Last August, the Killers front man Brandon Flowers had something to say about the state of capital-R rock music in 2018. “There hasn’t been anybody good enough,” Flowers commented to me. “If there were some kids out there right now playing [Interpol’s] ‘Obstacle 1’ tonight, I would hear about it …but there isn’t.”
It seems like every single form of communication currently available — from Twitter threads to think pieces — has been host to exhaustive and often-maddening examinations of whether rock is dead, dying, or in some sort of extended cryo sleep. The is-it-rockist-or-is-it-not conversations surrounding A Star Is Born are already going strong months ahead of the film’s practically predestined awards-show dominance, so it’s all but guaranteed that the Encyclopedia Browns and Cam Jansens of music writing will be investigating The Case of the Missing Guitars for plenty of time to come.
But it does seem undeniable that mass-appeal rock music as has been historically categorized is at more of a lull than ever, especially in 2018. Arctic Monkeys — one of the biggest and arguably best rock bands of the decade — ditched riffs entirely for their spacey, experimental Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino; after cutting her teeth on an impressive catalogue of largely guitar-based material, ascendant indie phenom Mitski put the six-string to the side in favor of synths and disco beats on the stupendous Be the Cowboy. Jack White’s basically rapping now, and so do one of the biggest American rock bands of the moment, who more often sound like any other genre — from hip-hop and vibey pop to EDM — than the one people most commonly associate them with.
Sneaking into 2018’s back end with a guitar-heavy sound and consciously retro sartorial choices, Greta Van Fleet are a remarkably peculiar fit amid this fractured genre landscape. At face value, it’s tempting to compare the Michigan rockers to Nashville boys Kings of Leon; both bands are largely comprised of siblings, with classic rock influences worn so proudly on their sleeves that they might as well be permanent iron-on patches. But whereas KoL gave a somewhat modern sheen to various strains of southern rock in a manner that appealed to fans of fellow 2000s-era “rock is back” contemporaries like the Strokes and the White Stripes, Greta Van Fleet’s “thing” — specifically and almost exclusively, the bombastic, riff-heavy, and vocally melismatic stylings of Led Zeppelin — so closely hews to the source material that it’s practically copyism.
The quartet’s debut LP, Anthem of a Peaceful Army, which comes out this week, opens with misty-mountain mumbo jumbo about “ancient darkness” and the promise of “a brand new day” on the expansive “Age of Man”; near the end of “The Cold Wind,” singer Josh Kiszka lets loose with some unintentionally humorous scatting while drummer Danny Wagner (the only non-sibling in Greta Van Fleet’s ranks) tries out his best John Bonham impression in the foreground. The album capably runneth over with pummeling blues-rock riffage, showy drum fills, histrionically howling vocal takes, and a song called “Mountain of the Sun.”
Greta Van Fleet less resemble the real-deal Led Zep than a band of session musicians tasked with pretending to sound like Led Zeppelin for a mediocre rock biopic. Robert Plant himself stated in no uncertain terms earlier this year that the band sounds exactly like Zep’s 1969 debut Led Zeppelin 1, and earlier this week a mashup of Anthem’s “When the Curtain Falls” and the Physical Graffiti cut “The Wanton Song” made the rounds — a blend so uncannily perfect that it obliterates any shred of Greta Van Fleet’s personality on contact.
Who is Greta Van Fleet’s music for, exactly? There is a potential audience for the redolent rock replications committed to tape on Anthem of the Peaceful Army, beyond those whose terrestrial radio dials are permanently tuned to the type of golden-oldies stations that still do all-Beatles blocks.
In a way, Greta Van Fleet are perfect music-festival fodder — the type of technically proficient band you might overhear while making your way to the food trucks, causing you to stop by whatever stage they’re caterwauling on just to check out what’s going on. They played Coachella this year, after notching their second No. 1 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Songs chart for “Safari Song,” from last year’s EP From the Fires; the fact that the band-branded bucket hats in their merch store are currently sold out seems to augur well for their being booked for next year’s Bonnaroo. This is word-of-mouth music for people who are more likely to literally use their mouth to recommend it instead of the internet, and that’s totally fine.
But regardless of their obvious points of appeal, Greta Van Fleet’s relative ascendance by way of their photo-of-a-photo style is frustrating in the ham-fisted regressivism of it all — and it becomes damn near infuriating when you consider that other bands over the last 15 years have done more interesting things with Led Zep’s artistic template. On their 2012 LP Lonerism, Tame Impala took good-natured aim at the peacocking strut of ’70s rock on “Elephant,” which featured bandleader Kevin Parker singing about an unnamed protagonist “Shaking his big gray trunk for the hell of it” over bruising bass and AM-radio filters; Sleater-Kinney’s 2005 masterpiece The Woods was practically an album-length reimagining of the Zep catalogue, caked in psychedelic sludge and punkish grit.
While listening to Anthem of the Peaceful Army, I found myself giving Greta Van Fleet’s anything-but-modern music a modern spin of its own, if wholly by accident. The album’s jangly, largely acoustic “You’re the One” started playing on my iTunes, taking on a slow and narcotic shape that sounded almost pleasingly like space-rock icons Spiritualized. I pulled up the app on my desktop to take note of which song I was listening to, only to discover that “You’re the One” was being played at nearly half-speed through an audio-manipulation app typically used for transcribing. I flipped it back to normal speed; the song, unfortunately, did not remain the same.