Greta Van Fleet is not the end of the world

I have seen the future of rock and roll and it is the past.

I have seen the future of rock and roll and it is the past. Instagram

There’s no question that Greta Van Fleet is a horrible band.

Like so many Michigan bands before them, except worse, they specialize in a hard-rock thud so clunky it’s funny. Guitar riffs go mindlessly through their bluesy motions, drums land with a dull bluntness, and lyrics establish a mythical cosmology in which abstract forces of good and evil battle across mountains and deserts, though these images also occasionally double as erotic metaphors. Their first album, Anthem of the Peaceful Army, ends with the grand acoustic ballad “Anthem,” in which Josh Kiszka delivers an inspirational message: “You and me can agree to disagree/that the world is only what the world is made of.”

But horrible bands are nothing new, and nobody actually cares that yet another hard rock band—even a hard rock band with a hit album—sounds too much like Led Zeppelin. The controversy surrounding Greta is essentially driven by anxiety over streaming. The theory, as articulated in Jeremy D. Larson’s now-infamous Pitchfork pan, is that more and more derivative bands will emerge so they can appear alongside the artists they copy on algorithmically generated Spotify playlists. Supposedly, the pressure to get picked up by recommendation algorithms inspires genericity, and if we don’t watch out, all music will eventually sound the same.

This isn’t how marketing in the music industry works, though. Greta Van Fleet are signed to Republic, so they’ll appear on Spotify playlists no matter what. Streaming has had marked effects on music—the overlong album, the slow and spare background-ambient electrobeat—but none of these pertain to Greta’s music. To my ears, they sound more like a band designed to pick up advertising deals: Jake Kiszka’s portentous power riffs on album opener “Age of Man” would be perfect for a Dodge commercial where an army of muscle cars drives in majestic slow motion toward a desert sunset.

Yet to ascribe even that level of calculation to this band needlessly complicates things. Earnest young men don’t copy Zeppelin for mere commercial reasons—they copy Zeppelin because the testosterone poisoning and romantic grandiosity conspire to induce these boys to howl. Corporate hard rock bands from Kingdom Come to Wolfmother have been copying Zeppelin for decades, motivated only by their dopey expressive need.

Anyway, Greta don’t sound like Zeppelin exclusively; theirs is the usual classic-rock mishmash of Zeppelin, Clapton, Rush, and so on. (Josh Kiszka could be a squeakier Geddy Lee.) You’d think bands would have gotten the hang of blending these elements after so many decades, but Greta do it so ineptly the results often disorient and appall. In this they are the opposite of generic. Plenty of bands combine blues riffs and strangled vocals and fantasy-fiction lyrics. How many have written a song that starts as a sex jam before abruptly shifting gears and building to a vaguely biblical, utterly unrelated scene of hellfire and bombast (“Saul would fall to his knees, watch the fire rage/Satan plays his flute for him”), as Greta have in “Lover, Leaver (Taker, Believer)”? How many truly hideous guitar solos consist solely of arpeggiated scales?

If like me you’re easily bored, such absurdities offer welcome hilarity. GVF should have included more moments like “Lover, Leaver (Taker, Believer)” or “The Cold Wind,” a convoluted medieval plot in which selling an ox somehow means the narrator won’t freeze to death. And if anything they don’t imitate Zeppelin enough. Although they do occasionally replicate Zeppelin songs wholesale—“When the Curtain Falls” includes both the verse from “Heartbreaker” and the solo from “In the Evening” —they miss the essential demented spirit.

Nothing on Anthem of the Peaceful Army matches the forward propulsion and excitable shredding of “Highway Tune,” GVF’s chart-topping single from last year, and even that song isn’t fast or gleeful enough. Since they like classic rock for its grandiosity, not its energy, they aim for the epic soar rather than the brutal crunch, and the fatigue increases as the album drags on. The acoustic numbers barely exist—the sunny major-key comfort of “You’re the One” and “The New Day” is mildly pleasant and hence boring rather than godawful, the worst sin of all.

If Greta aren’t quite silly enough to reach absurdist heaven, they also aren’t worth taking a principled stand against. As distribution models change and companies figure out ingenious new ways to cheat artists and consumers, it’s always tempting to blame bad art on new technology. But there was bad art long before streaming was invented. There was bad art even before Led Zeppelin was invented.