Wednesday, October 24, 2018

album review: 'anthem of a peaceful army' by greta van fleet

I genuinely wish the conversation about this band began and ended with just their recorded output.

But it doesn't - and even putting aside the unmistakable influences, the conversation about Greta Van Fleet's success on rock radio and rock streaming playlists has almost overshadowed any discussion of the band's unique quality. On the one hand, it's not surprising: radio loves familiarity, and if there's a band that's going to harken back to long-overplayed classic staples, they're going to win points in that scene right out of the gate, especially if there seems to be genuine instrumental chops. But that raises a very different, more ominous spectre, the question whether rock radio, through its slavish worship of the sounds of the past and a refusal to innovate the foundational sound without succumbing to pop, whether its embrace of this band shows a format so blinded by the aesthetic sheen they'll forsake actual quality.

And if any of this seems like a new conversation... well, it's not, and if anything it's a truly dire sign that rock hasn't found answers to these questions since the breakthrough of Jet and The Darkness in the 2000s, and yet it's the critical conversation surrounding those two bands that seemed like the most immediate answer I needed to evaluate with this band. Because it's undeniable that Greta Van Fleet was inspired by the past, but would they crank the sound up on steroids to campy, near-parodic levels, or would they just seem like a naked ripoff, most certainly marketable but quickly forgotten by anyone with class and taste? Of course, the third option is that they'd actually be good, but there was a part of me that had the sinking feeling that might not happen - review sites like Pitchfork have praised retro-leaning acts in the past and don't tend to bring out the level of old-school savagery they did for Greta Van Fleet if the band was actually solid. But fine, what did I get out of Anthem Of A Peaceful Army?

Man, there's no way this review comes out clean, there just isn't. Because in all the listens I gave Anthem Of A Peaceful Army, I was trying to find the inroad to really love this sound and appreciate what new elements Greta Van Fleet is bringing to the table. And then I realized I couldn't - because that would imply there are new elements, or even older elements that are superior to what came before. And this means this review is going to be a little different, because I actually don't have a lot to say about the album so much as everything around it, and as much as I might wish it otherwise, I get why the conversation of Greta Van Fleet has been about everything except the album - because it has to be.

And let's make no mistake, I know how bad that looks coming from me, the guy who'll defend old school hard rock and the revivalists of it now - hell, forget hard rock, pretty much any genre, I'm the guy known most for covering country music, a genre that is built on tradition! But here's an important distinction to be made about, say, the 90s country neotraditional scene, or the 2000s post-punk revival, or the surge of retro-leaning acts this decade in rock and blues: the stuff I love in these scenes take the sounds of their past in aggregate to fashion a unique way forward, or make active commentary of that past through their art nowadays. Take Kyle Craft, arguably the artist I've given the most acclaim in this lane, whose influences are blatant from late 60s/early 70s countrypolitan to Bob Dylan to David Bowie to Meat Loaf - but not only are all of these influences brought together in aggregate by someone who understands the rich lineage of the sound, but also makes a defiantly modern product with content that feels like it belongs in the 2010s. 

And if we go back to the late 60s and early 70s, that was mostly true about Led Zeppelin too. Yeah, we have to deal with this now, and this is something of which I've never talked about in any of reviews, even going back before YouTube and you can check, because my relationship to Led Zeppelin is complex to say the least. Let's put aside how quickly they were canonized by the legions of fans for which the band was formative - I respect that, but that was not true with me whatsoever. I heard Led Zeppelin in passing in high school, and I only listened to full albums of theirs after university, and while I will not deny that I respect this band, the band's legacy is messy and complicated, and I should like them more than I do. Part of this is because of the unholy trinity of British hard rock around that era I was always more of a Deep Purple guy, but it does go beyond that because I should like Zeppelin more: it was raw and sleazy and huge and swinging for the fences, they actively referenced fantasy literature in their lyrics, they could have been formative for me... but I came to them at a point where I've heard their sonic DNA passed down for generations to bands, and especially in their classic era, it's hard not to see the places where Zeppelin stole both from blues and other bands. And yeah, this was coming from an era where that happened probably more than you remember, but it was pretty blatant and Led Zeppelin weren't exactly apologetic for what made them rock stars.

