With all the fanfare, accolades and critical ink devoted to Greta Van Fleet, it may surprise listeners that 2021’s The Battle at Garden’s Gate is only the band’s second full-length album. Teasing audiences with a stream of singles leading up to this year’s release, the retro quartet deflated some of the anticipation as keen audiences will already have a decent idea of what to expect. Picking up where Anthem of the Peaceful Army leaves off, the band revisits familiar themes and sounds, in the process re-kindling great classic rock sounds of another era.
More of an expansion than a basic revisitation of past work, everything on The Battle at Garden’s Gate is bigger. The sonic space feels vast, the guitars and vocals are tonally louder, and the compositions a bit more sophisticated. Producer Greg Kurstin likely influenced some of these developments, but the band also deserves credit for their matured approach to writing and playing. The expected energy remains, but there is a sense that the Kiszka Brothers (which includes drummer Danny Wagner) no longer feel the pressure and need to prove their musical worth. As a result, the songwriting and pacing flows more smoothly and the album has more balance.
With its opening 30 seconds of spacious organ chimes, “Heat Above” gives audiences a first taste of what will be a recurring theme for the group throughout the album—huge sounds and a willingness to explore them at their own pace. When the heart of the song commences, Jake and Josh Kiszka strum and sing through a solid chorus, that while not revelatory in any musical way, sounds really full and warm. “My Way, Soon” takes a harder, direct approach at guitar rock with an outstanding riff bolstered by the punchy rhythm duo of Wagner and Sam Kiszka. The vocal/guitar attack of Josh and Jake absorbs most of the attention due to the nature of the genre, but the warm, rich sound that permeates the tracks comes from the rhythm section. Without their foundation, the album would not be nearly as pleasing to the ears.
“Broken Bells” and “Built By Nations” contain some of the set’s best fretwork. Jake’s sounds frequently alternate between crunchy chords and squishier liquid tones during improvisational sections. Once again, the production shines through not only in creating large soundscapes, but in maintaining transparency. A closer listening reveals small details like the twinkling of the reverb springs on “Built By Nations.” Although unimportant itself, it serves as proof that listeners are hearing a band playing real instruments and not a collage of post-production gimmickry.
A hidden gem not released as a single, “Stardust Chords” pleasantly surprises with a great, brief guitar interlude and the album’s best chorus, but the star of the show is “Age of Machine.” Dark, brooding, and anchored by an echoing guitar pattern, the song features Josh’s most powerful singing and Jake’s best guitar solo. Epic in nature, the second half of the track veers into a refrain that sounds as if it were being sung by hundreds of people. It appears destined to be a concert mainstay.
Lyrically, themes of literal and figurative battles fought both within society and oneself dominate the prose, which is often told through allegory with a mythological tone. This shouldn’t come as a surprise on a Greta Van Fleet album, nor any album with back-to-back songs titled “Caravel” and “The Barbarians.” Some may find the verses to be heavy-handed, but they usually fit perfectly with the music. Listeners overly critical of the imagery and attitude of the songs might want to make sure they are not taking themselves too seriously. After all, it’s just rock and roll, and the band has delivered excellent examples of it on The Battle at Garden’s Gate.
Critics may find a bone to pick with the band’s continued reliance on vintage sounds and stylings from a bygone generation, and they do lean heavily on the golden era of ‘70s classic rock. However, the songs are as original as they are excellent and the musicianship outstanding. Greta Van Fleet authentically loves what they do and that is good news for fans who want to focus on the music.
The Review: 9/10
Can’t Miss Tracks
– My Way, Soon
– Broken Bells
– Built By Nations
– Age of Machine
– Stardust Chords
The Big Hit
– Age of Machine