I could make a legitimate argument that Rock ‘n’ Roll is dead. I’d be far from the first person to make this claim. Earlier this year, Danny Ross of Forbes noted, “There’s tangible proof of what people are listening to right now, and rock ‘n’ roll ain’t it. I make this evaluation based on the Billboard Hot 100 and Spotify Global charts as both commercial evaluations of songs and indicators of cultural impact.” Meanwhile, The New Republic asked simply “What Happened to Rock Music?”
Sure, there’s lots of music out there that isn’t pure pop, isn’t country and isn’t (thankfully) EDM. Stuff like The Lumineers and Ryan Adams and Nathaniel Rateliff. And, as good as a lot of that music is, is that really what we’re calling rock ‘n’ roll now? Do we go to the Foo Fighters? The Black Keys? Maybe, but should finding a band that you can definitively call “rock ‘n’ roll” really be this hard?
Hell f’ing no is the appropriate response here. Luckily for us, a ragtag group of three brothers and a childhood friend are here in late 2017 to save us from a pretty goddamn uninspiring rock malaise.
Hailing from rural-Michigan, Greta Van Fleet (the band’s name is taken from an elderly woman in the community) is made up of brothers Joshua, Samuel, and Jacob Kiszka, as well as friend Daniel Wagner. Oh, and they max out at 21 years old. In April, they released Black Smoke Rising, a four song EP that brings to mind ghosts of one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands of all time. Heady stuff for a band that had two of its members miss their high school prom in order to fulfill tour dates.
Now, how can I say, in good faith, that these four barely-adults represent a welcome dose of pure, mainlined rock ‘n’ roll, especially on the strength of a puny four song EP? Because I’ve heard it. Because nothing about this band, except maybe its members, is puny. Also because they’ve got a bunch more songs in the can that they’ll release soon enough. In the meantime, these four songs are enough to get anyone with a pulse excited about Greta Van Fleet’s future.
The first song on the EP (and the first single, which just hit #1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Songs), “Highway Tune,” opens up with a guitar lick that at once sounds familiar and completely fresh. Then, Josh Kiszka’s howl kicks in – oh, that howl. This is when you start wondering if your ears are playing tricks on you. Just who the hell is this and why does it sound exactly like Led freaking Zeppelin? It’s a connection that, if you’ve heard the song and have any sense of rock history, you simply can’t help draw between this vocal and Robert Plant. Hey, if you’re going to ape someone, it might as well be one of the greatest vocalists to ever strut across the stage. That opening “Oh Mama” lets the listener know exactly what they’re in for here, as simple but not stupid lyrics bounce along to a chugging guitar beat, complete with solos and muted riffs, leading up to a jam session that you can come this close to picturing from The Song Remains the Same.
“Safari Song” retains the classic rock sound, and, for my money, is a better song than “Highway Tune.” This is pure late 70s stadium rock at its finest. This song would fit in nicely with the tunes on Physical Graffiti, with the soaring vocals of the chorus and the tight-as-hell drums. Try not to crank this up and bop your head along to the beat.
With the first two songs coming towards you at 120 miles per hour, Greta Van Fleet smartly slow things down for “Flower Power.” With it’s dream-like melody and just-a-touch softer vocals, you could close your eyes and think you got sucked into some alternate version of “Going to California.” This is total Haight-Ashbury (as one might guess from the title), more folk than cock rock. If you were to, theoretically speaking of course, partake in the hippie lettuce, you could do a lot worse than having this song on repeat in the background.
On the least Led Zeppelin-sounding track of this EP, the title track is still a cinematic affair. “Black Smoke Rising” showcases a slightly different sound, one that falls somewhere between Heart and Jefferson Airplane. In all, not a bad place to be. This song clocks in at 4 minutes and 20 seconds long, which seems not very coincidental. It’s also the first song that seems to address the modern world: “And the black smoke rises / From the fires we’ve been told / It’s the new age crisis / And we will stand up in the cold.” In this case, it’s a nice change of pace and, being the most recently written song, a potential sign of things to come.
In the end, it’s no wonder that this band and “Highway Tune,” in particular, has taken off. A large portion of this EP sounds like it could be nestled safely among the tunes on Led Zeppelin II, refreshing in its unabashed nostalgia. In this case, nostalgia is not a dirty word. It’s what Stranger Things is to Stephen King. It’s at once an homage and a refresher, a sign that maybe a genre isn’t quite as dead as we thought. As Josh Kiszka sings at the end of “Flower Power,” “As the night begins to die / We are the morning birds that sing against the sky.” Rock on, Greta Van Fleet. Rock on.
See Greta Van Fleet on tour this winter, as they storm through the midwest and right into Tailgate Society central.