And thus there is a part of me that sees a certain irony with Greta Van Fleet and the connection to Led Zeppelin that absolutely everyone has pointed out, but if I'm being honest, I don't take any pleasure in that irony, mostly because I think they could have and should have ripped them off more! Say what you will about Led Zeppelin, but there was a wild, ragged conviction to their playing and production that not only felt organic but lent the band a tone that even today can feel timeless. More than that there was a sense of epic swell and urgency: Zeppelin were trying to sound like the biggest goddamn band in the world and that bravado allowed them to get away with the fantasy digressions and sweaty machismo, whereas for as much as the frontman of Greta Van Fleet sounds tonally like Robert Plant, it triggers a weird, uncanny valley reaction from me when you realize the raw vigor just isn't quite there as much as you'd hope! Oh, the guy's got pipes, no question, but I have no idea why the mixing of his voice has him so often swelling out of the mix and sounding increasingly nasal and Muppet-esque... other than that's a vocal production trick Led Zeppelin did. This is also true about a lot of the production and compositions - in comparison to the textures and scuzz calling back to that era, the guitar textures here feel too clean and sterile both electric and acoustic, the fat basslines and drumwork lack the furious tempo, and there's absolutely zero sense of danger or thrill from a band that in an era without commodified nostalgia would be a serviceable cover band. Or to put it another way, it's very telling that the band has two different arrangements of 'Lover, Leaver' on this album, as it's one of the few songs that could rise to being a passable Zeppelin b-side - but what gets alarming is that in an era where we can pull up any Zeppelin album almost immediately that there was a need for this! 

And what's truly alarming is that it doesn't seem like Greta Van Fleet is taking the necessary steps to distant themselves from Led Zeppelin and build a distinct identity - if they were, they wouldn't have opened with 'Age Of Man', a midtempo, six minute 'pass the torch' song that approaches this moment with the sort of overblown solemnity of a kid trying so damn hard to impress his dad. And if you think that's a weird attitude to open your album, it gets even more awkward on 'The Cold Wind' trying to split the difference between a sleazy hookup and a song where the cold winds are consigning him to an early grave! Granted, whenever Greta Van Fleet try to make songs about women they hit ugly territory: 'When The Curtain Falls' is hard to read as anything but negging from a fan who knows this Hollywood starlet is going to be on her way out, and the organ-accented ballad 'You're The One' goes for a weird fusion of calling her evil for her neglect even as he opens the song playing the Jason Derulo card of emphasizing how he's totally having dirty thoughts about her already! And make no mistake, they can get just as creepy about women here too, from the voyeuristic 'The New Day' of which the girl observed 'will be a woman soon' - EWW - and while at least both variants of 'Lover, Leaver' just go for straightforward demon woman plotting, cramming in a bible reference to the witch of Endor might be the wrong sort of iconography and subtext to associate with those sorts of songs! At least 'Mountain Of The Sun' is just a sex song that is crazy oversold and goofy that might reflect a sense of humor, in comparison to the other none-too-subtle themes of environmental catastrophe running through 'Watching Over', 'Brave New World' and 'Anthem', which tries to end things on a come-together message that's rooted in the lyric 'the world is only what the world is made of', which can be translated to a message of 'it is what it is' - but wait, it's framed as though you agree to disagree about that by the preceding line and something only realized if you open up your mind, and why does all of this feel like compromised hippie pablum that still feels oddly condescending?

But to keep this short... well, at least the title is apt, because these anthems indicate an army that's less peaceful and more harmless, as in incapable of harm or danger. And while there is a sick sort of irony that rock radio has inhaled a band that is so lacking the intensity, originality, or verve that the original Led Zeppelin had when they captivated the popular consciousness, at the end of the day as a critic there's no reason for me to listen to this when I can listen to any better hard rock act throughout the decades easier than ever. At their best, they're a pale facsimile of a far better band that might sound close enough for the nostalgia pop but also close enough to notice everything the original did better. At their worst, they're a rock band that has hooks and decent enough mix balance but with no credible firepower to back up flimsy lyrics, texture blasted away to reveal some catchy tunes that I'd love to hear delivered from a band with genuine crunch and writing prowess. And while I do respect a baseline of talent, they could have done so much more than this, which is why I'm giving it a 4/10 and no recommendation, especially if you're a diehard Zeppelin fan. I mean, Deep Purple put out a pretty damn solid album just last year - if you're going to pander to my rock side, you need to try a little harder than this.

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