock and not just a mess. In an album like this, that’s a tough task.

Greta Van Fleet has garnered critical attention since they began their careers. First because of their age, and then for their supposed Led Zeppelin rip off. What they should be loved for is their revival of a rock sound that was fading away into the past. They have taken up the best elements of that sound and created something new and original, yet familiar. Rush, Yes, ELP, The Outlaws, Molly Hatchet, Big Star, Led Zeppelin, and King Crimson. They are all here and yet, it is still Greta Van Fleet and not a classic rock cover band. This is a band that shows there is still hope for the styles many of us grew up with. Great Van Fleet does this by distilling what was good about rock music at that time, rather than simply rerecording it.

This is an amazing album.