Anthem of the Peaceful Army
by Greta Van Fleet
Greta Van Fleet are now Grammy-award winners, so we figured it was high time 360°Sound weighed in on their first full-length release. The much-anticipated Anthem of the Peaceful Army was released this past October to a fanfare of media criticism and a deluge of commercial success. I was looking forward to this record because I wanted to hear them refine their sound, find their own voice and transcend the classic-rock cosplay criticism that is inevitably lobbed at them. This record does not fulfill that hope, but there is still a lot to dig about it.
To be clear, I’m cool with all the chatter comparing the Gretas to Led Zeppelin. Zep were inspired by great bluesmen like Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf. Greta are also a blues rock band and, for whatever reason, have ended up sounding a lot like Zep to a lot of people. OK, we’re even. Personally, I have claimed Greta as the standard bearers of a new generation of Detroit booze rock. (Learn more about Detroit booze rock here.)
I’ve spun this disc in a variety of contexts, and I hear more Axl Rose than Robert Plant from lead singer Josh Kiszka. But Anthem reminds me most of Rock Hall members Heart. In their classic period, Heart were a blues-based rock band that dug Zeppelin and tried to be similarly heavy, riffy and melodic. Check out the cover of Little Queen to see that Heart, like these young fellows, fully embraced rock cosplay.
Frankly, my patience with the comparisons of Josh Kiszka to Robert Plant ends where my comparison of him to Ann Wilson begins. Plant, in addition to his iconic rock tenor, had a baritone range which Kiszka lacks. Throughout this recording, Kiszka’s tenor sounds thin. He also does a lot of growling, unable to drop into a lower range with much power. He mostly shrieks like Ann Wilson, for better or worse. Here’s Jason Bonham on the topic, “Robert did not sound like that. In his young days, his voice was miles ahead, in a different league.” Kiszka simply doesn’t have Plant’s balls, hence the more apropos Ann Wilson comparison. I still consider this a compliment, as I’m a big fan of Dreamboat Annie’s rock vocal chops.
A couple spins in, I simply chose not to listen too closely to Josh Kiszka and his sanctimonious horseshit lyrics. I focused instead on the jaw-dropping rock mastery of guitarist Jake Kiszka. This kid is the real deal and the best reason to listen to this record. He reminds me of iconic guitarists like Joe Perry, Jimmy Page, Jack White and even Slash, riffing and chording like crazy and winding out on his ’61 Les Paul SG when given the chance. For good measure, the rhythm section is groovy as hell and heavy enough. The whole band is even heavier live. (Check my gig notes from their 25 May Detroit show.)
Anthem officially gets going on the second track, “Cold Wind.” The Skynyrd-smoked main riff is big and groovy and kicks hard like Greta’s live set. On the lead single, “When the Curtain Falls,” bassist Sam Kiszka and drummer Danny Wagner funk it up in the verses and play the chorus straight while Jake delivers more quintessential rock riffery. I love the super-heavy chorus in “Watching Over,” but the faux-sitar effect on the guitar solo sounds corny.
“Lover, Leaver” has echoes of Sabbath and Gonzo-era Ted Nugent. It’s been a staple of Greta’s live set since they hit the road, and sounds mature and dangerous. It stands out from the newer material that they cooked up in the studio. “You’re the One,” the second single, is a 70s high-school slow-dance number that will make you feel that giant comb in your back pocket again.
The killer rock hooks keep coming on the later tracks, especially the slithery slide guitar and the fist-pumping chorus of “Mountain of the Sun,” but the tunes do start to fade into the background like a classic-rock yard-work playlist. By the time Josh wants to buy the world a Coke on the final track, you pretty much get the idea.
Anthem of the Peaceful Army was produced by Al Sutton, owner of Rustbelt Studios where Greta have done a lot of their recording, and guitarist Marlon Young, along with vocal coach Herschel Boone. This production team has nudged Greta in the direction of modern rock music with this release. You can’t argue with their success, but the production has also done little to quell the criticism that Greta are a derivative classic rock dog-and-pony show.
On that note, let’s follow the trail here: Kid Rock’s engineer (Sutton), his guitar player (Young) and his backing singer (Boone). They’re signed to a five-album deal with Lava Records, once the label home of, wait for it, Kid Rock. Bob Richey’s stanky brown trucker fingers seem to be all over this thing. Since most of the album was recorded in Nashville, I can’t help but imagine that Uncle the Kid popped in occasionally to offer advice. I’ve grown weary of this guy’s long con, and despite the nurturing presence of Sutton, these kids would be well-advised to forge their own path.
Initially, I was disappointed in Anthem of the Peaceful Army from the slow fade-in and twee string bit on the opening track, “Age of Man” (I still think that was an unfortunate sequencing choice). But the record ultimately won this old classic-rock hack over. Now, if it were just a minute shorter it would fit on one side of a 90-minute blank cassette…