Greta Van Fleet were under a lot more pressure than most bands recording a debut album. Their first release, a single EP titled Black Smoke Rising sparked controversy among the hard rock community. Promoters deeming them “the new Led Zeppelin”. In an unpublished review of their double EP “From The Fires” (one half of which was the songs of Black Smoke Rising and the other was new material) I described Greta Van Fleet as “ethically sourced Led Zeppelin.” After all, of the eight tracks on From The Fires, the Kiszka brothers wrote seven and attributed the eighth as a cover, whereas of the nine tracks on Led Zeppelin, only three are original, two are properly attributed to Willie Dixon, and the remaining four are (or were when first released) unattributed covers of Howlin’ Wolf, Jake Holmes, Bert Jansch, or Anne Bredon. Zeppelin’s plagiarism habit would continue for several albums after their debut, as well. As such, any accusation of plagiarizing Led Zep can only be taken so seriously.
I really liked From The Fires. I thought it a great novelty to have a Led Zeppelin album you could listen to with fresh ears in 2017. But after the backlash against Greta Van Fleet for “sounding too much like Led Zeppelin,” I knew they would take a dramatic departure for their debut LP, Anthem Of The Peaceful Army. Not completely devoid of Zeppelin’s influence, sounds of Houses of the Holy ring clear on tracks like “You’re The One” and “The New Day” sounding very reminiscent of “Rain Song” and “The Song Remains The Same,” but on songs like “Age of Man” and “Mountain of the Sun” they borrow much more distinctly from Jethro Tull, a band that was a force to be reckoned with in the late 60s and 70s, but who left little impact on the general musical conscious. On still other tracks like “Anthem” an American folk rock sound can be heard as Greta Van Fleet channels Neil Young’s Crazy Horse years.
What one finds in general with Anthem Of The Peaceful Army is that the Kiszka brothers are growing in their their ability to synthesize influences into something original. Although they are growing, Greta Van Fleet is still struggling to shed their influences and find their own sound. Their explosion of popularity has put a lot of pressure on them to do that in a way that isn’t completely fair. If Black Smoke Rising had been self released or on a small label like Asian Man Records, it likely would have been received more positively instead of creating the explosion of internet anger that it did. I hope that the Kiszkas start to explore more with their instruments. I would love to hear some work on 12 string guitars, or an expansion on the Hammond B3 sound they have touched on on a few tracks on this and their last releases.
As an aside, reactions to Greta Van Fleet fascinate me. For years I’ve heard people complain about how rock has “gotten too tame”or “been watered down” and “how much better it was in the ’70s.” Yet now that a band comes around that truly does capture that early prog rock sound, these same people complain that it’s too similar to what they already know. It’s almost like they don’t want to listen to new music at all. It is also interesting to note that while Greta Van Fleet is criticized for sounding exactly like Led Zeppelin, Gaslight Anthem’s 2008 album The ’59 Sound was applauded for sounding exactly like early Bruce Springsteen.
Most albums I review don’t get significant enough critical reception for me to discuss the discourse, but Anthem Of A Peaceful Army has been much more widely received. Consequence of Sound and Rolling Stone came down decidedly negatively on Peaceful Army. Coming from opposite backgrounds, Consequence was slightly more disdained by the album’s unfiltered throwbacks writing “in 2018, it’s not quite enough to simply present a convincing simulacrum of your parents’ record collections.” Rolling Stone, a publication old enough it was one of the “elitist publications” that loathed Led Zeppelin, was more forgiving. In a joint review of this album and The Struts’ Young and Dangerous critic Will Hermes writes “there’s also a charm to their guileless, retro-fetishist conviction. And dudes have chops.” Classic Rock Magazine was no surprise enamored by the album. Admitting that it is a sound of near antiquity, they prefer to describe Greta Van Fleet as “timeless” rather than dated, and write that “Anthem Of The Peaceful Army is shaping up to be the finest debut album of both 2018 and 1972” almost as if it’s a positive. Overall I think my views line up most closely with Thomas Smith of NME (another magazine that hated Led Zeppelin, though this writer doesn’t look old enough to have been writing for them then) who points out that rock music doesn’t get sensational the way that it used to and that Greta Van Fleet as been. They’ve been highly promoted on streaming services like Amazon Prime Music and Spotify, and have had advertisements across major cities. Even if their sound is cloning Robert Plant, there’s a 14 year old out there whose knowledge of rock only goes back to Pearl Jam or The White Stripes. Maybe he’ll put on Peaceful Army and hear something new to him.
Let me end on this. When I was 15, I had never listened to Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Leadbelly, et al. String bands were some anachronistic oddity that, in my mind, existed only in the backwards shacks of the Appalachia and the rural areas of the States formerly in insurrection, and acoustic guitars were for old folkies who were clinging to the past. All that changed when someone posted to an internet forum I frequented (and still do) a link to AJJ’s “Rejoice.” Deep diving into folk punk, my dad heard what I was listening to and sat me down and played for me a the first CD of the complete Robert Johnson recordings. That was what changed my musical life. Maybe someone’s dad will hear their child listening to Peaceful Army and give them a copy of Houses of Holy and their life will be all the better for it.
Anthem for a Peaceful Army is available now for MP3 download, CD, and vinyl on Amazon.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.