Greta Van Fleet is a band that divides opinion. Loved and lambasted equally by critics and classic rock fans, picking up Grammy awards while being shunned as little more than a Led Zeppelin tribute. It must be a hard road to travel at times. Their latest offering, The Battle at Garden’s Gate, will simultaneously enthuse their fans but do little to convince their critics.
Guitarist Jake Kiszka says the album is “reflecting a lot of the world that we’ve seen, and I think that it’s reflecting a lot of personal truth.” Singer Josh Kiszka says, “There was a lot of self-evolution happening during the writing of this album that was prompted by experiences I had, experiences we all had.”
A bit like the album, the band’s quotes around it will leave many asking, “wait…what?”
On the surface, The Battle at Garden’s Gate is an impressive effort. Across its twelve tracks, the band has experimented with arrangements, choirs, synths and piano to create something that really sounds excellent. Greg Kurstin’s production is immense – drums and guitars sound like they’ve been recorded in space or at least some sort of cavernous vault, Josh Kiszka’s vocals howl from the depths and the extra instrumentation attempts to shift things away from the tired classic rock label.
Sonically the band’s cornerstones are clear, and there are more than a few tips of the hat towards Tolkien, not least in the album’s name and artwork. Acknowledging roots is all well and good, but Greta Van Fleet land just on the wrong side of the balance between referencing influences and parroting them.
‘Heat Above’ introduces the album with a church organ, ‘Broken Bells’ features lush string arrangements while ‘Light My Love’ is driven by piano and acoustic guitars are used well to add depth and break up the electric’s growl. Throughout the album, the sense of space and expanse is phenomenal, and on ‘Age of Machine,’ the trick of distant, reverb-soaked guitars moving gradually closer is excellently executed.
On the face of it, all of this could be thought of as very experimental and creative for a “classic rock” band. But time and time again, the songs revert to form and lack distinction.
There are some stand out moments. Guitar riffs in ‘On My Way, Soon’ and ‘Caraval’ ooze with swagger; the wah-driven solo in ‘Broken Bells’ and drum work in ‘Built By Nations’ deserve attention too. However, the album lacks a gotcha moment, a hook or riff or chorus that will grab you by the ears, live in your head for a few hours afterwards and, crucially, make you want to listen again.
Josh Kiszka’s searing vocals are simultaneously Greta Van Fleet’s most potent weapon and their crutch. It seems the go-to device for ratcheting up the intensity of a song is for Kiszka to scream or howl, and as impressive as his range is, it becomes predictable. It’s hard to spot the “self-evolution” and “personal growth” the band references with lyrics like, “I’ve seen many people, There are so many people, Some are much younger people, And some are so old.” Kiszka could be given the benefit of the doubt here if the lyrics were tongue in cheek. ‘Age of Machine’ carries a little more depth with what seems like commentary on technology’s impact on society.
By mid-album, The Battle At Garden’s Gate sort of drifts past. Despite the production and the band’s undeniable musicianship, the songs feel unwieldy and long. ‘Tears of Rain’ is one of just two tracks clocking in under four minutes and definitely benefits from the tighter arrangement. At the other end of the scale, the album closer ‘The Weight of Dreams’ is drawn over almost nine minutes.
It has the feel of the band’s attempt at a (dare I say it?) Stairway to Heaven style effort (there, I said it!). There’s drama, string arrangements and light and shade in production as the song shrinks and expands towards its climactic solo. For the band’s fans, it could be one of those songs that goes down with Stairway, Freebird and Hotel California as a timeless classic with a ripping guitar solo. Like much of the rest of the album, though, there’s just something lacking that holds it back from that hallowed hall of unanimously revered greats.
That’s not to say Greta Van Fleet won’t find it eventually.