I never thought I’d ever be saying this, but I feel that The New Hampshire is biased.
No, not in its official news coverage, but in its Arts section; specifically, in its music reviews.
Granted, Caleb and Grace run the show over here and can basically write whatever they want any given week (which is totally awesome, by the way). But let’s be real here: when was the last time TNH didn’t cover a rap artist? I know rap and hip-hop are the genres of the week right now, but in the interest of keeping things fresh (and fair), let’s venture out of our comfort zone and expose our eardrums to a sound that’s both new and familiar that is destined to redefine an entire genre.
To do that, we need to trek on out to the woods of Michigan to talk about a rock band you may (or may not) have heard of that has performed on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” opened for pop legend Elton John and earned praise from none other than Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Greta Van Fleet.
First, some background for the uninitiated. Greta Van Fleet (GVF) consists of lead vocalist Josh Kiskza; his twin brother Jake and younger sibling Sam supplying background vocals and various instruments; and drummer Danny Wagner (Kyle Huack performed the drums until 2013). Founded in 2012 in the small town of Frankenmuth, Michigan, they primarily focused on live performances for various venues; this included a 2014 live show in Detroit that later became one of their live EPs (“extended play”), in which one of their original tracks, “Standing On,” was featured in a local Chevrolet commercial.
It wasn’t until 2016, however, that the band began to find true commercial success. GVF had just signed on to Lava Records, and under the direction of its CEO Jason Flom, got another of its original tracks, “Highway Tune,” on to the Showtime series “Shameless” that January. In the aftermath of the episode’s airing, the song’s music video has generated over 24 million hits on YouTube and led the band’s first studio EP “Black Smoke Rising.” This newfound success has resulted in GVF performing alongside Michigan native Bob Seger last September; joining Elton John in singing at his Academy Award Party this past March, where John himself requested the band’s presence; and making their television debut as Jimmy Fallon’s musical guest on “The Tonight Show” just four months later.
Even the masterminds behind Led Zeppelin, one of the band’s many sources of inspiration, couldn’t help but notice their rising popularity. Lead singer Robert Plant, in an interview with the Australian Network Ten, said of the band, “They are Led Zeppelin I,” referring to their own 1969 debut album of the same name. Plant also called lead vocalist Josh Kiszka “a beautiful little singer” and noted that “he borrowed it from somebody I know very well! But what are you going to do? That’s OK.”
This comes from the same guy who, according to a March 2018 Detroit Free Press piece that included the above interview, attacked British pop act David Coverdale for basically trying to be the Greta Van Fleet of the 1990s, where Plant adversely labelled him as “David Cover-version.”
That’s all fine and good and what-not, you may say, but all that’s pointless if their music isn’t any good. A fair point, and one I’m glad you made.
Because after listening to their tracks so far, should they keep to their current path for a while, they have a bright future ahead of them.
Conveniently, all their studio tracks up until this point have been compiled into their Nov. 2017 double EP “From the Fires”; while I can’t cover each of their eight tracks here in detail for space purposes, I will give you a four-track sample of what to expect should you, dear reader, decide to give them a try.
The first stop on our journey is “Safari Song,” which was released as a single in Oct. 2017. This is one of those tracks where I can find some legitimacy in those who argue that GVF is just trying to piggyback off of Led Zeppelin’s legacy … at least, at first. While, at first glance, the beat, key, tempo and overall sound signature do strongly resemble the 1971 single “Black Dog,” they don’t use the same guitar riffs, name it after a dog, pause the music to awkwardly isolate Josh’s vocals or alter time signatures in the middle of the song. The latter two characteristics, the defining features of “Black Dog,” don’t allow me to enjoy it all that well due to how easily it throws me off from the beat, especially near the end and how distracting it is to constantly and suddenly cut from Plant’s iconic vocals to hard-hitting guitar riffs.
If anything, “Safari Song” is a better, unique and more streamlined version of “Black Dog,” while providing a similar sound to the latter track, keeps things fresh, consistent and focused, mainly on Josh’s singing voice and the balanced tempo and mixing between guitars and percussion, even if the lyrics are as plain as “Oh mama when you give your lovin’/When you give your love/You drive me crazy.”
