Review Summary: Redemption
Around the turn of the millennium, nostalgia rock bands started springing out of the ground unexpectedly. Jet and Wolfmother were the first offenders - er, I mean, instances. Jet wanted nothing more than to be the new Beatles/Rolling Stones on 2003's Get Born
, and Wolfmother might have actually thought they were Led Zeppelin at some point on their eponymous 2005 debut. Other lesser-known nostalgia rock bands eventually appeared as well: for example, The Explorers Club aimed to be the Beach Boys with their 2008 release Freedom Wind
. What all of these artists had in common - besides the ability to give sixty-five year olds orgasms - is that they were actually pretty damn good. Their flames burned bright and died quickly, but they all succeeded - however briefly - in capturing something that many of us yearned for. It's just as silly to dismiss the great debuts these bands churned out as it is to worship them as the second comings of the acts that they idolized. They can still be enjoyed, but with the obvious caveat that they'll never be artistically respected.
Although this trend slowed down in the 2010s, Greta Van Fleet was the most notable act to carry the torch. The reason they failed to even garner the same begrudging sliver
of acclaim earned by the aforementioned bands is because their debut - even by "nostalgia rock" standards - laid it on way too thick. Anthem of the Peaceful Army
tried to replicate Led Zeppelin down to the most minute of details. A colleague of mine who reviewed the record captured its flaws perfectly when he wrote, "You can sit in a bedroom for 20 years solid learning everything they ever did and buy all the fancy gear, but you can’t attain the heart and feel Led Zeppelin had – money can’t buy that kind of talent and connection." It's a perfect distillation of why any nostalgia rock band cannot truly succeed long-term; it's exceedingly rare if not impossible for an homage to surpass the quality of the classic it emulates. The best they can hope for is a brief window of novelty value. Not to entirely diminish what Greta Van Fleet has done with its sophomore record The Battle at Garden's Gate
, but for them, this is that flash in the pan. It's still not going to knock your socks off with its creative ambition, but much like Wolfmother
, Get Born
, and Freedom Wind
- it's got that rock and that roll.
The Battle at Garden's Gate
is a massive sixty-four minute experience brimming with mysterious atmospheres, complex guitar solos, and all-around exceptional musicianship. The most difficult pill to swallow is probably Josh Kiszka's occasionally grating Geddy Lee/Robert Plant impersonations, but if you can move past it, then this is packed with classic rock goodness. 'Heat Above' is the ideal opener because it's so damn memorable. The second biggest criticism of Anthem of the Peaceful Army
, other than its derivative nature, was the lack of quality melodies/lyrics to latch onto - it just felt like Led Zeppelin wankery by numbers. That is not the case here. From the get-go, Greta Van Fleet breaks out their best songwriting to date with 'Heat Above' and 'My Way, Soon', both of which prioritize craft and melody above all. They are able to do so without sacrificing their inherent rock n' roll ambitions though, with both featuring riffs/solos interesting enough to make you want to return to the song on their merits alone. These tracks are the first indication that The Battle at Garden's Gate
might be on to something, and that perhaps Greta Van Fleet isn't above learning from, and subsequently correcting, their shortcomings.
'Broken Bells' is when this record evolves into something truly special, however. For the first time, we witness Greta Van Fleet veering in a direction that they could somewhat call their own. The atmosphere is gorgeous, with resplendent guitars ringing out delicately like the bells Kiszka sings of - soothingly, not gratingly this time - and the song winds up to a spectacular electric guitar solo which for once feels earned rather than forcibly inserted. It feels like Greta Van Fleet's true artistic arrival, and even though it came a full album late, it's still mighty impressive. What's better is that they rarely take their collective feet off the pedal after that, almost as if they got a hit of dopamine from it: hey, we really like making stuff that sounds different!
'Age of Machine' features layered vocals that cause the song to swell with fanfare, which is offset by the rumble of thunderous, low-pitched riffs which accent the dichotomy of it all in a fashion that is both intriguing and pleasing to the ear. 'Stardust Chords' sees Kiszka singing in his most powerful and raspy tone, atop a brilliant chord progression that even sees some strings swell in the background. That's another difference between Greta Van Fleet now
and Greta Van Fleet then
- the songwriting remains technically adept, but it is also fluid and dynamic. These songs breathe enough to allow things like the stunning pianos of 'Light My Love' to feel like centerpieces of their respective tracks, rather than frills merely tossed in for good measure.
The Battle at Garden's Gate
reaches its zenith on the final track - a winding nine minute epic that (unsurprisingly) plays out like their very own 'Stairway to Heaven.' Kiszka's raw, shrill singing has taken some much deserved flack, but here it works extremely well as he finds himself in an all-out scream by the time the track's three-and-a-half minute long guitar solo arrives. The instrumental components across the entire record range from technically sound to exceptional, but here they're really elevating their game to a new level. Imitating or not, 'The Weight of Dreams' is a monumental rock n' roll song, and it delivers a worthy ending to what I have to admit is an extremely impressive album. With The Battle at Garden's Gate
, the Greta Van Fleet jokes can effectively stop. If this is that fabled window of opportunity that closes so fast for what we've come to call "nostalgia rock" bands, then Greta Van Fleet has taken full advantage of their moment. They've cleaned up the mistakes of their first album, fleshed out their atmospheres into some truly lush and breathtaking territories, doubled down on their heavy rock edge, and crafted something that is far better than it has any right to be. Bask in it without feeling any shame.