The next stop in our tour of Greta Van Fleet’s greatest-hits tour is its biggest hit to date, “Highway Tune.” Its previously-discussed success and impact aside, this is the song that really made me a big fan of the band; what it lacks in lyrics and running time – just two unique verses and three occurrences of the chorus in a mere 182 seconds – it more than makes up for in its upbeat energy and high-octane nature. As its name would imply, “Highway Tune” is truly a song that is meant to be played at full blast while cruising along the freeway at 70 mph with your posse or your partner. The track’s assertive lyrics do nothing to squelch this temptation, either: “No stopping at the red light, girl/’Cause I want to get your signal/No going at the green light, girl/’Cause I want to be with you now/You are my special, you are my special/You are my midnight, midnight, yeah.”
In fact, words alone cannot do this song justice, so I encourage you to listen to it at least once. Whether you leave it on repeat or shuffle it with the rest of your library, you won’t be disappointed.
Our final destination, while featuring two tracks, showcases GVF’s ability to make an album (or an EP) that unites its smaller and seemingly dissimilar tracks to tell a bigger and harder-hitting story. This time, we have the last two tracks on “From the Fires,” “Talk on the Street” and “Black Smoke Rising.”
The former track reveals the band’s ability to delve into deeper and more mature topics, a must for any musical act hoping to find mainstream success. While songs like “Highway Tune” may describe a lively journey in search of adventure, “Talk on the Street” takes that same concept and flips it on its head, resulting in a song embodying a character who yearns for themselves and those they care for to escape a dark time in their lives.
In the song’s world of newfound fears and dangers, the unnamed character explains to their unknown audience that they are being watched and hunted by some unknown force within their now corrupted society and must flee their former home before they are caught in a “war” they cannot win: “Look mama the light is low/And the darkness near/Yes everyone is looking for me and you/And the night’s what you fear/Walk someone they follow us/And you’re all undone/Yes everyone is looking for me and you/And the war has begun.”
What makes this particular track so lyrically powerful is in how its central character could be talking to anyone and how, especially in 2018, an era of great political turmoil (for instance), they plead for others to not unnecessarily involve themselves in a war that cannot produce a good outcome for anyone, even for the winner of that war’s smaller battles.
However, if “Talk on the Street” reflects the darker side of society and its flaws and the need to escape, the EP’s final song, “Black Smoke Rising,” demonstrates GVF’s ability to inspire mettle and the need to succeed even in the worst of times. To contrast its previous offering, the band uses “Black Smoke Rising” as a battle cry of sorts to inspire others to rise up against their oppressors and bring about positive change.
Like “Talk on the Street,” the song’s thematics are quite fitting given the political and social events of the last several years and truly aim to give back hope to those who possess little or none of it in their darkest hour.
This sentiment is most clear in its chorus, where GVF declares that “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/Stand up in the cold”; here, the enemy, after leaving their opponents “in the cold,” can clearly spot the “rising” smoke from the fast-approaching flames of progress and knowledge headed to oppose them.
To me, this and more make Greta Van Fleet so much more than just a Led Zeppelin wannabe. Everything GVF offers makes the band a worthy rock ‘n’ roll force, steeped in both the classic essentials of the genre and a passionate embrace of a unique twist on a memorable retro sound. In an age where thousands of repetitive rap tracks and synthetic pop songs strive for their 15 minutes of fame, dominate the charts and digital sales for the briefest of moments, and leave classic rock seemingly “in the cold,” GFV provides a breath of fresh air. But, should this be a sign of things to come, Greta Van Fleet’s “From the Fires,” alongside their upcoming Oct. 2018 debut album “Anthem of the Peaceful Army,” marks a new beginning in a well-deserved comeback in a battle for respect and relevancy that straightforward rock music has sought to win now for years.
And when more rock ‘n’ roll acts, inspired by the trailblazers before them, emerge from the woodwork to delight our eardrums in the return of blazing guitars, pounding drums and powerful, uplifting melodies for decades to come, we’ll all know what started it all: the highway tunes of Greta Van Fleet.